College Hockey Roundup: Where Have The Elites Gone?

Looking up and down the latest national college hockey polls over the last few weeks, a few questions have been raised. Outside of the No. 1 spot, which has been locked down by Minnesota Duluth for the last six weeks, there’s been an abundance of movement among the top five teams in the country.

This could be an indication of parity in college hockey. More teams have found ways to compete with the perceived big boys in the college game. The talent pool has deepened, and has also spread out among the schools.

However, it may more accurately indicate the lack of truly elite teams in college hockey this year. Parity is often a result of the traditionally less-competitive teams getting better, for sure. However, it can also be a result of the nation’s traditionally more-competitive teams backsliding a bit.

College hockey is often a battle of attrition. The better programs get the better players and therefore those players are most often the ones that leave school early for professional contracts. These schools also are more susceptible to losing recruits to Major Junior, as the battle for elite players has never been hotter.

What makes this all interesting this year is that outside of Minnesota Duluth, which got off to a slow start this season itself, there hasn’t been a consistently dominant team.

There are several questions to be asked, but the most important one to me is: Does college hockey need dominant teams or programs, or is parity better for the future of the game?

One important thing to point out before we get to some of the potential answers for this question is that, while it appears there’s a lack of elite teams, there’s no shortage of elite players in college hockey right now.

Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz might be one of the best players not in the NHL right now. First rounders like Boston College’s Chris Kreider, Colorado College’s Jaden Schwartz and Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad are still doing big things.

Though the litany of NHL prospect dotting college rosters has not created as much separation as you’d think it should. In fact, Minnesota Duluth has very few, if any, top-end NHL prospects on its roster, yet is the No. 1 team in the country and recently saw its 17-game unbeaten streak come to an end.

Taking stock of college hockey currently, here’s a look at some of the teams, outside of UMD that might be considered for “elite” status:

Boston College is the only school that has appeared in the top five of the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Men’s College Hockey poll in each of the 16 weeks the poll has come out. Boasting the likes of the aforementioned Kreider, Carolina prospect Brian Dumoulin, Chicago first-rounder Kevin Hayes and a host of others, BC probably should be having a much better season. However, bouts with inconsistency has held the Eagles back after spending four weeks as the No. 1 team in the country. With eight losses on the year already, it’s hard to call this an elite team right now.

Boston University currently sits at No. 3 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and No. 2 in the USCHO poll, yet has lost its leading scorer to legal troubles and it’s best NHL prospect to Major Junior. It is hard to believe the Terriers will sustain this ranking.

Minnesota belongs in the discussion with 100 goals scored this season, and a two-week run at No. 1 in the country. However, they’ve fallen back to earth a bit, and their eight losses this season are an indication of a team that’s not quite to the elite level. That’s especially true when you consider only one of those eight losses came against a team currently in the top 15 in the country.

Notre Dame likely deserves consideration as well. The Irish have hung around the top five for much of the season, but like Minnesota, has struggled with inconsistency and losing games they probably shouldn’t be losing.

That’s just a small snapshot, but probably a good indication of the deficiency of teams that could be considered elite this season.

Now you might be wondering what constitutes an elite team. You only have to look back to last season to see what elite teams should look like.

North Dakota put together a 32-9-3 record in 2010-11, and looked elite from the second the puck dropped last season and rode a 15-game unbeaten streak into the Frozen Four. It was an exciting team to watch. After losing several quality seniors, a few early departures, a top recruit backing out on his commitment and injuries all year long, North Dakota has limped to a 12-9-2 record so far this year.

Miami went 23-10-6 before an unceremonious end to its season in the regional. Boasting the Hobey Baker Award winner (Andy Miele), one of the strongest offensive teams in the country, and a dynamic goaltending tandem, Miami often rolled inferior opponents. With the same goalies this year, Miami has been struggling after losing so much offensive output from last year’s club to graduation. The RedHawks sit at 12-10-2 this year.

The best of the bunch from last season may have been Boston College, which finished the year with a 30-8-1 record. Cam Atkinson turned in a Hobey-caliber season with 52 points, while senior Brian Gibbons contributed 51. Jimmy Hayes posted 21 goals and John Muse was solid all year between the pipes, right up until Colorado College stunned BC in the regional. Atkinson and Hayes turned pro early, and losing the seniors Muse and Gibbons has hurt, but BC is still one of the better teams in the country. That said, this year’s Eagles have already lost as many games as last year’s squad in 23 fewer games.

None of these teams won the national title last year. That went to UMD, who was probably on the cusp of elite status all of last season, but had to scratch and claw their way to the title. Still, each of the aforementioned teams had elite qualities like national scoring leaders, Hobey Baker candidates, NHL prospects, and they won the vast majority of the games they were supposed to win (until they got to the tournament).

The reason I bring up these clubs from last season is that these were three of the most compelling teams in college hockey for basically the entirety for the college hockey season. This year, the most compelling storyline was UMD’s 17-game unbeaten streak, and really not much else. There’s no big draw, which is not going to garner headlines or increase TV time in an effort to get college hockey more into the mainstream.

The argument has been made for parity many times before, how it helps make the game better. In some cases that is true. However, for college hockey, it might not be a bad thing to have a handful of dominant teams and everybody else kind of falling in line.

It’s not as good for the local fan bases, or the individual schools when it comes to ticket sales and generating positive publicity on campus, but college hockey is becoming a national game now. With more television coverage this year than any year prior, college hockey has a chance to seize more of the spotlight, and there really hasn’t been much worth talking about on a national level.

Everyone is beating everyone, but a big reason for that is the good teams have regressed, while the less-competitive teams have marginally improved, which apparently has been enough.

