I called up one of my most dependable interviews, Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert, to get his thoughts on ECAC Hockey vis a vis its non-conference challenges. Well-spoken, affable and cerebral, Appert has proven himself time and again to be a great source when discussing the more nuanced aspects of the game.
A goaltender at Ferris State from 1992-96, Appert then served as an assistant coach at the University of Denver for nine seasons before accepting his first head-coaching position at RPI.
Brian Sullivan: ECAC Hockey teams seem to be struggling on the national stage, when it comes to wins and losses in non-conference games. Thoughts?
Seth Appert: Frankly, the number of non-conference games that we have plays into that as well. We play more non-conference games, so just by its nature we tend to lose some of those games. The non-Ivies, specifically.
BS: If you look at it, you’re playing 22 conference games, whereas the other leagues are playing 27, or mostly 28. So mathematically, one way of looking at it is that one of your league games is worth 25 percent more than any other league’s.
BS: So it makes sense that, through nobody’s fault, ECAC coaches are going to prioritize league games because they’re that much more important.
SA: Well, I don’t know if I’d say that. I think that they are important for everybody. They carry more value for us because you don’t have as much time to make up ground, I guess; you don’t have the potential of a two-game weekend against the same team to make up ground, either. But at the same time, I don’t think that teams in other leagues are saying that their league games aren’t as important, and, ‘We’re going to save something for our non-conference series next weekend.’ I don’t think that’s the case.
BS: Well not exactly that, but if you’re in another league, then you’ll have fewer non-league games, so therefore each one might feel a little more important.
SA: Well there’s that. I do agree with that. All league games are important; I don’t know if I’d say that our league games are any more important. They carry more significance because there are fewer games, but I don’t think they’re more important. I think everybody treats league games with a high degree of importance, but certainly there are pluses and minuses to the non-conference (situation). The plus is how many non-conference games we get, but the minus is, as you said, there are so many of them – everybody else has six of them, you can get a little more focus on those six – when we have 12-14 of them, it’s a bit more difficult I guess. But at the same time, when you have those 12 or 14 non-conference games you can use them to play a lot of premier teams from other conferences as well.
BS: Well that’s another problem. Generally speaking, there are some big-time matchups between ECAC teams and teams from other conferences. We’ve seen Harvard go out and play Minnesota, RPI has played three big Hockey East teams (as well as Michigan and Michigan State), but there are some other schools – not to name names – who seem to load up on weaker opponents … kinda like SEC football, where you’re looking for wins and an opportunity to build your team, rather than looking for big statement wins.
SA: Well that all depends on the coaches’ philosophies on how to build their teams. It doesn’t hurt you to play lesser-ranked teams, as long as you win!
BS: Well that’s the problem, is we’ve seen some teams … who have lost a lot of games to bad teams. It also seems like with the added focus on league games – with fewer of them to play – it seems like some of the coaches tend to use their non-conference games to tinker around with their lineups a bit more, play their second- or third-string goalies more, rest some of their players more. Do you think – even if you’re going to do that – do you think you should change your schedule to where you’re playing more non-league games either on the heels of, or just prior to, a bye week, so there’s a little more focus on those games?
SA: Well we don’t have a lot of control over that; your schedule is what it is. You have certain open weekends, certain league weekends, certain non-conference weekends. So there’s not a dramatic amount of control that you have over that. The fact of the matter is that the non-Ivy teams in the ECAC have to play a lot of non-conference games in October: I think this year we played eight in October this year, all non-conference games.
BS: Is it your personal philosophy to go out and take on as many big-time opponents as possible, or do you feel that you do need a couple of “weaker” programs in there to give yourselves a break?
SA: I think you need a mix, but I’d prefer us to play a high degree of difficulty non-conference schedule. We went to Alaska, we played Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, and while AA may not be at the top, they’re a strong team, and Fairbanks has a very good team. We played UNH, we played UMass, we played BU, Michigan, Michigan State … I think we’ve played some good hockey teams. Sacred Heart has won, I think, 11 games in a row right now (actually a 12-game unbeaten streak, 10-0-2). Army just beat and tied Air Force, who was a final-eight team in the national tournament last year. It’s not necessarily that those games are games that hurt your PairWise and RPI standings; you need to intelligently pick those teams that you play, because you want a good strength-of-schedule.
When you’re talking non-conference, sometimes it’s your best guess. You may think it’s a good team, but two years down the road they could end up not so hot, and so losing to that team could kill your RPI, and winning might not benefit you. A lot of non-conference scheduling is guesswork – look at us this year. New Hampshire, Boston University and Michigan don’t have the records they would normally have. UNH is on a run, and they’re on top of Hockey East, but they have a poor non-conference record, so our strength-of-schedule doesn’t look – right now – as strong as I’d anticipated it looking. BU is below .500, New Hampshire is just starting to pull away from .500, and Michigan is just above .500. Now normally at this time of the year, those teams might be 17-8-8, so those things factor into it and you don’t really have control over it (as a coach making a schedule).
