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College Hockey:
Commentary: When the No. 1 team really isn’t the No. 1 team

Michigan is No. 1 in the latest USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, but does that mean Michigan is the best team in the country or the best team last weekend? Did routing St. Lawrence in a building that might offer the best home-ice advantage in college hockey make the Wolverines the No. 1 team in the nation?

Polls are troubling because they can be a popularity contest and at other times can be very misleading. Take last season for example. Yale was No. 1 for a long time but there were quite a few NHL scouts who watch a ton of college hockey who felt that while Yale was attaining the best results on a consistent basis it was, at best, the eighth best team in the country.

This is not a column that will thrill my colleagues at USCHO but no matter what poll is being voted on it is time for some formula to end, A, popularity contests, B, bias toward your local team and, C, picking teams with the best record over picking teams with quality wins. We’ll attack this in a later column or an intermission Twitter segment on a CBS Sports Network broadcast. Ideas are welcome.

Michigan at No. 1 with home wins over Niagara (which gave the Wolverines quite a battle despite the score), a sweep of Bentley and a convincing win over St. Lawrence is misleading. Michigan football was 6-0 before last weekend, but was it No. 1 in the NCAA football poll? No, because the reality was it beat some subpar teams, a couple of decent ones at home and — depending on your level of objectivity (full disclosure: I’m a Notre Dame football fan) — they struggled to beat Notre Dame at home. Rank that where you want to.

Looking closely, strength of schedule determines LSU is the best college football team in the nation and deserves to be No. 1. The SEC is the best conference and LSU is dominating that, having beaten three ranked opponents, two on the road, in September.

To be a No. 1, you need big-time wins. Denver beating Boston College in Boston is a big win. BC beating North Dakota in Grand Forks is a big win. Notre Dame winning at national champion Minnesota-Duluth is a big win. Minnesota’s sweep at Duluth has to be a better ranked pair of wins than Michigan’s home sweep of Bentley. That is just common sense.

Northern Michigan won at Wisconsin and swept St. Cloud State. Michigan Tech swept Wisconsin.

Now, North Dakota lost to BC and BC became No. 1, so NoDak lost to a No. 1 team. Then NoDak beat a top-20 team, Maine, in Grand Forks. That should be a better win than Michigan’s over St. Lawrence or Bentley.

I’ll give you one better, actually two. Quinnipiac is 4-1 and won at Ohio State so it has a road win where Michigan doesn’t and their schedules are pretty comparable. Colgate won at Nebraska-Omaha and split with Miami. Boston University hasn’t had a shabby start; it beat the team that beat the No. 1 team. (You can insert any other wins you deem significant here; I was trying to avoid overkill.)

You can make a better case Denver should be No. 1 as opposed to Michigan. North Dakota could have that spot also.

The point is this: Polls are misleading. Whether it be football or hockey, those voting rarely if ever see every team in the top 20 that week or even that season.

Voting based on box scores isn’t my thing. Strength of schedule needs to be a factor at some point. Road wins probably should hold some credence over home wins. The Ivies haven’t played a game yet; how are Yale and Cornell in the top 10? Good rosters, good programs, great staffs but they haven’t played yet. You can’t be ranked without playing a game!

This entire rant is not to say Michigan isn’t a good team or hasn’t had a good start. The Wolverines lost a lot from last year and have come out strong. However, even Michigan will tell you it isn’t the No. 1 team in the nation; it just has the best record.

It is a flawed system.

Then again, do we care enough to fix it?

Top ten

Recently my colleagues put out top 10 lists of forwards, defensemen and goalies. Lists are great because they stir up debate, get people talking and generally annoy die hard fanatics whose favorite player gets snubbed.

I’d like to take a second to comment on the goalie list.

The fact that Shawn Hunwick of Michigan wasn’t No. 1, let alone in the top 10, is ridiculous.

