Conference Shuffling, the Hobey Race, and More
We’re at the traditional halfway point of the season, so it’s time to reflect on what’s been (even though it’s not really halfway yet for a lot of teams). It used to be that many teams were playing in holiday tournaments now, but most teams aren’t playing until January. The Great Lakes Invitational is being played on campus, and I’m not sure it’s as temporary as some people think. Times have changed.
If Omicron doesn’t shut down the postseason (let us pray), we’re in for a pretty good one. A look at the Pairwise shows seven Western schools at the top, including five from the NCHC. This is a testament to the NCHC’s continued excellence, of course, but it owes itself just as much to this year’s weakness in Hockey and the ECAC.
The latter has an excuse; eight of its 12 teams didn’t play last season. Harvard and Cornell have shown flashes of their old selves, but still have many kinks to work out. The Hockey East teams have less excuse. Massachusetts is still fine, Northeastern and Providence are getting there. But Boston College and Boston University have been big disappointments again so far. I thought BC would be better, thanks to all its transfers providing experience, but the Eagles have been mediocre. BU is more predictable to me.
Michigan at No. 1 may be obvious to some, but not to me. Remember, the Wolverines were anointed the national championship by many non-college hockey pundits back in July, when they had the bevy of first-round NHL Draft picks, and guys like Owen Power and Matty Beniers decided to stay in school. Anyone in college hockey knew enough to remain skeptical, only because we’ve seen many teams over the years laden with blue chippers bomb out in the postseason.
And while Michigan is currently No. 1, it is 14-6. That’s not exactly dominant per se. The teams at the top have been beating each other up, and Michigan could just as easily be No. 7 in a couple weeks as it is No. 1 now.
But I do give the Wolverines credit for surpassing my skepticism so far. The goaltending has been solid, the play of the depth players has been really good, and no one has threatened to bolt for the NHL midseason. That said, all those NCHC teams — and Minnesota State — are bigger, stronger and older, and will continue to be favorites, collectively, in my eyes.
Minnesota has been the biggest disappointment in the Big Ten, currently sitting at No. 11, unable to win most Saturdays after strong Fridays. Notre Dame is No. 10 and been hard to figure just how good it is, but is getting strong play in net from Cornell transfer Matthew Galajda; it wasn’t a certainty his success would carry over, but so far it has.
I’ve said since the beginning of the year that Quinnipiac is the best team in the East, and its current No. 8 position in the Pairwise is bearing that out. The only loss it has, it was dominating the game before goalie Dylan St. Cyr coughed up a puck right onto a North Dakota player’s stick, and it propelled UND to a comeback win. QU dominated the first game of that weekend too, and won.
UMass is right there, though, and will have something to say nationally when the time comes. It’s been decimated by injuries, but still managed to go 9-4-2 so far.
The Neverending Story
We get constant questions about what the conference alignments will be going forward, and which schools will add the sport.
I have a blase and world-weary, perhaps detatched, attitude about it all these days. I’ve seen so many things happen this way or that way, so many rumors flying around in every direction with varying degrees of validity; my feeling now is, whatever happens happens. The world didn’t end when previous movements occurred, and it won’t end in the future. Also, all the wishing in the world at what *should* be done, doesn’t hold any weight over each schools’ independence. They will continue to make choices in their own self-interest, just like always. Sometimes those self-interets align, and you have a conference. Somethose those self-interests change, and then you have a new conference. I’ve stopped worrying about it.
So for me, the thought process behind what might happen is more a mental exercise.
At the same time, the NCAA itself is in a state of flux, brought upon by numerous lawsuits that have led to more financial “rights” for student-athletes. The ability to capitalize on your own “name, image and likeness (NIL)” is just the latest thing, but there may be more. A few years ago, players were given the opportunity to get the full cost of tuition paid in their scholarship. And then there’s the whole open transfer thing.
Each time this happens, there’s a concern that the little guy in college hockey — schools with long traditions that make it part of what makes the sport great — won’t be able to keep up with the big guys. To an extent, this has happened, but never as much as people feared. It’s worth continuing to keep an eye on though, because maybe one day there will be a tipping point.
As for conference shuffling … that first depends on team shuffling.
Two things may cause a shift in the near future — Augustana (in South Dakota) coming into the fold of college hockey teams, and the loss of Josh Fenton as NCHC commissioner. Fenton is leaving to become comissioner of the Summit League, an all-sport D-I “mid-major” conference that contains three schools currently in the NCHC — North Dakota, Denver and Omaha — plus St. Thomas, which is in the CCHA at the moment.
I could easily see a situation where Fenton pushes to have the current NCHC fall under the auspices of The Summit League, with the blessing of UND, Denver and UNO, and brings Augustana and St. Thomas into the fold.
I’ve also heard that Missouri-Kansas City — another current Summit League member — has been seriously investigating adding hockey. This is in the slightly-higher-than-rumor category.
If this happens, it may finally be the push for Miami and Western Michigan to go to the more geographically-centered CCHA. Miami has been the school more willing to do this over the years, but WMU has been reluctant. However, WMU will have a new athletic director soon, and has a new head coach, so this could change.
