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Gophers Hockey: Sorting out the high number of early departures

Minnesota has lost five players with eligibility remaining since losing 11 days ago to Yale, which will have ramifications for the Gophers next year.

Minnesota Athletics

As I sit here at my desk trying to properly send off and eulogize the 2012-2013 University of Minnesota hockey season, two things come to mind.

  1. The simple task of trying to sum up the season keeps growing and growing. Seriously, if such an end-of-the-year feature actually gets published at the rate things are going, it's going to be as long as the college hockey year itself.
  2. Every time I have tried to work on something in the past week it seems like that moment is the perfect opportunity for a Golden Gopher to sign a pro contract and leave school early.

It's the second nugget that rightfully pushes back the first for the time being. Five players with eligibility remaining have signed pro contracts since the OT loss to Yale 11 days ago. Nate Schmidt left the U for a free agent contract with the Washington Capitals. Nick Bjugstad agreed to terms with the Florida Panthers, Zach Budish signed with the Nashville Predators while Erik Haula and Mark Alt each departed a year early to sign with the Minnesota Wild and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively.

A sixth player, junior forward Jared Larson, has decided to transfer.

Early departures are nothing new. They have been the norm for Minnesota fans for the better part of a decade. When a coach like Don Lucia regularly brings in a recruiting class where one or two players stand to be top-60 NHL draft picks, it has been accepted that not everyone is going to make it to senior night.

But it should not be the exception either.

That was the case this year when a small 4 person recruiting class was dwindled to just Seth Helgeson being honored at the final regular season home game. Technically Budish remained following a redshirt year due to tearing his ACL. However, it was a senior night ceremony for one which went by faster than a WCHA goal review. Someone could hypothetically walk into Mariucci as it began, run up the stairs and find the entire honor over.

How sad. Not for Helgeson, of course. He got acknowledged for four years of wearing the "M" in front of 10,000 fans at Mariucci Arena, which unfortunately doesn't happen as often as it should for a defensive defenseman.

"I love it here so much," said Helgeson, who signed a pro contract Friday with the Albany Devils, prior to senior night. "I could stay for another four years."

What was sad was the fact he stood alone. For as many early departures Minnesota has seen, as many low points in depth, there have always been multiple seniors in the Lucia era. Sometimes it has been as low as two (in both 2006-2007 and 2008-2009) but no one has finished their Gopher career alone.

The good news is that it won't be the case next year because this year's small group of senior is dwarfed by the large 10 person junior class which followed one year later. In theory it evens out, but that was before the mass exodus this week.

With six juniors leaving, there are currently only four left (and there is still plenty of time for that to change given it's early April). It would have been easier to write a press release on the players who were coming back.

Oddly enough, that was the case last year when the expected early departures stuck around. It was the one season no left early and one of the reasons why so many have left following the loss to Yale. Even in the deepest stretch of the one and dones - the 2005-2007 stretch - the highest number of players leaving early in an off-season was four. This is essentially two years of players leaving at the same time.

For some, there isn't much of an argument to be made in coming back. Most would agree that getting 3 years out of Nick Bjugstad is one more than they would have expected. There's a reason he has discussed what he needs to do to make it at the next level (link) and actually made the jump straight to the NHL.

It's also why Bjugstad could joke about senior night with reporters.

"Hopefully we'll have a little more seniors next year," he said after asked about coming back and being honored; never mentioning himself being one of them.

But for every Nick Bjugstad that overstays, there is a player who surprisingly leaves the program. This year it's junior defenseman Mark Alt, whose departure opens a spot likely for Tommy Vanelli. I'm not blaming Alt for signing a professional contract. His rights are owned by an organization that is shallow at D as all his friends are leaving to do the same. Who among us wouldn't consider the deal in the same situation?

Still, there's a difference in how Alt has left compared to someone like junior forward Erik Haula, who departed the same day, which shines through.

"Erik has been an impact player for us for three seasons, and I think he has proven that he is ready to play at the next level," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said about Haula in the Pori, Finland native's press release.

Meanwhile, he has this to say about Alt.

"I would like to thank Mark for his three years with the program and wish him the best as he continues his career with the Flyers organization."

There is nothing about being ready to play at the next level. Lucia is not giving a blessing. He is saying goodbye and good luck.

Losing Alt hurts more than Bjugstad or the high number of departures. It took Nick until mid-July to come back for this season, which prepares you for the fact lightning will not strike twice. He wasn't coming back. It was nice to get it out of the way fast instead of the ongoing watch that took place last year.

In addition, this year's recruiting class is heavy on skilled forwards. The top scorer in the USHL, Taylor Cammarata, is an incoming Gopher recruit. So is number two scorer Justin Kloos, who got an extra year of development thanks to Bjugstad trying to win a title. And that doesn't include incoming freshmen Hudson Fasching and Gabe Guertler.

Will they be able to step right in and replace 3 of the 4 top scorers in Haula, Bjugstad and Budish? Probably not. Next year's team will have to be just that, a team, if they are going to succeed. There are ingredients to success - another year of Adam Wilcox developing in net speaks well - but the 2013-2014 Gophers will be different. They won't have the star-studded lineup they did last year nor will the team be like Boston College who returns its core. There's talent on Minnesota yet also younger and undeveloped.

I'll miss the high number of early departures for that. One of the best parts of following college hockey, much like life, is seeing people you have been around succeed at the next level. There's pride in seeing a player you've watched go straight from wearing a college jersey to an NHL one.

Selfishly it would have been nice to have one or two of the early departures stick around to give size to next year's younger and smaller team, to give leadership, to want to stay around four years.

And it would make the 2014 senior night ceremony a lot better.


For more University of Minnesota coverage, read The Daily Gopher. Follow SB Nation College Hockey on Twitter @sbncollegepuck and like us on Facebook.

Nathan Wells is a college hockey writer for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.