I really like New Hampshire’s Matt DiGirolamo, but if I needed to win a big game Hunwick would get my vote. The reality is Hunwick has won several big games, actually won a regional final that he wound up losing on a bad video review, and lost a national title game in OT. You can make a case that Hunwick is as sound a goalie technically as there is at the Division I level. How he was ignored by coaches that were consulted for the story is beyond me.

Is he an NHL prospect like some of the others on that list? Probably not. Is he a better NCAA goalie right now then the 10 on that list? Absolutely.

More No. 1s

On the subject of goalies, Adam Murray of Denver and Parker Milner of Boston College will have good seasons. Both are cut in that blocker-style mold of the modern goalie but both have some creativity and fluidity to their game and seem to have a grasp on how to play the position with situational reactions as opposed to letting pucks hit them.

Milner is a treat to talk goaltending with. The kid really understands the position and how it works. Murray does as well. He’ll do well holding the fort while he has the No. 1 job.

Two for the road

If I was an NHL general manager looking to fill a spot on my coaching staff at the NHL or AHL level, North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol would be on my radar.

Michigan State’s Tom Anastos won his first NCAA game with an OT win over Air Force on Oct. 8. It was good to see Ron Mason on hand for the beginning of the Anastos era at MSU. Anastos won’t eclipse Mason’s 924 NCAA wins, but keep an eye on Jerry York, who is 41 away.


The following is a self-policing forum for discussing views on this story. Comments that are derogatory, make personal attacks, are abusive, or contain profanity or racism will be removed at our discretion. USCHO.com is not responsible for comments posted by users. Please report any inappropriate or offensive comments by clicking the “Flag” link next to that comment in order to alert the moderator.

Please also keep “woofing,” taunting, and otherwise unsportsmanlike behavior to a minimum. Your posts will more than likely be deleted, and worse yet, you reflect badly on yourself, your favorite team and your conference.

  • Jfh24

    So polls are more a beauty contest than true assessment of strength? Horrors, shocking, who would have known. Polls, at least in hockey, are only for discussion by the fans. If you wanted an easy way to make them more relevant, don’t start them till at least a third of the season has passed. Then most of the problems you stated would be gone. No soft first part of the schedule and no holdovers from the past season, (“They were good last year so they must be now.”) to worry about.

    That will never happen, so let’s just enjoy the discussion, knowing in college hockey, they don’t mean anything anyway.

    • Danmanfu

      Actually it is a bigger deal than you realize.  Yale should have never been ranked #1 last year.  Period.  They were never the top team in the country and every serious observer of college hockey knew this.  People eventually realized the error, but by then it was impossible to drop them to a more deserving ranking because their weak schedule allowed them to rack up more wins than other legitimate #1′s.  As a result, Yale received a #1 spot in their regional.  Guess which team was also in that regional: a team that was on no one’s radar at the time and ended up winning the national title.  Duluth had a great team and the best power play in the country, but the “polls” helped them more than people realize.  It made the path to the semis much easier for UMD and harder for teams in the other regionals.  

      • Layne

        Couldnt agree more!!!  Well said

        • Trey

          Couldn’t disagree more. Are you people really that stupid? The polls are for entertainment purposes only and have nothing to do with NCAA rankings — which are based on the sort of numbers Starman advocates.

          We’re all stupider having read these comments and this column.

          • Fan Man

            If look towards the end of the year and the way these polls (uscho) pick the brackets, you can see that they are damn close to the way the NCAA picks em’  

          • Trey

            Correlation does not imply causation.

      • Fandumu

        waaaah, loser Sioux fan worried about Yale again. 

      • Anonymous2343

        it was impossible to drop them to a more deserving ranking because their weak schedule allowed them to rack up more wins than other legitimate #1′s.  As a result, Yale received a #1 spot in their regional.

        Yale didn’t get a #1 seed in a regional because of the polls.  They got it because of the Pairwise.