The only issues out East will be whether Atlantic Hockey will accept Long Island. Currently Atlantic Hockey is at 10 teams after Robert Morris left. But RMU is reinstating the program in 2023, and we have to assume Atlantic will let it back in. So LIU would make for a good 12th team as it grows its viability. Holding room for Navy seems to have gone by the wayside. The only thing that would change here is if some schools leave for the CCHA, or some other new conference, as is often rumored. Could happen, maybe should happen, but is another “I’ll believe it when I see it” situation.
A quick synopsis on some other schools:
Arizona State … new arena will open next season, so no reason for any conference not to allow it in. What league it winds up in, though, depends upon a lot of other shuffling, so it will be a non-stop issue negotiations resolve itself. How great would it be if ASU could somehow get archrival Arizona to join in? Arizona does well in club hockey, and gets great crowds, and is moving into a new 3,000-seat arena in 2024. If that happens, it would add further chaos into conference shuffling, but then Arizona State and Arizona could go somewhere as a unit.
Alaska-Anchorage … like Robert Morris, also coming back from extinction, but like Alaska (Fairbanks) will have nowhere to play. It also currently has no roster. I don’t see how it survives long term. There’s also a major concern that institutions will continue to slash programs, just so that private donors can save it later on, and then the school is off the hook. This is a disturbing trend, but a lot of schools are taking notice that private donors are stepping up and “saving” programs, so, hey, why not cut ours and let someone else deal with it.
Alabama-Huntsville … in the same boat as UAA, but has no conference, and has said it wouldn’t come back without one. Nothing has changed. The twitter-verse will continue to call me Daddy Downer, but I’m just saying obvious things that people don’t want to say. Every time a program is “saved” everyone jumps for joy and throws them a party, but they miss the devil in the details. Rarely has long-term viability improved.
Lindenwood … said last spring that it would have an announcement in summer about finally hitting its goals towards starting a men’s program. Summer came and went, there was no announcement, and now they won’t answer my inquiries.
Illinois / Navy … wake me up when it happens
Tennessee State … the announcement that it was conducting one of those NHL viability studies was met great interest. I won’t hold my breath, but this would be a fun one, not to mention, a great way for college hockey to horn into the exciting Nashville market.
UNLV / Rutgers … These folks fall into the category of extremely eager club programs, that really want to be Division I. But that can be said for probably 200 club programs, these are just the two who make the most noise about it. We wish them well, but won’t count on it soon.
Utah Valley Univ. … This is a new one, where I’ve heard rumblings of it being one of those schools that could come out of nowhere and start something up. Why not? But again, barely above rumor.
There is no beginning or end to the shuffling. It’s a college sports constant. Which is why I’ve learned to just sit back and watch it unfold, and not get hyped up about any of it.
The Hobey Race
And what would a midseason look be without a check on the Hobey Baker Award race?
1. Ethen Frank, Western Michigan — He’s a fifth-year player, so I’m not sure if that hurts or helps his case. Maybe it won’t matter at all. But he leads the nation in goals, and is presence every game with his speed. And he scores big goals too.
2. Owen Power, Michigan — Living up to the hype. He already had hype coming into Michigan, and now has more being the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NHL Draft. He leads defensemen nationally in points with 23, and is a plus-13.
3. Devon Levi, Northeastern — Almost single-handedly keeping Northeastern in the national race. A lot of goalies are having standout seasons, but putting up a .955 save percentage while facing over 30 shots per game, is incredible.
4. Carter Savoie, Denver — The sophomore cooled off last season after a strong start to his college career. He’s showing no signs of cooling down this season.
5. Nathan Smith, Minnesota State — Tied for the national lead in scoring.
* Yale has been a weird story, with so few players on its roster, but it’s also been heartwarming in a way, watching the progress it’s making after a year off. It was a year that was too “painful” to watch for head coach Keith Allain, not long removed from being a regular NCAA Tournament participant. His son, Niklas, has been the team’s best player so far with 4-3—7 in 10 games. I’ve also enjoyed listening to a handful of interviews over the past few months with Allain where he’s opened up and been more approachable; sharing his thoughts and being introspective. He’s always been bristly, shall we say, with the media, but he has a lot to offer and it’s been great hearing it.
* Just another reminder that, when you see a team’s record at like 9-4-1, that there could be OT wins and losses in there that should really be a separate thing. Don’t get fooled, either way.
* The 55/45 weighting for OT results will continue to get tweaked over the years.
* The whole concept of 3-on-3 will continue to get tweaked. A lot of people are more turned off to it now after seeing it in “action.” I put action in quotes, because the biggest problem is, there isn’t even the action that was hoped for in doing it, nevermind just the gimmick nature of it in the first place.
* The ECAC still has a policy of not announcing player suspensions. That is still a dumb policy.
* This has been such a crazy year with turnover in personnel all over college hockey, affecting a lot of things both public and behind the scenes. Meanwhile, CHN headquarters is in the process of moving to Denver. It’s been chaotic over here. If you see anything that needs our attention, please feel free to point it, but be a little gentle. Heh.
* RIT and Union may be able to award scholarships soon, pending an NCAA vote in January. Keep an eye on that.
* Teams like Maine, Colorado College and St. Thomas are still struggling with new coaches, but in all cases, these were the right decisions. They will be fine in time. There are other coaches squarely on the hot seat — but we’ll talk about that another time.
Here’s to a great 2022. Let’s hope the pandemic doesn’t put a damper on another year. Just take precautions, don’t downplay what needs to be done, and don’t panic either. We can get through it. Cheers.