Between the Lines: NCAA Tournament Edition
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The Frozen Four is upon us, and my North Dakota prediction is still looking good. Unfortunately, my other three Frozen Four picks are all out, which is why I loathe predictions; they can only make people mad at you.
But there's still plenty of time this week to dissect the Frozen Four, and clear ourselves room for some beer brats. Right now, we'll back track and wrap up a bunch of other issues.
Wrapping up the Regionals
* I thought it was unfortunate that BU and BC had to meet again. Jack Parker didn't complain, to his credit, but is it fair that BU had to beat its archrival a fifth time in a row to make the FF? And whether it's fair or not, is this what we want in the NCAA Tournament? This issue was spotlighted from the very first moment the first 16-team tournament bracket was revealed in 2003. At that time, BU and BC were also in the same regional, and we wondered why. In the past, the committee always tried to avoid second-round intra-conference matchups, just as it does in the first round. But then, it didn't. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that the committee basically followed a strict Pairwise 1-16, 2-15, 3-14, etc... placement, something it has stuck to religiously ever since. But is that desireable? Especially when teams just met in the Hockey East final?
* Miami and Nebraska-Omaha were smoked pretty good. It's always nice to see new blood, so it would've been fun if one of those teams got their first-ever NCAA win. But they'll get another chance.
* After five years of trying, Harvard still can't get past the first round. With the way Harvard played against top teams this year — i.e. much better than previous years — it looked like this could finally be the season. But it turns out, this was its worst effort of the five.
* Tim Whitehead (Maine) and Rick Comley (Michigan State) squared off in a matchup of coaches who have been unfairly maligned. It was hard not to root for both of them, and it was bittersweet seeing Comley's emotion after his team's loss, knowing he felt pride in what he'd accomplished, but also some pain for not making the FF.
The Hobey Hat Trick was announced, and Ryan Potulny wasn't in it. OK. I'm still taking him as my player of the year.
When looking across college hockey this season, I see two dominant players: Matt Carle of Denver and Ryan Potulny of Minnesota. Carle dropped down in the list, for me, simply because Denver didn't make the NCAAs. Now, seeing the field, that includes him, Brian Elliott of Wisconsin and Chris Collins of Boston College, I'm taking Carle.
Of course, the winner has already been selected, and these are simply the three highest vote getters.
In a comment sure to rile Badgers fans, I simply don't see Elliott as "dominant." But it's no offense to Elliott, who is a superb goaltender, or to Wisconsin. When looking at Elliott, I simply don't see a goalie that dominate games. Certainly not like Ryan Miller did when winning the Hobey for Michigan State. Of course, he doesn't have to — fair enough. But when thinking about the best player in the country this season, I think of Carle and Potulny.
This leads to the age-old argument about best player vs. most valuable. And since Elliott's team got farther in the NCAAs, I guess that works in his favor. Best Carle and Potulny were both valuable to their teams, and it's not ever the fault of one player that a team falls short of the Frozen Four. And if you want to throw in intangibles, Carle did have that All-Academic thing in his pocket.
Of course, I readily admit that the Badgers went into a tailspin when Elliott went down. That right there might show how valuable he is. Again, fair enough. It's not like it will be a travesty if he wins. But his play lately, that has been much improved after stumbling at first when he returned from his injury, has not come against the greatest offensive teams. His three-game shutout streak is impressive, but the last eight periods came against Bemidji State and offensively-challenged Cornell.
Again, please remember we're splitting hairs here. But the most dominant player in college hockey this year was Ryan Potulny.
Holy Cross' win over Minnesota made a lot of people cheer and a lot of people chuckle. It's only natural that people root for the underdog. And it's only natural that general fans like to see big boys get knocked off their perch. Minnesota is kind of like the New York Yankees — people take glee in their losing.
But forget all of that. Holy Cross' win was simply a great thing for college hockey. Even Don Lucia agrees (see below).
First of all, we can finally shut up the 15 percent remaining knuckleheads who still cry that Atlantic Hockey and College Hockey America don't deserve automatic bids. Fact is, even if their representatives lost 15-1 every year, they'd still deserve automatic bids; that's just the way the NCAA works, and should work. But at least now we probably don't have to hear those people howl about it.
Second, this gives Atlantic Hockey a shot in the arm. It shows people on the campuses of those schools that perhaps hockey is a sport they can take seriously.