  • sparta

    Wow, I can’t believe it.  Dave starman  hit it right on the head.  Its about time someone has brought these problems into the spotlight. The bottom line is that strength of schedule has not carried nearly enough weight.  I don’t care what  your record says it is, if you get wins against sub par teams  weekend after weekend , that’s exactly what you are; better than the worst.   The opposite is true as well, if your playing  top ranked teams every weekend and come up short, then your  less then the  best.  Winning percentage  without  sos is a garbage number. That’s how you beat the system. When  the time comes to seed teams for a tournament, it needs to be done accurately and fairly. We can also do away with automatic bids since the confrences  are not equal.  Your whole college hockey  season or career is not worth being thrown out the window because of someone elses “numbers”.  Dave is right, popularity is poor criteria for ranking college hockey teams, so is money and location.   I would be ashamed to be ranked 9th in the nation with a 0-0-0 record, seriously.  Where is the common sense in the ncaa? I really don’t care if teams are ranked throughout the season, but Starman has my vote for the pairwise selection committee.

    • Guest

      How can you determine SoS though until more games have been played? You’re still making assumptions based on performances from last year…Everyone knows early season polls mean nothing.

  • Guest

    Dear Lord, it’s the third week of the season.  Polls don’t mean anything.  This arguement could be said for any team in the top 10.  Congrats on wasting 30 minutes or so of your life writing that article.  And NoDak should be #1?  Splitting the ice breaker, and taking a win and a tie away from Maine makes you the number one team?  I’m sorry, but SOS can’t be a factor for the rankings the 3rd week into the season.  And for the record, football rankings are much more sound at the end of the season than hockey.  UMD was a good team last year, but no one pegged them to win it all.   Throw the polls out the window until 1/1/12 comes…

  • http://twitter.com/joshsko318 Joshua Skodack

    you lost me when you brought up LSU as one of the top teams. With that said, I agree with Dave’s overall point. At this point of the season with such minimum amount of data, it is near impossible to rank teams. I would be in favor of a preseason ranking then not touching that ranking until at least mid-November at the earliest until we get some more data points.

  • Anonymous

    Good God, are people still going on about a call from two-years ago?

  • Spanky

    The main flaw with this article is that he wants the rankings based on strengh of schedule. Thats great starting in December. But how can you even use strengh of schedule the first 2 months of the year? What are you basing this on? The only possible basis would be last year’s performance, which is obviosly not any more fair then the current system. Whose to say that ND and Gopher’s wins at UMD are all that impressive, since UMD could very well be a below 500 team this year. You can’t just assume those are quality wins based on last year’s UMD success.

  • SUEH8TER

    THE GOPHERS WILL SOON BE THE NUMBER ONE TEAM IN THE LAND!!!  YOU CAN MAKE BOOK ON IT!!!!

    • Guest

      You are in some kind of cool dreamland that the rest of the world would like to find some day. There is NO WAY that the goophers make it to #1. Sorry h8ter, but they don’t have the skill. Good wins against UMD but let’s face it UMD lost A TON of talent. Let’s see how they do against a team like DU or CC this year before we get carried away with minny having the ability needed to claim the top spot.

      • SUEH8TER

        No, i just think the gophers are going to be much better than everyone thinks.  I guess we will have to wait and see. 

        • BD

          Could happen.

    • rodenth8ter

      Sounds like you have a lot of faith in a poor coach and a 125 lb spoiled brat by the name of Rau, who will be lucky to go half the season with out a broken collarbone.

      • SUEH8TER

        I can only assume you are a sue fan??  Poor coach?  two national titles to NONE FOR HACKSTOOL!!!!  I rest my case on the coaching. And Rau is going to be a good one, you just can’t admit it.  Do you know him??  Why would say he is a spoiled brat??  Get your facts straight before you come here and rant.

        • FightingSioux4ever

          Thats the problem with Goofer fans.  They assume everything.  Newsflash: there are a lot of Goofer haters out there.  The Sioux just hate them the most.

