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Updated: October 5th, 2011 2:36pm
Notebook: Don Lucia expects to sign contract extension by next week

Notebook: Don Lucia expects to sign contract extension by next week

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Don Lucia's contract extension should finally be official in the coming days.

Lucia, the men's hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, and athletic director Joel Maturi discussed a three-year contract extension last March after the Gophers season ended without a berth in the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season.

Lucia said Wednesday he is scheduled to meet with Maturi on Thursday and that the agreement should be signed by next week.

The Gophers will open the regular season on Friday when they play the first of two weekend games against Sacred Heart at Mariucci Arena. The games, which start at 7 p.m., can be heard on 1500 ESPN.

Lucia is beginning his 13th season as the Gophers coach and his 24th as a head coach at the collegiate level. The Gophers won back-to-back NCAA Championships under Lucia in 2002 and 2003.

Lucia acknowledged there is pressure for him to get back to the NCAA tournament.

"I think our players, our seniors, they feel (pressure), too," Lucia said. "We want to get back there, but we're not going to worry about March in October. You start looking that far down the line and you forget to do the things that are necessary to do today. What we have to do today is continue to have a good work ethic, continue to develop the team cohesiveness and win some games early.

"They all count. We had a very good second half (in 2010-11). Unfortunately, we started out slow and then kind of resurrected ourselves and got upset in the playoffs (by Alaska Anchorage).

"Had we won that playoff round we're in the NCAAs, where we wanted to be. ... I think our group is motivated, they're fun to be around and they know what the goal is. I think they're willing to work to get there."

The Gophers went 5-0-2 in their last seven regular-season games in 2010-11 before losing 4-3 and 2-0 to Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Change is coming

The Gophers will be leaving the WCHA to join the new Big Ten hockey conference in 2013-14. The Big Ten's decision to create a hockey conference will bring about massive changes in the sport and put an end to some long-standing rivalries, such as the Gophers and North Dakota.

Lucia, who played college hockey at Notre Dame when the Irish was in the WCHA, admits it's hard to see what's happening. 

"I'll be sad. It's a good league," Lucia said. "There's still something to be said about regional sports. Hockey is very unique and one of the things that makes hockey great is that a Division II or III school can compete with a BCS school and I think that's unique to our sport. No other sport is like that.

"I do think there's always been a regional flavor and fans like to travel to watch teams play in other buildings. We'll miss that. The positive could be for some teams down the line that all of a sudden they have a better chance to be successful and a better chance to get in the NCAA tournament at the end of the year.

"Maybe 10 years down the line you won't know any different. Just like the people watching college hockey now don't understand that Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame used to be in the WCHA. You don't know any different now. But it's a change, it's a big change and is it for the best? We'll find out in five or 10 years."

Learning process

Forward Nick Bjugstad had eight goals and 12 assists in 29 games with the Gophers last season as a freshman after arriving as a top recruit.

He did not score his first goal until late November.

Bjugstad missed five games after being diagnosed with mononucleosis in October and was away from the team around the start of the year as he played for the United States in the World Junior Championships.

Lucia said the fact it took Bjugstad some time to get settled shouldn't have come as a surprise considering he graduated early and skipped his senior year of high school at Blaine.

"We probably asked a little bit too much of him the first month," Lucia said. "Having him play a top two-line role and coming right out of high school. Physically he was strong enough, he could skate, but he didn't have the experience just playing against other people's No. 1, No. 2 centers that are 23-years-old in some cases.

"Then he got mono. When he came back from mono, we moved him to wing for a few weeks knowing that the second half of the year we'd move him back to center. He moved back to center with the U.S. National team, did very well, and, again, he was back in his own age group.

"And then he came back in January and he was a point-a-game guy for us. That's when he really settled in. That first half between having mono and missing and just that transition from high school to college without any junior hockey. I think it takes anybody a little bit of time."

Quick hits

• Lucia said that freshman forward Kyle Rau will be used on the power play and will receive "some significant minutes." Rau led Eden Prairie to the Class AA state boys' hockey championship last season and was named Mr. Hockey in Minnesota. Rau then scored 10 points, including four goals, in 11 games with Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League. "You see his high hockey IQ and what I love about him, too, is he's fearless," Lucia said. "We might have to throttle him back a little bit because he's not the biggest guy (5-8, 172 pounds) in the world."

• Lucia's plan for the series against Sacred Heart is to play "a number of different players," and continue to look at combinations and lines. "We've only had a week of practice when we've had unlimited time," Lucia said. "Just continue the evaluation process because we're going to be heading up to Duluth the following weekend and we're going to get on that bus with seven (defensemen) and 13 forwards. This is the last opportunity for more people to be involved."

• Defenseman Nate Schmidt did not play last Sunday in an exhibition against British Columbia because of an undisclosed injury but it sounds as if he should be ready to go this weekend.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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