UND likely to lose two early to NHL, will retain its veteran centermen

GRAND FORKS — In the span of two days, the University of North Dakota’s offseason shuffling is essentially complete.
Junior defenseman Christian Wolanin signed with the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday and could make his NHL debut as early as Thursday night, March 22.
Junior forward Shane Gersich entered into contract negotiations with the Washington Capitals, and while nothing is official yet, a deal is expected to get done soon.
Junior centers Rhett Gardner and Nick Jones decided to return for their senior years, keeping UND’s top two centermen intact for next season.
And sophomore defenseman Colton Poolman decided to return for his junior season rather than entertaining free agent offers, giving UND a dominant defender on the back end.
Added all together, the early NHL signings of Wolanin and Gersich will be Nos. 9 and 10 in the last three offseasons — the most in the country and at least twice as many as every other program in the nation outside of Boston College, which has lost eight.
The Fighting Hawks will have to replace Wolanin, who became the first defenseman to lead the team in scoring since James Patrick 35 years ago, and one of their most dynamic forwards in Gersich, who led the team in goals two years ago (21) and finished second in the team in goals this season (13).
But UND will be able to move forward anchored by veteran centers thanks to Gardner’s decision to hold off on signing with the Dallas Stars and Nick Jones’ decision not to sign a free-agent deal.
“It was a stressful few days making a decision,” said Gardner, a fourth-round draft pick of the Stars. “But it’s a good position to be in. I felt it was better for me and my career to come back, and it’s an easy decision to come back to North Dakota.
“I had a lot of meetings with the coaches and they could see my game trending in the right direction. Why not come back and having a dominating year? I know I still have a lot of work I need to do this summer. I’m excited to do that.”
Gardner said there was another reason he was eager to come back.
“This year left a sour taste,” he said. “It’s a pride thing. I want to get things back on track and lead the way I should. I want to get everything back to where it was when I came here as a freshman. I’m really excited about the group we’ll have next year.”
Gardner, who helped UND to the 2016 NCAA national championship as a rookie, is aiming at leading the Fighting Hawks back to the NCAA tournament after they missed out this season for the first time in 16 years.
Gardner won the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s defensive forward of the year award this season. He’ll look to expand his offensive game as a senior. The Moose Jaw, Sask., product had seven goals and 20 points in 33 games as a junior.
He missed seven games due to injury and UND didn’t win any of them (three losses, four ties).
“To have Rhett come back and Nick Jones come back, it’s a big deal,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “It’s a cornerstone to building your group again and trying to sustain success.”
Berry said he thinks Gardner can follow the pattern of former Minnesota Duluth forwards Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo, who both parlayed big senior years into a NCAA Frozen Four trip and NHL roster spots as rookies.
Jones, who arrived on campus as a transfer from Ohio State, was an instant impact player, tallying a team-high 15 goals and 30 points.
Lauded for his leadership skills, Jones could wear a captain’s letter next season.
“I really didn’t have much of a decision,” Jones said. “When I committed here, I was committing for two years. It didn’t really ever cross my mind that I would leave early from this place. I love it here. I love everything this program stands for. It wasn’t even a decision for me. I never even thought about it.”
Jones and Gardner helped UND lead the nation in faceoff percentage as a team this season. Jones was at a team-best 59.3 percent. Gardner was just behind him at 58.6 percent.
“I’m excited,” Jones said. “We had a really good freshman class. That transition from freshman to sophomore. . . I think the development inside our team is going to be great. They’re going to have experience and they have a good skill level. And we’ll have some good incoming freshmen, too.”
Although the lines may be shuffled next season, expectations won’t.
“North Dakota recruits very high-end players,” Gardner said. “No matter what, I trust the coaches that I’ll be in a very good situation and I’m excited about that.”