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NHL can wait: Cooley returning to U despite being 3rd overall draft pick

From highlight-reel goals to pinpoint passes and end-to-end rushes, Logan Cooley made a dazzling debut for the Gophers men's hockey team this past season.

Get ready for a sequel, because the All-America center and one of three Hobey Baker Award finalists is coming back for his sophomore year, the university announced Friday.

Cooley, a Pittsburgh native who helped lead the Gophers to the NCAA championship game, chose to stay with the Gophers over signing with the Arizona Coyotes, who took him the No. 3 overall in the 2022 NHL draft.

"To have Cools and that skill set back in Minnesota, it's going to be even better,'' said Jimmy Snuggerud, Cooley's linemate and fellow freshman.

Cooley amassed 22 goals and 38 assists for 60 points, a total that ranked second in the nation. Centering a line with sophomore Matthew Knies and Snuggerud, the 5-10, 180-pounder was a force in leading the Gophers to a second consecutive Big Ten regular-season championship and their second straight Frozen Four. Cooley's line accounted for 64 goals and 88 assists and 152 points as the Gophers compiled a 29-10-1 record.

Cooley had a 16-game point streak from Jan. 14 through the national semifinal victory over Boston University and a seven-game multipoint streak from Feb. 24 through the win over the Terriers. In postseason play, he had six goals and six assists, with the national championship game loss to Quinnipiac the only one during which he did not have a point.

"We were so fortunate that Logan came with us, and we're extremely excited that he's coming back one more year,'' Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "I think it's a terrific decision and one that's going to benefit him in the long run and benefit our program, no question. It's great for both Logan and Jimmy to continue their development. There's a great track record of players playing two or three years of college hockey, and that really helps them step into the National Hockey League.''

Snuggerud said he was "pretty stoked'' with the news that Cooley was returning and quickly pointed to the unfinished business from the Gophers' 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac.

"He's coming back to win a national championship like the rest of us are,'' Snuggerud said. "Obviously, we didn't complete that goal. We got so close, and that's our goal starting right now.''

The NHL will wait

Cooley was in Pittsburgh on Friday and unavailable to comment, an athletic department spokesman said. He and Snuggerud posted a video on Instagram through the Dinkytown Athletes name, image and likeness (NIL) collective that they're returning to the Gophers.

By remaining with the Gophers, Cooley delayed signing a three-year, entry-level NHL contract worth a maximum of $950,000 annually. He'll likely have expanded opportunities to earn money through NIL deals, though college hockey players don't command the prices that football and basketball players do.

"You're hearing million-dollar deals for football and basketball. Our players get burritos,'' Motzko said during the Frozen Four in Tampa, referring to Cooley's NIL deal with Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Cooley's decision to delay signing with the Coyotes comes three days after Tempe, Ariz., voters rejected a proposal to build an entertainment district that would have included an NHL-size arena for the team. That adds more uncertainty to the franchise's future in Arizona. The Coyotes will play a second consecutive season at Arizona State's 5,000-seat Mullet Arena in 2023-24, but after that, they could be a candidate for relocation.

Roster taking shape

Cooley's return means the Gophers will have one of their three first-team All-America selections back for 2023-24. Knies and junior defenseman Brock Faber, the other two, signed pro contracts and were solid in the playoffs for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Wild, respectively.

Snuggerud, whose 50 points on 21 goals and 29 assists ranked fifth nationally, announced in April that he would return for his sophomore season. And this week, both center Jaxon Nelson and goalie Justen Close said they will return to take advantage of their fifth year of eligibility. Another senior, winger Bryce Brodzinski, is expected to make his decision soon.

"We have the tools that we need to win this thing,'' Snuggerud said.

Jackson LaCombe signed with the Anaheim Ducks and made his NHL debut in April, while fellow senior defenseman Ryan Johnson, a first-round pick of the Sabres, is expected to either sign with the Sabres or wait until mid-August to test NHL free agency.

With Cooley back, though, the Gophers for another year will have a star that routinely brings fans out of their seats.

"When they get the puck, the whole rink freezes,'' Motzko said in March, comparing Cooley to former Gophers standout Thomas Vanek. "The other team, coaches, players and the fans — there's a pause and everyone waits to see what's going to happen when the great ones get it.''