BS: How far in advance to most major and mid-major programs set their schedules?
SA: Probably two to three. Maybe three-to-four for tournaments, things like that, but for the most part it’s two-to-three years out in the future.
BS: When it comes to tournaments that you’re not hosting, is that something where you have any say at all over who you play? Can you say that you prefer not to play another ECAC Hockey opponent, for example?
SA: You might not accept an invitation if they have the opponents up front. We’re going to a tournament – and I’d rather not speak in specifics – in the future, because we know that in the first round of the tournament we’re going to get to play a top-half Hockey East team, a team that consistently finishes in the top half of that league. So we know that the first day of the tournament will draw a real strong non-conference opponent, so those things factor into the decision.
BS: That’s in the contract, that you’ll get to play them?
BS: Here’s a two-part question: first, do you believe that the ECAC is hurt, at the end of the year – RPI-wise and PairWise(wise) – by its parity, and by beating up on itself?
SA: I’ll say this, we’re not if we take care of business non-conference.
BS: Well, you’re jumping the gun a bit; that’s Part 2. Basically, do you believe that the league looks weaker statistically by the parity that we have, playing against each other?
SA: No, I don’t think so. For instance, look at the WCHA right now. I think that our conference is the best in the country, top to bottom. I do. I think that our depth and our competitiveness on a night-to-night basis – there are very few free games in our league, you know? Where you win – or lose – going away, and I find that extremely impressive. But with that being said, the reason I say no to that question, is let’s look at the WCHA right now.
Everything’s cyclical, but right now the WCHA has a bunch of teams at the top of the PairWise. But they also have a bunch of teams where you could throw a blanket over the top of six teams, and say you couldn’t tell who was going to finish first and who was going to finish sixth in that league. All of those six are beating each other up, so none of their league records look spectacular. None of them are Miami, where they’ve only lost one league game. But that parity isn’t hurting them, beating each other up isn’t hurting themselves, because they won a lot of non-conference games this year.
So our league, beating itself up, makes us better for the end of the year – but we need to take care of business in the non-conference games. We did a good job of that last year, and our numbers bear that out, and that’s why we had three teams in the (NCAA) tournament, and almost a fourth with St. Lawrence being the first team out.
BS: Do you feel that there’s any way that the league can help lay the groundwork for a stronger non-conference schedule?
SA: We talk about that a lot in league meetings, and I’m not an expert on those things. There’s probably a lot of kids on our campus at RPI who can tell you more about the statistical probabilities and all that than I can. But there are some coaches in our league who are very good at it, and they bring in outside people to look at those things as well. I guess from my perspective – and I’ll do whatever’s necessary to get more league teams into the tournament – if there was anything we could do, that made rational sense, I’d certainly look at it. Right now, my sense of it is, for my program let’s go play the most games we can against the best teams in the country. For the last three years we’ve gotten our nose bloodied, in a big way, but this year we’re starting to turn the corner. The last three years we’d play those teams and play good, and lose, and play good, and lose. It would take a toll on us, from a confidence perspective, and now we’re starting to see the benefits from playing those games. Now when we play those types of teams, we’re ready for those kind of games. I don’t know about our record against teams of “big-name” quality, but I know that this year we’ve beaten UNH, we’ve beaten Michigan, we’ve beaten Boston University. Close loss to UMass, too. Now we’re used to playing in those games, and we’re starting to see some success in those games.
BS: I guess my last question for you is, among hockey people – folks you’re friends with who have carried over from your playing days and your time spent coaching in Denver – do you get questions where people just have total misconceptions about the state of the ECAC and its strength?
SA: Ummm .. I’d say yes, but there’s less now than there was. That’s because there are a lot of programs in our league that are doing very good jobs not only of coaching, but also of recruiting. I look at what Princeton’s done, I look at what Yale’s doing, I look at what Union’s doing, I know Cornell’s been there for a long time, St. Lawrence as been there for a long time. So I look around our league and I see programs that are continuing to get stronger right now. So I think the answer to the question is yes, but at the same time I think there are less and less of those, because we’re doing a better job in non-conference games. We got three, almost four teams to the national tournament last year. Look at the highly drafted kids that entered into our freshman class around the league last year, so I think those things are all starting to change opinions about us.
For those of you who went through all this trouble to get my Beanpot Consolation prediction: Northeastern 3, Harvard 2. I simply can’t place any confidence in the Crimson at all right now; it was all I could do to pick them over Brown in what will feel like a must-win game to Teddy Donato’s crew.