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UND’s recent commits give window into recruiting strategy

UND commit Riese Gaber plays for the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Hickling Images.

There are eight teams in college hockey this season with eight-plus NHL Draft picks on their roster: Minnesota, Boston University, Boston College, Providence, Michigan, Wisconsin, UND and Notre Dame.

If the season ended today, not a single one would be in the NCAA tournament.

The three teams with the highest number of draft picks -- Minnesota, Boston University and Boston College -- all have losing records.

The Terriers, who have loaded up on more high-end talent than anyone in college hockey with four first-round picks and nine players taken in the top three rounds, are sitting at 10-14-4 and in the bottom half of Hockey East.

There seems to be a lesson here: In today’s college hockey world, it’s difficult to win solely relying on high draft picks.

The teams with the most top prospects and high draft picks generally end up being the country’s youngest teams. These highly touted players come to school young and leave for the NHL when they’re still young. And it’s hard to win in college hockey with really young teams.

That started coming into focus two years ago when a Terrier roster stacked with players like Clayton Keller, Charlie McAvoy, Jordan Greenway, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Kieffer Bellows, Dante Fabbro and Jake Oettinger lost 12 times, didn’t get a No. 1 seed, didn’t win the Beanpot, didn’t win the Hockey East tournament and didn’t make the Frozen Four.

It’s becoming even more clear this season. Of the 10 youngest teams in the nation by age, only one would be in the NCAA tournament if it started today.

These facts apparently are not lost on UND’s coaching staff judging by the program’s recent commits.

In the last two months, UND has picked up verbal commitments from a pair of 19-year-olds in the United States Hockey League -- forward Riese Gaber of the Dubuque Fighting Saints and forward Griffin Ness of the Waterloo Black Hawks.

Both Gaber and Ness are expecting to play one more year in the USHL before coming to UND’s campus. That means they’ll arrive as 20-year-olds and they’ll turn 21 during their rookie seasons.

They aren’t the typical type of commitments we’ve seen from top programs in recent years -- the 16-year-old highly skilled, big-point producing future stars. But they’re a sign that UND is noticing the trend of college hockey and looking to filter in some older, talented players to go along with the high draft picks.

UND will have plenty of highly skilled draft picks come in the next couple of years.

The Fighting Hawks could have as many as seven players taken in this year’s NHL Draft, which will be held in Vancouver in June. At least four of them are expected to come to campus next year as young 18-year-old freshmen -- forwards Shane Pinto, Harrison Blaisdell, Judd Caulfield and Massimo Rizzo. Other potential picks will be goalie Cameron Rowe and defensemen Ethan Frisch and Luke Bast.

In 2020, UND could have several high draft picks again. Defenseman Jake Sanderson is the headliner, followed by defenseman Tyler Kleven of Fargo, defenseman Mitchell Miller, forward Stephen Halliday and forward Ethan Bowen.

All of those top prospects look promising and will be key parts to UND’s future. But clearly, UND has made the calculation that winning big will also require older, undrafted, do-it-all players like Gaber and Ness.

UND’s dominant 2016 NCAA national championship team will be held as the model in Grand Forks for some time. That squad looked similar to what UND is trying to build again -- a mix of high-end young players (Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz) and older, talented players (Tucker Poolman, Paul LaDue, Troy Stecher, Drake Caggiula).

Caggiula was the Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four, kicking off the current three-year run of undrafted Frozen Four MOPs (Denver’s Jarid Lukosevicius in 2017, Minnesota Duluth’s Karson Kuhlman in 2018).

Gaber and Ness won’t be drafted, either. They won’t get headlines when the enter college hockey. But they could be vital to the program’s future.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 14th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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