Between the Lines: Wrapping Up 2018-19

May 13, 2019 PRINT Bookmark and Share

The Controversies, What Needs to Change, and What Doesn’t

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor (@CHN_AdamWodon)

After a month, it’s time to put a bow on the season that just ended. At CHN, we’ve already begun our annual process of turning over the site to show next year’s data, with new schedules being entered and so on.

But first, some points of interest looking back.

Despite another season of amazing parity, and new teams making the NCAA Tournament, and so on, we actually had a back-to-back champion for the first time in 14 years. We wrote a lot about Minnesota-Duluth in the aftermath of the championship, so not much more needs to be said, but the most interesting thing is how this Division II institution has been able to maintain this level of excellence. And there’s no reason to believe UMD won’t be right back in the mix again next season.

This biggest news going forward will continue to be recruiting, and the impact of the new rules that prevents contacts and verbal commits before a certain age. People who don’t know their history always think things were better “back in the day,” and in college hockey there was always recruiting battles, and accusations, and coaches that hated the way someone else operated. It’s no different today. But everyone you talk to thinks things are more cutthroat than ever right now, and it’s hard to see that changing any time soon.

Everyone has their own explanations, most of which come back to the pressures of money. I’ve had some coaches tell me that the “new breed” of assistant coaches, young and aggressive, is really driving the train. They are cutthroat with each other, but also don’t care as much. They’ll stab someone in the back, and buy him a beer later.

After Cornell lost to Clarkson in the ECAC final, Cornell coach Mike Schafer made an oblique reference to his concerns by way of praising Clarkson coach Casey Jones (both are Cornell alums) and his assistant and former Schafer protege Brent Brekke, who was previously fired after a long run as Miami’s assistant.

“They’ve done a tremendous job, they turned things around, and (Jones) leads with class,” Schafer said. “They recruit the right way. A lot of college hockey coaches right now don’t possess those kind of skills.”

Read into that what you will.

Really, I don’t know all the dynamics at play. But I will be keeping my eye on the new recruiting rules, to see what the impact is. I’m skeptical that a lot will change for the better, but there is sure to be some difference.

It. Has. To. Stop.

The worst part of this season, by far, was the evolution in the use of video review to call 5-minute major penalties for head hits (and the game misconduct that goes with it).

Many years ago, probably 10 years or more, I wrote articles advocating strongly for the use of video review to verify a 5-minute major/game misconduct. I believed then — and still do — that kicking a player out of a tournament game was too important a call to not at least review the play.

The problem is, review is now being used in reverse — to take a play where no penalty was called, review it after the fact, and find a penalty after watching it again.

This madness has to stop. It’s a terrible misuse of video.

Too often, you’d see a play, sometimes occurring long before a whistle, get reviewed for 5 or 10 minutes to see if there was head contact. That’s bad enough. But moreso, everything looks more dramatic in slo-motion. If it takes you that long to determine whether someone’s elbow glanced off a player’s head during a check, then clearly it’s not worth a major and ejection.

Only use review to rescind a major/game-misconduct that was unfairly called.

Speaking of officiating, the ECAC decided not to renew the contract of its Director, Paul Stewart, after a decade. Interesting timing after the former NHL referee was recently inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. According to what I’ve heard, the league’s decision was not based on any on-ice matters. However, when you talk to coaches, there was plenty they were unhappy about — including the use of many of those video reviews, a situation that seemed really terrible in this year’s ECAC tournament.

Then there was the calling of games during the regular season. Over the past few years, ECAC coaches believe that fewer penalties were called in their game than in the other leagues. This prevents skill from winning out. Coaches complain about a lot of things, so you always take it with a grain of salt, but the stats bear out this argument. The ECAC’s average power-play opportunities per team per game was by far lowest compared to the other five conferences. The ECAC had 3.2, with the Big Ten next lowest at 3.6, and the WCHA with the most at 4.3.

Unfounded Concerns

I heard some coaches express disgruntlement over Arizona State and Minnesota State being as highly rated in the Pairwise as they were. Minnesota State plays a relatively weaker schedule, and wound up a No. 1 seed again, only to lose again — now 0-6 in the NCAAs as a program. Arizona State, playing just its third full season, took advantage of its schedule to make it for the first time.

