Not much has been going right for the Minnesota Gopher hockey program. They hadn't left the state in 20 years for a first-round WCHA playoff series until they headed to Grand Forks in March. That was their second road trip for a first-round series in three years, and they've now missed a Final Five and been knocked out in the play-in game over the last two years.
Making matters worse, close rivals UMD and North Dakota each won three games in three days to win the last two Final Five titles.
Oh, and Minnesota has hosted NCAA regionals in each of the last two years, seasons in which they missed the NCAA Tournament.
What appeared to be a relatively calm offseason for early departures has blown up on the Gophers recently. They have seen two forwards decommit, they reported ticked off another prospect when they told him to stay in juniors one more year, and now we learn of two early departures involving active players.
The first was announced officially by the Gophers themselves early Tuesday afternoon. Forward Josh Birkholz, a sophomore, was apparently about to get suspended for "violating team rules" (use your imagination, I guess). Instead of sitting out however many games, Birkholz is taking his talents elsewhere.
Birkholz "has decided to leave the program," the school announced in a terse statement that offered no further comment. Reports have him heading to the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips, a Canadian major junior team. His college eligibility will be relinquished with the move.
It's unclear if the Florida Panthers -- who drafted Birkholz in the third round in 2009 -- had anything to do with this decision. If so, it's sad that the pro team stepped in and kept a college team from instituting discipline. Shipping him to the WHL teaches him nothing about what he did wrong -- whatever it was.
Birkholz wasn't the only player Minnesota lost today. The long-rumored signing of defenseman Nick Leddy by the Chicago Blackhawks has apparently happened. Leddy was traded by the Wild in the Cam Barker deal, then apparently had a heck of a prospect camp for Chicago. Since the Blackhawks are strapped on the salary cap, and the Gopher program is in tatters, it makes sense to start his professional clock maybe a year earlier than expected. Chicago needs cheap options for depth, and Leddy was a player who got better on a pretty mediocre team last season.
Since Chicago has typically been very supportive of college players, it makes me want to read more into this than there probably is. Reality is that Chicago has lost a lot of players because of the salary cap at the NHL level. The pressure is on for prospects to make an impact to keep the team competitive. That puts pressure on the scouts to replenish the system with more prospects to keep things moving in the organization.
Of course, you could also say they looked at the prospect in this case (Leddy), saw a program where things haven't been going well, and they convinced him to bail for his own good (and, ultimately, the Blackhawks' own good, too).
Either way, the Gophers' task of getting back on the good side of the WCHA's home-ice ledger just got more difficult. It was bad enough that the seventh-place team from 2009 saw two teams come into the league that could immediately be at least as good as them (Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha).
Now, head coach Don Lucia, with obvious pressure on him to right the ship, has to make due without a player who was going to be one of his top defensemen.
They haven't fallen as far as, say, Michigan football, but the Gophers don't appear to be on the rise this winter. It could be a very difficult season for Minnesota. That they could have two of those in a row is quite the rarity.