The first of Hockey’s Future’s four-part series with 2005 Frozen Four head coaches features University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.
Coach Lucia shares his insights on a variety of topics from the upcoming season from his excellent incoming freshman class to returning players. He also shares a bit of insight on his son Tony, who was selected by the San Jose Sharks in this summer’s NHL draft.
HF: Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler (PHX), Ryan Stoa (COL) and Justin Bostrom are coming into your program this season, how do you intend to utilize each player?
DL: Until we actually get on the ice, it’s hard to say. All of four of the players bring a lot of offense to our team, and I think that was needed because we weren’t that deep offensively last season. We’re hoping that with the new additions and our returning players such as Tyler Hirsch, Gino Guyer (DAL), Danny Irmen (MIN) and Ryan Potulny (PHI) that we will be a deeper offensive team and be a more difficult matchup for opposing teams.
HF: Given the excellent freshman class coming in this season along with the many returning players from last season, do you feel that the expectations are even higher this season than they usually are at Minnesota?
DL: I don’t think the expectations around here really change that much from year to year. I think the expectations of our program are that we’re going to be in the hunt as far as our league and at the national level each and every year. I don’t think that this year is any different than in years past.
HF: With such an exceptionally talented group of freshmen as this, what do you personally feel will be the most challenging aspect of coaching this group?
DL: I think every year you’re challenged. I think from a forwards standpoint this will be a very deep team offensively. To figure out who is going to play on the power play and who is going to kill penalties and who is going to play in what type of role will be the biggest challenge for us coaches. But like we tell our players, we don’t determine who plays, the players do based on their performance. So that’s what we’ll be going on. I think early in the year we’ll be giving a lot of players different opportunities in various roles and then as the year goes on, kind of narrow that down to who belongs on our two units. One will be used on the power play and the other will be used to kill penalties.
HF: How difficult was it to bring Phil Kessel to Minnesota?
DL: Probably not as difficult as some people think because Phil is a type of young guy who didn’t have a big ego or anything like that through the recruiting process. He kind of wanted to be left alone more than anything else. It was a matter of us just being patient because he was not in any hurry to make a decision. As the recruiting process went along and he was closer to making a decision, we turned up our recruiting efforts. We feel very fortunate that he chose Minnesota. I think that speaks volumes about our program when he could’ve gone anywhere in the country.
HF: So do you feel that where he was going to end up was maybe a little overhyped in the media?
DL: Well, I think it was from the standpoint that he was very upfront all along that he was not going to be in any hurry to make a decision. He didn’t orchestrate the press conference to announce his decision, that was USA Hockey. I think if it were up to Phil, he wouldn’t have done that. Bottom line is that he likes the style that we play. He likes to play an offensive brand of hockey with a lot of freedom to read and react. I think that’s ultimately the reason why he chose to come here.
HF: You lost Jake Fleming, Jerrid Reinholz, Garret Smaagaard and Barry Tallackson (NJ) to graduation. Who do you expect to fill the roles that these departing players leave?
DL: The biggest role that they all had was in our penalty killing, because they were key penalty killers for us. So filling that void on the penalty kill is important. We have four forwards coming in who are all capable of doing that. We also have some returning players on our roster like Tommy Pohl and Brent Borgen that can fill that void as well.
HF: Of all of your returning players, who do you see as the “emerging” player this season?
DL: I think Kris Chucko (CGY) had a good freshman year but I think he could take another step in his development. I know that he worked hard this offseason. He’s bigger and stronger. I think having played a year of college hockey will help him this year.
HF: You had Kris playing in a variety of situations and paired with different linemates throughout last season. How would define his role this season?
DL: Kris needs to be the prototypical power forward for us. Someone who is going to go up and down his wing, own the corners and the area in front of the net and become a real good two-way player because I think that’s the type of player that he will project out as at the next level as well.
HF: Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen played so well together last season. Do you intend to keep them together again this season?
DL: I think that they’ll play together at some times and at other times they won’t. We have a good idea of who our top three centers are and our top nine or ten forwards total that we’ll project out at. They’ll certainly be among them. I think they got a little stale last year. The added depth to our team offensively will help both of them this season. I think that there will be times where we’ll play them together, but other times they’ll be split up. It doesn’t depend upon so much those two players, but the other players around them on how the puzzle is going to fit.
HF: Kellen Briggs has been outstanding for your team in goal the last two seasons. This season you have a very talented freshman in Jeff Frazee (NJ) coming in. Do you plan to tap Briggs as your starter or do you plan to rotate both goaltenders?
DL: I’m expecting to rotate them to begin the season. They are two outstanding goaltenders and hopefully we’ll have a situation where they’ll both play well and have the opportunity to play. That’ll be one of those things where we will rotate early, then make a decision whether to continue rotating or if one starts to outplay the other.