That’s where there’s some concern. The entertainment of the games doesn’t suffer in parity, but watch any nationally televised contest this year and there’s a noticeable gap in talent between the top teams this year and the top teams last year.

North Dakota, Miami, Boston College and Michigan were all must-watch teams last year. UMD has become that a bit this year, and at various parts of the season so was Minnesota and Boston College, but right now, there aren’t a lot of teams in college hockey that have become must-see draws.

Why is that? Well, attrition for one. Many of the top schools lost players to the professional ranks early. Others just so happened to have brilliant senior classes that graduated. However, as we’ve seen the American talent pool deepen and the quality and readiness of players heading to college hockey improving, shouldn’t we be seeing a much better product on the ice? At the very least, shouldn’t the gap in talent between last year’s teams and this year’s clubs look significantly smaller than it does right now?

College hockey is always going to lose players early to the pros, there will always be kids who decommit to go to Major Junior and there’s always going to be graduation. These are the issues that face all of the top-end programs in college hockey. This year might just be an anomaly, and we may just be in a bit of a temporary down cycle.

However, as college hockey heads into the uncertainty of realignment, it is important for the college game to be as strong as possible. Based on what is being shown so far this season, as far as on-ice product, all indications point to this being a bit of a down year for college hockey.

Despite the fact that this may be a “down year,” the reasons to watch college hockey mostly remain the same, even if the quality of play might not be as high as years past. There are still intense rivalries, passionate fan bases, and quality games. It will always be entertaining, but maybe not compelling on a national level.

Outdoor Fun

Katie Baker wrote a great post about Ohio State’s surprising season in the lead up to the Frozen Diamond Classic for Grantland. Michigan defeated Ohio State 4-1 in front of a crowd of 25,864 at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians.

In a game featuring two Big Ten teams, the Big Ten Network apparently opted for non-conference basketball instead. The game aired on tape delay on BTN, but was live on Fox Sports Michigan, Fox Sports Ohio and Fox College Sports. Still, kind of interesting that the BTN wouldn’t want to air a rivalry game that doubles as a novelty act. Perhaps the outdoor allure has worn off. Maybe there shouldn’t be as many outdoor games. Oh… wait…

Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be more outdoor hockey games, Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal, broke news that there may be a college hockey double header in the works for 2012-13 at Soldier Field in Chicago. The doubleheader would likely feature Notre Dame against Miami and Wisconsin against Minnesota. Of all the college hockey games that have been played so far outdoors, these two match-ups would be among the most intriguing, especially in the budding hockey prospect breeding ground that is the Chicago area. It’s not a bad way to invade the Chicago media market. (via Bucky’s 5th Quarter)

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Black and Blue, a blog about the Lincoln Stars, revealed that there’s another potential outdoor game in the works for Omaha, Neb., and it would be another doubleheader. This time it would feature USHL rivals Lincoln Stats and Omaha Lancers, with a nightcap of Nebraska-Omaha against North Dakota. The game would be played at TD Ameritrade Park, which will be the new home of the College World Series. (via Western College Hockey Blog)

I’m beginning to have less of a problem with the outdoor games because, to be honest, they don’t affect me at all. They are what they are. If people keep showing up to them, then keep having them. Just don’t expect a wide audience to care, because they won’t. These outdoor games can continue to have impact on a local level, but the national allure is going to wear off, if it hasn’t already (SEE: Big Ten Network).

These games are no longer special, nor are they unique, and therefore less intriguing. They’ll still be fun for the participants and the fans in attendance, and if that’s the extent of it, then I suppose it’s OK.

One quick note about these outdoor games… how there hasn’t been one in the state of Minnesota is beyond me. I’m not even talking Winter Classic. Could you imagine Minnesota-North Dakota or Minnesota-Wisconsin at the Gophers football stadium? Make a big event out of it. Get a bunch of the high schools out there, get the DIII colleges involved. A perfect event for Hockey Day in Minnesota. However, now that everyone’s doing it, is it really that big of a deal? Probably not.

College Hockey Hodgepodge 

National Scoring Leaders via USCHO.com — Minnesota Duluth’s Jack Connolly’s 36 points lead the country, while Maine’s Spencer Abbott has been on fire of late, averaging a national-best 1.67 points-per-game. Both will receive strong Hobey consideration, but as of right now, there might be a better choice.

Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz has 32 points, tied for sixth in the country, but… you see… he’s a defenseman.  He’s also a defenseman on a struggling team. To have this kind of output from the blue line is rather remarkable. Perhaps where his team will finish the season will negatively impact his Hobey candidacy, but in my opinion, Justin Schultz is the best player  (and probably the best NHL prospect) in college hockey right now.

College Hockey Standings via collegehockeystats.net

College hockey is now in its third week on NBC Sports Network. This Friday’s game will feature CCHA rivals Michigan and Notre Dame. As far as “name” schools go, this could be the best chance to draw an audience for NBC Sports Network.

The presentation and production quality has been really good so far, so if you haven’t caught any college games yet on NBCSN, be sure to check out Friday night’s tilt.

Coming next week, I’ll reveal my mid-season picks for the United States of Hockey College Hockey All-America Team.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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5 Responses to College Hockey Roundup: Where Have The Elites Gone?

  1. Austins Army says:

    Left the leading goal scorer in the country out of the article. Oh by the way 5 shorties.

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks, Chris. There were rumors of plans to play the Minnesota-Notre Dame HOF game at the Gophers’ new football stadium, but those somehow fell through and went off the radar. I agree that it would be an ideal spot for an outdoor game at some point.

  3. Hee hee. It’s really cute how the Colgate fans think their little player has accomplished something. I’d love to see what Connolly/Schultz/Bjugstad/etc could do against an EZAC-caliber schedule.

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