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College men’s hockey: Bulldogs lose Hibbing’s Johnson early to Pittsburgh Penguins

Minnesota-Duluth's Adam Johnson looks for an opening to shoot the puck during the first period of a game against Miami at Amsoil Arena during the 2016-17 season. Johnson is leaving the Bulldogs two years early to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Steve Kuchera /

Just days after falling to Denver in the NCAA championship game in Chicago, Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin was asked during his final news conference of the 2016-17 season about the possibility of early departures from his program.

Not knowing who was staying and who was going, Sandelin had little to say on the subject, just this: “It sucks to have good players, doesn’t it?”

If the veteran Bulldogs coach knew then what he knows now, he’d probably add a “really” or three to that remark, because UMD lost another one of its key returning players Thursday.

This time it was sophomore forward and top returning scorer Adam Johnson of Hibbing, who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins following the team’s development camp last week.

“He went to their development camp and impressed them. They provided an opportunity and he felt like it was good,” Sandelin said. “It’s hard to lose him at this point. I was planning on losing him at the end of next year. The timing isn’t great but we’re happy for him and, hopefully, it works out.”

The 23-year-old undrafted free agent and invitee to the Penguins camp is the third underclassman to leave the Bulldogs early this offseason. Starting freshman goaltender Hunter Miska signed with the Arizona Coyotes in April, while sophomore Neal Pionk of Hermantown — who would have been the team’s top returning defenseman — signed with the New York Rangers in May.

Miska and Pionk also were undrafted free agents who were expected to lead a young UMD team next season.

“This is the world we live in. It’s crazy; things happen quick. You can’t fault kids for wanting to play at that level,” Sandelin said. “Obviously, we would have loved to keep (Johnson) another year to be a big part of our team, but he feels that he is in a position to make that step. I want nothing but the best for him and to keep doing what he’s doing.”

Johnson had a breakout year in 2016-17, posting 18 goals and 19 assists in 42 games. He scored six goals and had 12 assists in his freshman season.

While others wavered when asked, Johnson told the News Tribune just days after the NCAA Frozen Four that he planned to return for his junior year, ending any speculation he would be a flight risk.

The former Hibbing-Chisholm Bluejacket said he sent the same message to NHL teams that were interested in signing him, including Pittsburgh, but admitted he did it with little forethought.

This time he said he put a lot more thought in the decision when the Penguins approached him after the development camp with a two-year, two-way entry-level contract that included the NHL and AHL rookie maximums.

According to Johnson, the Penguins told him that same offer would be on the table next summer as well, but the opportunity with the organization might not be the same.

Coming off back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Penguins already have lost six players in free agency.

“I went out there for the development camp and I really enjoyed it out there. I liked the city. I thought the staff was great, the guys were great,” said Johnson, who played four seasons of high school hockey at Hibbing-Chisholm and two seasons of junior hockey with the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League. “They went over the opportunity I had after losing some guys. I thought it was the right time to take the next step.”

Sandelin and others had high expectations for Johnson, who was named an assistant captain this spring. He was seen as a potential 50-point scorer, something the Bulldogs might need after graduating senior wing Alex Iafallo — who is now with the Los Angeles Kings organization.

Sandelin repeated Thursday what he had said during his end-of-the-season news conference:  Johnson would have been one of the best players in college hockey this season and a candidate for top honors in the NCHC and a potential Hobey Baker Award candidate.

“Obviously we expected to have a big year and it’s tough to pass those things up, but the hardest part was leaving the guys and leaving the coaching staff,” Johnson said. “It was basically the only thing holding me back. It made the decision very difficult. In the end, this is the best thing for me and something I had to do.”

Sandelin said the coaching staff is discussing options for replacing Johnson. With time not on UMD’s side — the season starts in less than 100 days — Sandelin said they’ll move quickly.

“You’re never going to replace a guy like (Johnson), but we have some potential options,” Sandelin said.

UMD has two 19-year-old, 1998-born forwards verbally committed in Justin Richards of the USHL’s Lincoln Stars and Hermantown’s Cole Koepke, now with Sioux City of the USHL. There’s also 18-year-old, 1999-born forward Noah Cates from Stillwater (Minn.) High School. He recently was drafted in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

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