HF: You got some great production out of defensemen last season, specifically from Alex Goligoski (PIT), Nate Hagemo (CAR) and Derek Peltier (COL). In what areas would you like to see these three and the rest of your defense improve this season?
DL: Those three had great freshmen years for us, but unfortunately they were all kind of banged up in the second half and didn’t play as well in the second half as they did in the first half because of it. But they’re all physically stronger than what they were a year ago and in some cases they’re ten pounds heavier than they were a year ago. That’s going to help us because we have to do a better job of clearing out the area in front of our net as well as being able to go into the corners and being able to hit, pin, eliminate and separate opposing players from the puck in our own zone.
HF: You bring in one new defenseman in R.J. Anderson (PHI). Where do you see him fitting into the picture on your team?
DL: I think when you look at our team right now with Peter Kennedy missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury and still not quite where he needs to be to start the season with more surgery done this summer, R.J. is certainly going to be one of those guys that’s in the mix of playing right away. Another player in the mix is P.J. Atherton (TB). R.J. and P.J. may be battling it out for that sixth defenseman spot. I think early on we’ll probably be rotating seven defensemen in our lineup and see who is going to emerge.
HF: What is the one area that you would like to see your team as a whole improve this season?
DL: I think we have to play with a little more bite to our game. We weren’t real big last year and at times we got pushed around a little bit. I think we need to be a little more aggressive and stronger on the puck than we were a year ago.
HF: Who do you see as the player(s) who really steps it up in that regard?
DL: The returning players are going to be a year older and bigger and stronger physically. With that and (Blake) Wheeler being 220 lbs. and (Ryan) Stoa being 215 lbs. and (Justin) Bostrom playing (physically) bigger than is, I think we’re just going to be a physically bigger team than we were a year ago.
HF: Two players who went through some personal adversity last season were P.J. Atherton and Tyler Hirsch. How are they both doing now and what are you expecting out of them this season?
DL: Well P.J. made the decision that he was going to come back and play last year. Once he got back into shape and was (academically) eligible for the second semester, he had a very good year. He played a real pivotal role for us last year because he is our most physical defenseman and that’s the element that he’ll bring to the table this year. It might be the reason why he gets into and stays in our lineup this year. Tyler obviously had some issues late last year but he finished out the year and played in the Frozen Four. He led our team in scoring and he was a pivotal player for us. He’s worked hard over the summer and I think you’ll see him have a terrific senior year.
HF: Gino Guyer (DAL) was one of your most reliable players last season. What are you expecting out of Gino this season that will make him and the team better?
DL: I’d really like to see Gino become a dominant two-way player. Last year he was our best defensive centerman who could also chip in offensively. But I’d like to see Gino become that player that can go up against opposing top lines and shut them down as well as be able to contribute offensively.
HF: Another change that your program went through was on your coaching staff. Bob Motzko left for St. Cloud State and you brought back John Hill, who had done a great job up at Anchorage. How difficult was it to get John to come back to Minnesota?
DL: It was difficult because he was leaving a head coaching position and I think he wanted to see the fruits of his labor in this upcoming season. But he wanted to come back to where he felt that he had a chance to win at the end of the (regular) season and to be in NCAA Tournament. It should be a pretty seamless transition for him because Mike Guentzel, John and myself all worked together for two years. John and I also worked together for four years at Colorado College. He believes in coaching and playing the game the same way that I do, so that helps.
HF: Let’s talk a little bit about your son, Tony. He was selected by the San Jose Sharks in this summer’s NHL Draft. That had to have made you pretty excited.
DL: I was happy and I know that he was really excited. I didn’t realize that he was going to be eligible for the draft until the day of the draft because in the past he would’ve had to opt-in because of his birthdate and age. I had people asking me if he was going to opt-in and I said no and I didn’t even think about it to be honest with you. I told Tony that I wasn’t going to have him in opt-in but the NHL did away with that so then I thought that maybe he might have a chance to get drafted based on the year he had last season. So I know that he was very excited and he’s worked very hard. But like any other prospect he has a long ways to go.
HF: Any chance that he’ll be playing for you at Minnesota in the (not-so-distant) future?
DL: Well, he’s certainly good enough to play here and at a lot of other places, but he has to make that decision. He has to go with what feels right to him.
HF: Is he planning to make his decision at some point this year on where he’ll be going?
DL: Yeah, I think he will. I’d be very surprised if that did not happen this year.
HF: Is there any schools on his short list right now?
DL: I think the schools that have probably shown the greatest interest right now have been Notre Dame, UNH and Colorado College. We’ll see what happens.
HF: Is he planning to start college next year or the year after?
