Replacing Martin no small task, but not impossible

Thomas Vanek decided to return, Paul Martin decided to turn pro. Both decisions have a profound effect on the 2003-2004 Gophers hockey team. But one thing is for sure, this program is used to seeing star players leave - and still finds a way to win hockey games.

Who will replace Paul Martin? That is now the question surrounding the Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team.

At first Gophers fans cringed when they found out Paul Martin decided to forego his senior season – and a shot at a third-straight national title and the Hobey Baker award in the process – but after the pain subsided, a wise Gophers hockey fan knows this: The team has been through this before.

Jeff Taffe left the Gophers before last year to turn pro, and throughout the years, the Gophers have been able to survive when superstars bolt early or finish their careers after four years with the team. Jordan Leopold and Johnny Pohl led the Gophers to the NCAA title in 2001-2002, and what did the Gophers do the next season without the Hobey Baker award winner (Leopold) and one of the leading scorers in the nation (Pohl)? They went out and won another NCAA title.

The well is deep at Minnesota. Sure the Gophers would have been better if Martin would have stayed, but the Elk River, Minn., native has already won two NCAA titles, and reportedly received an $800,000 signing bonus to sign with the Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils. Can't blame a kid for that. Everyone wanted Martin to go for another title and he is – but that title he is chasing is the Stanley Cup, not the NCAA championship. Without Martin, the Gophers still return four of the six defensemen that played in the Frozen Four last year, including junior Keith Ballard, a first-round pick in the 2002 draft by the Buffalo Sabres.

Ballard is not the offensive force Martin turned into for a defenseman, but Martin's absence also opens doors for others to step up. Peter Kennedy, P.J. Atherton and Chris Harrington are all promising sophomores, while senior Joey Martin and junior Judd Stevens will have a chance to expand roles. It also opens up the door for freshman Mike Vannelli, a 6-2, 190-pound defenseman from Mendota Heights, Minn., who played high school hockey at St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall and for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL last year.

When a team is as good as Minnesota and with as much talent that comes through the program, losses like Martin hurt the team, but they don't deplete the team. This team won back-to-back titles with its depth and team play. Yes Martin would have helped that quest, but now is the time for another player to step into the limelight.

Who will it be?

Matt Krumrie covers Gophers hockey for He can be reached at

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