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UND, Denver two models of consistency

DENVER -- Maintaining success in college hockey isn't easy these days, even for the sport's giants. Early pro signings and the recruiting adjustments that they force have caused bumps in the road for traditional powers. After winning the national...

DENVER -- Maintaining success in college hockey isn't easy these days, even for the sport's giants.

Early pro signings and the recruiting adjustments that they force have caused bumps in the road for traditional powers.

After winning the national title in 2006, Wisconsin has missed the NCAA tournament in two of the past three years. After winning back-to-back MacNaughton Cups in 2006 and 2007, Minnesota hasn't finished higher than fifth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Two years after winning the 2007 national title, Michigan State finished 11th in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Boston College missed the NCAAs last season and defending national champ Boston University has started this season with a 3-6 mark.

Then, there are the two teams that are meeting tonight in Magness Arena in the country's marquee series. UND and Denver have handled the early signings better than others and they've built models of consistency amid the early departures and young recruiting.

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They are the only WCHA teams that have finished in the top four each of the last four seasons. They are the only WCHA teams that have been in the last two NCAA tournaments.

This weekend, they meet as the WCHA's top two nationally ranked teams. UND is No. 2 and Denver is No. 3.

It hasn't been easy for either Sioux coach Dave Hakstol or Denver coach George Gwozdecky to maintain success. Both programs have lost as many top-end players early as any team in the country.

Since the summer of 2004, when Hakstol took over as head coach, 14 Sioux players have signed pro contracts with eligibility remaining. During that same timeframe, Denver has lost eight to the NHL and two drafted players to Canadian major juniors.

Some of the early signings could easily be predicted. Everyone knew early on that UND's Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, Brian Lee and Denver's Paul Stastny were not going to be four-year players.

But both teams have had their share of surprises.

UND's Jordan Parise, recruited by only two colleges, signed an NHL deal after three years. Rastislav Spirko returned home to Slovakia after two. Anthony Grieco, Michael Forney and Hunter Bishop -- who all would have been seniors this season -- have left for major juniors, the pros and another college.

Denver lost Brock Trotter under mysterious circumstances two years ago. Ryan Dingle and Geoff Paukovich left early. Recruit David Carle had to retire upon graduating from high school because of a rare heart condition.

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So how have the Sioux and Pioneers managed to stay near the top year after year?

Their coaching staffs have masterfully managed their recruiting pipelines to make sure they have college-ready players available to step in when players leave.

That's difficult to do when most top players commit by age 17. Teams are unable to pick up top-tier high school seniors to replace an underclassman who signs early. Almost all of the top seniors committed years ago.

"With so many early commitments, you can't determine who you are losing in April and then go find that player," Hakstol said. "You have to try to do your work in advance. I think Cary (Eades) and Dane (Jackson) do as good of a job of that as anybody in the country. That's what gives us a chance to continually be successful."

An inkling

Hakstol said the Sioux usually have a good idea when a player is going to leave.

"That comes back to having good relationships with current players," he said. "We can honestly talk about what may or may not happen several months down the road. That doesn't mean you can bank on any one thing happening, but it at least gives you a little idea of where things are headed.

"We also have a good relationship with NHL teams. It helps in knowing what their hopes or plans for their different prospects are."

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But it's not always clear.

"We're trying to do our best job of projecting," Gwozdecky said. "That's difficult, even in the best of times."

Often times, Denver recruits a specific player to replace a current player. Gwozdecky said they inform the recruit that he may have to come in early if someone signs. Sometimes, they are able to find some good players late in the recruiting process, like last season's leading scorer, Anthony Maiani. He committed two months before his freshman season.

"For every good, young player we recruit, there are some late bloomers and late developers who are still available," Gwozdecky said. "But it's rare that you are able to do that in the middle of the summer."

Both coaches acknowledge that the early signings have made roster management more difficult. But don't expect them to change the way they recruit because of it.

"Absolutely, it complicates the issue," Hakstol said. "But I'll finish that by saying we want to recruit the best possible players. We want to develop them at the best rate possible. And we want them to make good decisions for the next level, so they can play in the National Hockey League. We want to make sure everyone is doing it on the right schedule for their own development."

Reach Schlossman at (701) 780-1129; (800) 477-6572, ext. 129; or send e-mail to bschlossman@gfherald.com .

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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