DL: I think we’re going to wait and see how this year goes. If he has a great year then he can look into moving on to the next level. But if he needs two years, he needs two years. I’m one of those that believe that you don’t have to rush things. You’re ready when you’re ready. Tony is just beginning his junior career, so he’ll know if he’s ready next March not September.
HF: As far as Tony’s hockey career and development goes, do you just try to guide and advise him or do you have a hand in the decision-making process?
DL: I’m trying to guide him a little bit. But he made the decision to go to Omaha (USHL) this year. I gave him some advice on what I thought but I left it up to him. The same thing with what he ends up doing with college. I’ll give him some advice and some of my thoughts but ultimately I want him to do what he wants to do because he’s got to be excited about where he spends the next four years of his life.
HF: As a hockey player what is his one greatest strengths?
DL: His hockey sense. He has a very high level of hockey sense. He knows what to do with the puck and where it should go.
HF: Getting back to you and your team, what do you personally feel is the hardest expectation for you, yourself to have to live up to at Minnesota every year?
DL: I think the hardest expectation is the fact that everyone expects you to win a national championship every year. Obviously that’s not feasible. What we try to do here is maintain the program at a level where you are contending. I’ve always been a believer in the idea that if you’re contending, sooner or later you’ll get yours (national championship) or at least get your shot at a title. We’ve been at a pretty high level here lately but our league (WCHA) is at a very, very high level. So if we can continue to be one of the top teams in our league year in and year out, then that means we’ll be one of the top teams in the country year in and year out.
HF: The level of competition and the level of talent that comes into the WCHA continue to rise each year and that was especially evident in the Frozen Four back in April. What do you feel is the toughest aspect about competing in today’s WCHA?
DL: How many good teams there are. I think that it’s one of the things that is really unique to our league. In the last two years, we’ve had five different teams make it to the Frozen Four. The elevator is always going up and down for certain teams. The hard part is you can be a fourth, fifth or sixth place team in our league and still be an outstanding hockey team. I think that’s one of the things that really separate the WCHA from the other leagues (conferences). You also have all of these new buildings, the terrific fan support and the best attendance. I think those are some of the reasons why you are seeing a lot of the top recruits across North America heading to the WCHA today.
HF: Looking at your schedule, you open the season against Alaska-Fairbanks. I know that you’re very familiar with the group of guys behind the UAF bench – Tavis MacMillan (head coach), Wade Klippenstein and Dallas Ferguson. You had coached all of them when they played for you during your tenure up at UAF. Are you excited about meeting up against your former players who are now coaches?
DL: I think it’s exciting. But the depressing part about it is they’re old enough that they’re coaching now (laughing). It’s exciting because I had recruited them, watched them come in, mature and develop and now they’re in the coaching ranks. I’m not at all surprised that they’re all coaching now. Tavis was always a cerebral player and has a mind for hockey. I think it’s great and I’m really looking forward to it.
HF: Aside from the start of the season, what is the one thing that you are personally looking forward to the most this season?
DL: I think just trying to develop the team. I think as a coach that’s what you look forward to every season. You have a lump of clay and a puzzle. You have to figure out the puzzle and put it together. You try to mold the players and see the team improve and try to get them playing together. You want to see if you can get the team playing their best at the end of the season. When the season does end, I want to be able to step back and feel like we’ve reached our potential. That’s the measuring stick that I use. Did we reach our potential? Did we overachieve? Did we underachieve? Or are we where we should be? That’s the kind of criteria I look at and use.
HF: Do you feel that your team overachieved last year?
DL: In a lot of ways, yeah I think so. When I look at our talent level and the players we lost coming into last season, I don’t think that many people picked us to be in the Frozen Four when the year began.
HF: Aside from winning the WCHA and the national championship, what is the one thing that you would like your team to accomplish this season?
DL: To be playing our best hockey in March. I’d like to see our team stay healthy and play our best hockey of the season in March. I’d like our team to be clicking on all cylinders in that one and done time of the season.
HF: Did you feel that that was something that was not being accomplished last season despite making it to the Frozen Four?
DL: Well, I didn’t think that we were playing as well in the second half of the year as we were in the first half. Injuries had something to do with that. We were not at all happy with the way that we played in Frozen Four. Obviously North Dakota had a lot to do with that. They played extremely well and they won. I don’t think that we had a great performance in that game and that was disappointing to our players. When you go down, you want to go down thinking that you played your best game. I think that was the disappointing part about it for us. We did have some holes on our team last year. Were we good enough to win it all last year? I guess so since we beat Denver two out of three times when he did play them earlier. I always say that the best teams usually win it at the end of the season. The two teams who were playing the best at the end of the year played for the national championship and the team who was playing the best of all won it.
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