          • Benzz11

            The goofers!! Haha how original. Looks like the UND fighting Canadians are going to lose another one tonight.

  • Guest

    I totally agree with everything stated here.  Especially the fact that teams that haven’t played a game yet are even considered.  Look at who YALE lost.  Jeff Anderson, F; Chris Cahill, F; Denny Kearney, F; Broc Little, F; Jimmy Martin, D; Brendan Mason, F; Mike Matczak, D; Ryan Rondeau, G
    That’s 8 very key players and contributors.  How can they be ranked that high?

  • Curmudgeon

    Doesn’t concentrating on ‘strength of schedule’ lead to a tautology (at least for the first several months of the season)???

    How can you determine ‘strength’ of schedule without somehow ranking the teams ON the schedule?

    • Fast Walk to Fresno

      Do you think 99.9 percent of the people reading this would have the slightest idea what a “tautology” is?

  • Fan Man

    So glad that somebody actually had the balls to come out and say it: the polls are flawed and have been for years…

  • Mlucas

    Polls are
    not flawed, they are irrelevant. They serve no purpose other than allow the TV
    Channels to pump up rating for broadcasts. Polls don’t count in the Pairwise
    ranking which supposedly drive the NCAA Tourny placements. But even that
    process has so many loop holes (like Host Schools get to stay home) that even
    the pairwise rankings are almost irrelevant.

    Actually the
    fact that I read this is irrelevant.

    Mike

  • Curmudgeon

    These are “opinion polls”, right?

    As long as they are recognized as “opinion” what’s the big deal?

    “A survey of …. found that xx% of the respondents said that they thought ….”

  • Anonymous

    The Alfond is the greatest home advantage not only in college hockey but in all of colelge sports.  Period..

  • Camilo

    So the big “Aha” here is that early season polls are misleading?  This is news, or worth a pundit’s time to write this article?  Really?

  • http://twitter.com/Milw_Mac_Guy Jeff Johnson

    Polls, after only a few games/weeks, mean nothing. 

  • Anedadatortola1

    this doesn’t surprise me, starman is an east coaster, gotta be BC for him.

  • d2

    Just watched NMU outwork the “Number 1 team” in the nation for 3 periods in a decisived 5-3 win.  Shouldn’t have been that close.  40 minutes of the game was in michigan’s end.  Nice article.

    • Anonymous

      Yea, was surprised how much Northern controlled the game. Much smaller team, but they played angles on puck so well and just out matched the Wolverines. Stormed every offensive attempt Wolverines had. They only scored on a few Wildcat mistakes, but NMU really put on a good show. Little luck involved.

      • Redkelly7390

        Don’t agree on the luck thing, but time will tell..

    • Anonymous

      Michigan was the number 1 goon team until Miami’s display Saturday night.

  • Bigguy9329

    Ferris never gets any respect in the polls either. Two years ago they got snubbed for a natioanls spot while a team (alaska) who didn’t even make it to the joe somehow jumped them and got a bid.  That said ferris is also 5-0 this year behind 2-2 miami, what a joke.

  • Mark A

    The polls are taken as fun at this time of year and you do have to take them with a grain of salt until a few games are played. Being an East Coast fan (BC),  I saw Michigan at #1 but didin’t know the first thing about this year’s version - but i know theyre usually very good each year (for many years).  So is this year’s team really #1, not sure – let’s play a few and see.  Agree with the above post – maybe the first weekly poll isn’t published until Nov 1st – that’s fair to all invovled.

