Todd: Well, Jim, we’re wrapping up the first half of the season this week at USCHO, and we’re heading into the holidays the same way we headed into last offseason — with Minnesota-Duluth at No. 1. It has hardly been a straight line from Point A to Point B there, though. What do you think the top story of the first half of the 2011-12 season is?
Jim: I think when I look back on the first half of this season, there is no doubt that the top story has been the immediate success of some first-year coaches. Mel Pearson, Norm Bazin, Nate Leaman, Rick Bennett, Jim Madigan. The list goes on and on. All of these coaches have turned some heads in the first half of the season.
I think another story is one you already began to mention, and that’s Minnesota-Duluth’s ability to climb to the top spot in the nation as it defends its national title. We all know how difficult it is to repeat. So what stories stand out for you?
Todd: The thing that has stood out to me is the number of teams we’ve seen take their turns at the No. 1 spot in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, and the struggles some have faced after reaching that milestone. Since starting off 9-0-1 and reaching the top spot, Merrimack limped into the break with a 1-3-1 record in its last five. Michigan was No. 1 in October but later found itself out of the poll completely.
We’ve also seen Notre Dame, Boston College and Minnesota in the top spot so far this season, which tells me that if you’re looking for a favorite to win the national title in Tampa come April, you’ve got a pretty sizable list to choose from.
Jim: That is very true, though I do feel that once we get past the new year, teams will begin to define themselves as national champion contenders. I think some of the early season success of teams like Merrimack, Lake Superior, Massachusetts-Lowell and Northern Michigan will be tested in the second half of the season. Of that quartet, only Merrimack has any true NCAA experience to draw from and, as you mentioned, the Warriors seem to be feeling the oats of what was a pretty easy early season schedule.
With that said, if all four of those teams were to drop out of the top 15 of the PairWise in the second half, what are the teams you would expect to move in? I can tell you the team that tops my list, having seen them play on Saturday: Union.
Todd: That was a pretty strong statement by the Dutchmen, going to Merrimack and spoiling the Warriors’ first-half finale. But, to me, Union has been tough to get a grip on this season. It will have a weekend where it scores one goal in two games, but it’ll go into Yost Arena and put up six goals on Michigan. The Dutchmen open the second half at Denver and at Colorado College, which could be huge games when it comes to the PairWise Rankings at the end of the season.
Jim: I think that you hit on Union’s weakness: offense. This is a team that plays incredible defense and I like its team speed. But scoring goals was the Dutchmen’s downfall in the NCAA tournament last season and that seems to still, at times, be an issue.
So we’ve talked about first-half story lines. What do you see as some of the biggest story lines in the second half?
Todd: I think one, unfortunately, will be how many teams will be negatively impacted by players leaving school. Boston University has already dismissed Corey Trivino and seen Charlie Coyle leave for major juniors. Nebraska-Omaha dismissed Alex Hudson, who started the season as a team captain but had two violations of team rules in the first semester.
A lot of rumors will float around between now and when we get started again after Christmas — some will have legs, some won’t — but losing key players could change the course for some contending teams.
Jim: This, I agree, is very unfortunate. It also, I think, opens the door for major juniors to jump on these kids and maybe even paint college hockey in a negative light. In a time where major juniors has been hyper-aggressive in recruiting kids away from college — even after they’ve played a season or two — in-season departures is the last thing college hockey needs.
Before we close here, what are some of the holiday tournaments that catch your eye?
Todd: The Great Lakes Invitational is shaping up to be a solid tournament, with No. 3 Boston College joining No. 14 Michigan State, No. 20 Michigan and Michigan Tech. I’ll also be interested to see if Northeastern gets a shot at Minnesota at the Mariucci Classic. The Huskies have already taken down Michigan and Notre Dame (twice) in their six-game winning streak. What do you see?
Jim: I am interested to see if Northeastern can keep up their winning ways at the Mariucci Classic. If it faces Minnesota in the final, that will be a great clash. And as you said, the GLI field is probably the single most attractive. Now, if I had the choice to travel to one, of course, I’d choose the Florida College Classic, if not for the field but for the warm temperatures.
And with that, we’ll close for the week and the year. On behalf of Todd, here’s wishing you and your family a very Happy Holidays!