Finally, just like it did for George Mason and the Colonial Athletic Conference in basketball, Holy Cross' win creates the reality that Atlantic Hockey teams can win NCAA tournament games, which means coaches may be more apt to stay at those schools and build there, than to wander "up the ladder" so to speak. Just look at Hofstra, where coach Tom Pecora was being wooed by Seton Hall, a Big East team, but instead signed a new five-year deal at Hofstra. Would that have happened if fellow conference opponent George Mason had not done what it did?
Similarly, Paul Pearl and Rick Gotkin (Mercyhurst) may be wooed for the two ECAC openings, but it's just as likely they will stay and continue building where they are.
With that in mind, the other question is, what in heck happened to Minnesota? After going 20-1-1 dating back to Dec. 3, the Gophers looked unstoppable. But an 8-7 loss in the WCHA Final Five to St. Cloud State exposed some concerns in the areas of goaltending and defense. Those concerns have been there all along, but it looked like goalie Kellen Briggs and the defense had pretty much figured out how to do enough to help the Gophers to a championship.
Some ugly habits re-emerged, however. Then Minnesota lost to Wisconsin, 4-0, in the WCHA consolation game. Many brushed that off to the Gophers being less than enthused to play in the game.
But what's the deal after losing 4-3 to Holy Cross? Sure, give the Crusaders credit, but c'mon.
"It's disappointment more than anything else," said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. "In many ways it was good for college hockey. ... Holy Cross is a better team than people give them credit for.
"(But) the defense and goaltending was not where it needed to be."
Lucia often is blessed with teams that have a lot of talent, but have to learn to work hard and play as a team. As a result, Lucia is often faced with having to break his teams down, let it hang out to dry a little bit early in the season, and show them what it means to actually win at this level. By the end of the season, the Gophers are a force, and it seemed to be happening again.
But then it went south fast.
One thing both Lucia and outgoing forward Ryan Potulny dismissed as possibilities, was the notion that there was a chemistry issue among the forwards.
It seems, upon more digging, that the reason for Butch Bellemore's departure as ECAC Supervisor of Officials — a situation which created a lot of squawking in the blab-o-sphere — had to do with Bellemore's frustration over the clout coaches wield in the conference.
There was no shouting match between him and Cornell coach Mike Schafer in the tunnel during the ECAC championship game, as was rumored, but Schafer was hot, and it may have been the straw that broke the camel's back for Bellemore in concluding that he didn't like the setup.
Fact is, coaches and ADs wield influence over any conference. The concept of a commissioner is great, but as we see in pro sports, they can only do what the owners want them to do. Commissioners need to have the respect to stand up to their constituents when necessary, and apply discipline, and ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell has done that when need be. But Bellemore apparently got frustrated by the influence that coaches and ADs have over operations, such as choosing officials, for example.
* * *
Elsewhere in the ECAC, word has it that the construction of Quinnipiac's dual-purpose athletic center is ahead of schedule, and the Bobcats could be ready to play in the building at the start of the 2006-07 season, instead of January 2007, which is the current public timetable.
Meanwhile, Cornell's famed Lynah Rink is undergoing expansion, something that started literally the day after Cornell won its ECAC playoff series with Clarkson. The ambitious project, which mainly focuses on improving the locker room and weight facilities, is expected to be done in time for the start of next season.
Four prominent juniors and two sophomores have already left college hockey, and it's probably not the last of it. They include Hobey finalists Ryan Potulny and Matt Carle, plus gifted Minnesota State forward David Backes, and last year's Hobey Hat Trick finalist David McKee. The sophomores are Bill Thomas of Nebraska-Omaha and Alex Foster of Bowling Green.
It's been widely speculated that a flood of juniors would leave this season, just as they did at the end of last summer right after the new collective bargaining agreement was signed, following the NHL lockout. But why is that, exactly?
One reason is the pressure being exerted by NHL teams to sign after the junior season, because of the risk of losing the rights to that player following their senior year. It used to be that teams had one year after graduation, or the expected graduation date, to sign a player or lose his rights. Now they only have until August 1 following the senior year, or else that player becomes a free agent. The teams that drafted those guys don't always want to risk that.
However, there is another major force being exerted upon the players; a significant financial incentive.
The NHL is currently operating under a "transitionary" collective bargaining agreement. And while rookie salary caps and signing bonuses are lower than they used to be, they are still higher right now than they will be when the final CBA kicks in next summer.
Right now, players can get over $900,000/year to sign, plus up to a 30 percent signing bonus. Once the new CBA kicks in next year, players will only be able to get about $850,000/year, and a 10 percent signing bonus.
Thus the exodus.