    Of course being burnt by the host team home rule I would like to see that changed.  Why kill the regular season and then get shipped out of town (great reg season but sorry…) ?  The Yale #1 issue is interesting – one of the better ivy stories since Harvard won it all in 89′ but how good are they really against the top programs ?  Unkown because they dont have the deep historical track record of success.  When I see DU, UMD, Minn, BU, UND and now Miami (my current best team never to have won it) in the top 1-10, I expect that either pre-season or heading into the NCAA tourney.  They’re alwayys in the hunt until proven otherwise (playing the games).  There are some good up and coming programs (Union & Merrimack) but these are more akin to “Boise State” in football who get shut out of the BCS Champ game every year until they prove themselves worthy of a top national ranking.

    I like the fun of the early polls because they’re better than nothing.  Many times the top teams for pre and reg season get bumped off as the race narrows through to the frozen four so I actually prefer a few “quality” losses and a 3-7 ranking to fly under the tourney radar.  I think all conferences should schedule more quality non-conf games the first 2 weeks of the year (something we’re seeing more of) so we can get a better early season gauge on some of these teams like Yale.  I’d like to see Yale go West and play in the icebreaker tourney against MSU, UND etc and then play their ivy schedule.  Then we dont have to wait until the tourney to see how strong they really are.  Personally I think college hockey is the best sport going on any level.

  • Yooper

    What I don’t like about the polls is the bias towards larger schools.  If BC or
    Michigan, MSU etc. had a record of say 7-1 and then got swept by a team such
    as Ferris St. or LSSU, then they may drop three or four spots in the rankings. However, on the other hand if the likes of Ferris St., NMU, LSSU, etc were 7-1
    and likewise were swept on the road, by the likes of MSU etc.,then they would completely fall off the rankings map.  There’s no question in my mind that these rankings are biased.  I see it time and time again.

    • Mark A

      If Ferris State beats Miami again tonight then people will take heightened notice. Then I see they get Michigan for 2 games so if they win tonight and at least split with Michigan they will move the needle Northward.  Certainly there is some big program (bias if you want to call it that) but reality is the big programs usually win it all.  But it’s great to see an RIT go deep into the tourney or a Merrimack get close.  Same for Ferris State.  I dont see them a lot on TV but if they can play with the bigger programs, esp at tourney time then the amount of  up/down poll movement in October isn’t really as important.  At 3-0 maybe it’s Ferris’ year to make that run in April…. 

      • Yooper

        You’re right Mark A, the big programs do usually win it all.  But when you use the word “usual” , that’s where the bias comes from.  If it’s “usual” for
        Michigan to be in the top ten, then of course those who don’t do their homework will place them way up in the polls as if it’s automatic.  “Usual” shouldn’t
        count.  Since it isn’t always the usual teams that win it all (i.e. UMD) then we have to approach each year with an open mind.  We’ll never get the Big 10
        folks to think that way though.    I like your team – Ferris St. – always have.
        But watch out for Northern.  It will be a good matchup when they play.

        • Mark A

          Well Ferris St did it – they took 2 from Miami so now it’s Michigan next.  They should def get some respect in the rankings this week.  Will keep an eye on Northern as well…..

  • Routebook

    That it’s silly to attach credibility to an exhibition season poll should be self-evident.  Perhaps a practical improvement by those who publish them would be to give each team appropriate negative self-voting power to self-avoid ridiculous rankings. 

  • Fast Walk to Fresno

    Polls are always flawed to some extent, but hockey polls are more flawed than most for a number of reasons. First, hockey is a more random sport than football and basketball. If you look at a large sample of games in football, basketball, hockey, and baseball, the “better” team wins most often in basketball, followed by football. Hockey is much more of a wildcard. Only baseball is more random, which is why baseball is always a sucker’s bet in casinos, and serious gamblers always avoid it; basketball and football are the sports they bet on. So, predicting who will beat whom in hockey is more of a crapshoot than it is in football. Look at the UVM-Minnesota games this weekend. Sure, there were other factors (first game for UVM, fifth for UM), but how does one predict a 6-0/5-4 split in that series? It makes no sense. Those kinds of series happen all the time in hockey, but would almost never happen in football or basketball. It’s like soccer: it’s a low scoring game with 99 percent of the game being played in the tiny details, and where little bounces can change the entire outcome of the game. It’s too random a sport to predict with consistency. That’s why the NHL uses seven-game series to decide things. 

