Friday, August 6, 2010

Don Lucia and the Changing Face of Recruiting

If you have yet to read the outstanding interview with Minnesota head coach Don Lucia at College Hockey News, you owe it to yourself to give it a look. Lucia and Adam Wodon touch on some of the issues surrounding the Gophers - issues that have led to frustration among the Gopher faithful and amusement among the many Gopher haters - but, like an onion, this interview has layers. As you peel away the layers, you delve into some core issues that every team has to deal with when it comes to recruiting and holding onto players that are relatively new and that Minnesota, perhaps, highlights most brightly.

For years, Minnesota recruited only the best high school players in the state of Minnesota. The team went decades without having a player who hailed from outside of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It was tradition, but tradition didn't lead to a great deal of success, especially on the national level. When Don Lucia first arrived in Minneapolis, he broke the status quo almost right away. The game winning goal in the Gophers' first national championship victory in almost a quarter-century was scored by a North Dakotan (Grant Potulny). Soon, the Gophers were bringing in Europeans (like Thomas Vanek) and Canadians (like Kris Chucko), and Minnesota won a second consecutive national title and were top contenders for years.

But then, a slow slide began. Last season, the Gophers finished with a losing record for the first time under Lucia (and the first time he was personally under .500 in 17 straight seasons as a college coach), and missed the national tournament for the first time since his first season in Minneapolis. What happened?

As the interview discusses, Minnesota, as one of the giants of college hockey, attracts gobs of blue-chip talent. But in the new recruiting atmosphere, created in part by the collective bargaining agreement put into place after the 2004-05 NHL lockout, sees many of the top talents leaving for the pros much quicker than they did in the past.

But there's another element: the growing war for talent with the Canadian Hockey League, colloquially referred to as the "major junior" leagues - the WHL, the OHL, and the QMJHL. College teams have a major disadvantage to major junior when it comes to attracting talent: college players can leave for major junior, but the opposite is not true. Once you're in major junior, you're there, but going to college doesn't preclude a player from leaving for the CHL. Thus, NCAA teams increasingly are becoming concerned not only with losing players (and recruits) to pro contracts, but also to major junior contracts.

Michigan, another titan of college hockey, is growing to be the poster child for the major junior problem. They've lost two top recruits that had been expected in Ann Arbor - last winter, losing US Junior Team goaltender Jack Campbell to the OHL, and just last week losing top forward prospect Lucas Lessio, also to the OHL.

RPI is not immune from this phenomenon, especially with the successful recruiting of late. Even before Brandon Pirri and Jerry D'Amigo arrived on campus, the wonder was whether one or both would suddenly jump to the OHL, but they spurned Sudbury and Kitchener respectively. Wanna freak out? Type "Brandon Pirri" into a Google search box. Google will suggest "brandon pirri ohl" before "brandon pirri rpi." In June, the Saginaw Spirit traded for his rights, suggesting they think there's at least a chance Pirri could come to the OHL.

But Pirri's flight risk isn't limited to Saginaw - the Chicago Blackhawks own his rights and have loomed ominously in the background. The collective bargaining agreement set up a salary cap that the Blackhawks played hard and fast with in building a Stanley Cup winning team, and the time has come to pay the piper, leading to an absolute fire sale that has decimated Chicago's farm system. In need of bodies to fill out their roster and the roster in Rockford, their AHL affiliate, they have looked to sign rookies - they're far cheaper than veterans, especially in the minor leagues, and they've already gone shopping in the college ranks, plucking Nick Leddy away from Lucia with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

Is Brandon Pirri coming back to RPI? Probably. There hasn't been much to definitively indicate that he would take either route. Will he be here after this season? That would be shocking. The same is true of Jerry D'Amigo - anything RPI gets from these super sophs after this season, it has to be said, is going to be gravy. That's just the way things are for the very best players

When Kyle Palmieri left Notre Dame this week to sign with Anaheim, he became the 37th player in all of college hockey (one, Oswego's Eric Selleck, was from D-III) to forfeit college eligibility to sign a pro contract. Of those, 17 (including Selleck) were giving up either two or three years of remaining eligibility. That's practically an unheard of number of underclassmen jumping ship, and the very best players are starting to leave after just one or two seasons in college, with the talent war with major junior only exacerbating the situation.

So what ends up happening? For the top teams like Minnesota and Michigan, who bring in top players left and right, it means more and more frequently that they're only going to be as good as their most recent freshman class - the ones they can bring onto campus, anyway. It also means that they are actively making plans to lose some of their players early, recruiting even more top talent than they might normally expect to need, and managing their arrival dates.

But how can teams mitigate this problem without necessarily yo-yoing up and down the league standings every year? Coaches understand college's role as a development level for professional hockey. But there are prototypes out there for top players they can get maximum production from - players like Chase Polacek, overlooked in high school and considered to be too small for the NHL, but he works just fine in college, doesn't he? Jacob Laliberté projects to be very similar, and as we've mentioned before, his size makes it more likely that he'd develop better in college than in major junior, though he too is a question mark when it comes to possibly heading to the CHL. These are the diamonds in the rough that will be the anchors of top teams in the near future, working hand in hand with the shooting stars that will be gone after a year or two.

Those types will be just as important as the blue chippers as the recruiting trail continues to evolve.

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