Gophers Hockey: Tommy Vannelli leaves Minnesota program (UPDATED)

Freshman Tommy Vannelli playing for the US U-18 team - Tom Sorenson

Vannelli, who was a second round pick by the St. Louis Blues, leaves the Gophers before playing a game.

University of Minnesota freshman defenseman Tommy Vannelli has left the hockey team less than three weeks before the season starts.

The 2013 second round pick by St. Louis (47th overall) was a fast riser in the NHL Draft rankings as a senior at Minnetonka HS (MN). Vannelli committed to Minnesota nearly a year ago and came into Dinkytown without playing in the USHL (although he did spend some time with the US National Development Program for the U-18 World Championships). However, balancing academics and being a Division 1 hockey player was too much for the 18 year-old.

"After a few weeks of trying to balance academics and athletics, Tommy made the decision this morning that college hockey was not the best route for him at this time," Gopher head coach Don Lucia said in a statement. "We accept his decision and will move on as a team."

Oddly enough, Vannelli brought up classes when he spoke with SB Nation College Hockey in June after being drafted by the Blues.

"I'm really excited," he told SB Nation's Jeff Cox. "We started classes a couple weeks ago, we're working out there and everything. It's been good so far."

While Vannelli's next step has been announced, Medicine Hat owns his WHL rights. The Tigers have been successful in convincing players to forego college eligibility; most recently former North Dakota commit Miles Koules.

Minnesota, who lost five players with eligibility in the offseason, has a glut of players on the blue line even without Vannelli. Playing time is not guaranteed for anyone. Although it isn't as bad as last year when Justin Holl was used as a forward, the team has 7 defensemen fighting for spots. That includes freshmen Mike Brodzinski and Jake Bischoff.

Still, losing Vannelli hurts the team down the line in 2-3 years. The 6'2" offensive defenseman has good size and positioning rather than taking chances. He has been compared to another former Gopher in Nick Leddy.

Vannelli is the second straight Blues draft pick to leave the Minnesota program. 2010 3rd round pick Max Gardiner left the Gophers following his freshman season; eventually transferring to Penn State.

Updated (6:50 p.m. CT): References to a tweet saying Vannellli has officially left for Medicine Hat have been removed.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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