    But, there is still a point to be made about needless bias and other red herrings in the polls, even if they’re just for fun. Yes, Yale should NEVER have been number one (or probably even in the top ten) at any point in the last two years. Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, the polls were dominated by the WCHA and Hockey East, with a few CCHA teams thrown in when they were very strong. ECAC teams had a terrible time being represented at all, and almost never made the top half. In recent years, it seems that the poll voters are trying to have more “parity,” at least across the four “major” conferences. There always seem to be at least four ECAC teams in the top twenty, even though there usually should only be one or two at most time, and rarely should there ever be one in the top ten.

    So, voters really should take conference strength into account, especially in the first half of the season when individual strength of schedule hasn’t been determined with much definition. As I write this, Quinnipiac has cracked the polls after beating such powerhouses as Holy Cross, Robert Morris, and Bentley, and Canisius. Really? Union sits at #11 with two wins out of five, both against non-major teams.Yale has sat in the top ten all season (with a first place vote!) despite: not playing a game, having had a dismal showing in the NCAA’s the last two years, and losing the bulk of the key players off those NCAA teams. Are you kidding me? Who on earth really thinks Union, Yale, Colgate, Cornell, and Quinnipiac are “better” teams than, say, Wisconsin and Maine?

  • Fast Walk to Fresno

    Polls are always flawed to some extent, but hockey polls are more flawed than most for a number of reasons. First, hockey is a more random sport than football and basketball. If you look at a large sample of games in football, basketball, hockey, and baseball, the “better” team wins most often in basketball, followed by football. Hockey is much more of a wildcard. Only baseball is more random, which is why baseball is always a sucker’s bet in casinos, and serious gamblers always avoid it; basketball and football are the sports they bet on. So, predicting who will beat whom in hockey is more of a crapshoot than it is in football. Look at the UVM-Minnesota games this weekend. Sure, there were other factors (first game for UVM, fifth for UM), but how does one predict a 6-0/5-4 split in that series? It makes no sense. Those kinds of series happen all the time in hockey, but would almost never happen in football or basketball. It’s like soccer: it’s a low scoring game with 99 percent of the game being played in the tiny details, and where little bounces can change the entire outcome of the game. It’s too random a sport to predict with consistency. That’s why the NHL uses seven-game series to decide things. 

    But, there is still a point to be made about needless bias and other red herrings in the polls, even if they’re just for fun. Yes, Yale should NEVER have been number one (or probably even in the top ten) at any point in the last two years. Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, the polls were dominated by the WCHA and Hockey East, with a few CCHA teams thrown in when they were very strong. ECAC teams had a terrible time being represented at all, and almost never made the top half. In recent years, it seems that the poll voters are trying to have more “parity,” at least across the four “major” conferences. There always seem to be at least four ECAC teams in the top twenty, even though there usually should only be one or two at most times, and rarely should there ever be one in the top ten.

    So, voters really should take conference strength into account, especially in the first half of the season when individual strength of schedule hasn’t been determined with much definition. As I write this, Quinnipiac has cracked the polls after beating such powerhouses as Holy Cross, Robert Morris, and Bentley, and Canisius. Really? Union sits at #11 with two wins out of five, both against non-major teams.Yale has sat in the top ten all season (with a first place vote!) despite: not playing a game, having had a dismal showing in the NCAA’s the last two years, and losing the bulk of the key players off those NCAA teams. Are you kidding me? Who on earth really thinks Union, Yale, Colgate, Cornell, and Quinnipiac are “better” teams than, say, Wisconsin and Maine?

  • blue-line-blues

    I think the voters should be subject to review. Who really thinks Yale deserves to be voted #1 in the country, They lost to Waterloo a team that was beat by Brown 2-0.

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