By and large, I dismiss these concerns. Minnesota State is certainly not the first program I’ve had to hear these complaints about. Heard it for years with ECAC teams, like Cornell. It was unfair then too. And I already went over in detail why I thought Arizona State deserved its spot.

But this won’t stop the seeming annual perception that some schools are “gaming the Pairwise,” or the never-ending questions I get about how to best maximize the schedule.

There two different aspects to this. First off, you can’t always know in advance how strong or weak your schedule is going to be when you make it, so trying to “game it” from that standpoint, seems like a fool’s errand.

But more importantly, there is a very wrong perception out there that who you schedule matters. Interestingly, I hear it from both ends — some people think you get an unfair advantage out of playing too many weak teams, and other people think your conference gets hurt when its teams play too many weak opponents. 

Obviously, it can’t work both ways. And the answer is, it’s neither.

The Pairwise has its flaws at the margins — well, not so much flaws as places where different data points could be emphasized. And there’s certainly room for tweaking and debating what those things should be.

But overall, there is no one way to schedule things that will benefit you.

Crucial point: It’s a near-direct inverse correlation between Strength of Schedule and Expected Winning Percentage. If you play weaker teams, you have a better chance of winning, but also your strength of schedule component will be hurt. If you play stronger teams, there’s more leeway to lose because your SOS is higher. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

Note — emphasis on the word “Expected.” Expected means what you’d be expected to do before playing the games, given that SOS. But you may fall short of that expectation, or beat it, over the course of the year. If Minnesota State plays a weak schedule, but wins the games it’s supposed to, and then some, even if by a little, it will boost its Pairwise. If MSU plays a weak schedule and loses a few more games, it will plummet. 

It’s that simple. There’s no way to game it in advance. Win the games you play. That is all. Do that, and stop worrying about everyone else.

The CHN Manifesto

This was quite the year around here. In the last couple months of the season, we wound up publishing articles that were critical of a variety of college hockey people and entities. In most cases, they are people that I admire and have known for a long time — a list that included Steve Hagwell and the ECAC, Joe Bertagna and Hockey East, Boston College coach Jerry York, Miami’s situation, Quinnipiac star Chase Priskie, the NCAA’s ticket prices, and all of St. Lawrence University.

This is “the job” so to speak, but, believe it or not, not the fun part. It’s not something that ordinarily happens in college hockey. We try not to go out of the way to gin up controversies that don’t really exist. The bulk of my commentaries over the years are usually defending coaches and hockey administrators from the type of attacks you see among message boards, social media or other “publications.”

But this year, there just so happened to be a bunch of things at once. Seems more coincidence than anything, but they needed to be addressed nonetheless.

We try to remember that we’re not curing cancer over here, and not over-react at every perceived issue. People love to be outraged, but it’s so often unfair. By the same token, the coaches and administrators are making a lot of money thanks to sports, and the public’s interest is what generates the revenue. And, in fact, the more money involved, the more likely people will be tempted to “cut corners.” So there is a role for someone to hold these entities’ collective feet to the fire, when necessary.

We don’t indulge in phony outrage, but we’re not a public relations firm either. I won’t even say it’s a balance, because most of the time, there’s no reason for one extreme or the other. We’re not going to make up stuff for clickbait either way. As Publisher of CHN, I just like to see our role as being the most informative place for college hockey — whether that means having the best scores and data, or news, or history, or interesting profiles on players, or whatever. Sometimes, however, it means discussing tough truths. It hopefully won’t be often, but if it’s fair, it’s OK. 

Of course, it’s still just opinion, but there is a responsibility to be fair with those opinions. A lot of publications these days will hide behind that “opinion” crutch. Opinions shouldn’t be half baked, and they should be supported with journalistic facts. It’s doesn’t mean we’re always going to be right — we might screw up, or you might disagree with something. That’s fine. But this is the overall philosophy we work under.

Anyway, it was a strange couple of months. Let’s all hope for a cleaner 2019-20.

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Post Author: HockeyHawk