Strength of Schedule
It was late October and UMass-Lowell had just defeated Northeastern after returning from three road losses to Michigan and Rensselaer, both teams that have spent virtually the entire season in the Top 10.
“Who’s the idiot who made up this schedule?” asked one writer, tongue-in-cheek.
“That would be me,” answered River Hawk coach Tim Whitehead with a laugh.
The brutal opening trio of games prompted the question of whether it had been foolhardy to schedule such tough competition, or whether that difficulty had helped the team improve, leading to the win over the Huskies.
“Perhaps we are seeing some dividends of those tough games, but we’ll see,” said Whitehead. “Let’s hope so. The idea was: what a great way to start the season. Our guys were looking forward to it all summer and trained hard for it.”
The mantra of almost all teams that aren’t perennially in the NCAA tournament is to schedule as many nonconference games as possible against programs that are. Taking on the Michigans, Michigan States and North Dakotas presumably can only make you better and serves as flags to players and alumni alike that your own program is headed in the right direction.
“My first priority is to get the best opponents,” says Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “It makes you a better team. It may hurt your won-loss record, but you’ve got to get better and the only way you’re going to get better is to play better teams. So I try to schedule the best.”
There’s the risk, however, of getting too much of a good thing.
UMass-Lowell could hardly be expected to turn down the opportunity to play two games against Michigan. Even so, combined with the way the rest of the River Hawks’ matchups have turned out, they’ve now played the fourth-toughest schedule in the country (based on an opponents’ won-loss record of .5539).
The downside, however, is that just a few weeks ago their record stood at 5-16-1. They’ve since won three in a row and historically have been a tough postseason foe, but may have had to overcome a snowballing effect on their confidence as the tough losses piled up.
“We knew going into the season that we had a very challenging schedule and a very young team to play it,” says Whitehead. “That’s not usually a great combination…. The last two weekends in December, I think we let our situation get the best of us.”
While Lowell’s schedule might be an example of a reasonable risk that just didn’t pay off, an even more extreme case can found with Minnesota. The Golden Gophers opened the season with an almost absurd gauntlet of opponents. Every single one of their first 10 opponents has been ranked in the Top 10, and after a one-weekend respite, they continued with nonleague games against two more titans, Michigan and Michigan State.
That Dirty Dozen gave Minnesota such a runaway lead in strength of schedule that it could probably play the Podunk State junior varsity for the rest of the season and still finish number one in the country in that category. But the Gophers also went 3-8-1 in those early brick-wall games, undercutting what was itself a potentially Top 10 team.
Like Lowell, they’re bouncing back, but dug a very big hole for themselves.
Maine coach Shawn Walsh offers a counterpoint to the “play-the-toughest-schedule-you-can” approach to building a program. Although he now presides over one of the nation’s elite teams, it wasn’t always that way in Orono. When he inherited the Back Bear program in 1984, it had been in Division I for only five years, compiling a 33-73-1 record during that time with a fair number of the wins coming against Division II schools still on the schedule.
Walsh’s first season coincided with Hockey East’s inaugural year. Since the league’s split with the ECAC had not been amicable, games between the two Eastern leagues proved few and far between. Instead, Hockey East and the WCHA arranged for an interlocking schedule in which those two leagues would play each other and the results would count in both leagues’ standings.
“We were playing Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota twice a year,” says Walsh. “Those were just tremendous powers. So I was looking for non-league games that were soft because the interlocking schedule was so difficult.”
Indeed, in Walsh’s first two years, the Black Bears posted records of 8-26-0 and 8-25-1 in league and interlocking play, but went a collective 7-2-1 in their other, primarily confidence-boosting, regular-season contests.
Adding soft games certainly worked for Maine since by Walsh’s third year the program was off and running. Now, of course, the weakling-turned-powerhouse needs no padding for its schedule. Its agenda changed as it became more successful.
“Now, a couple things dictate my scheduling,” says Walsh. “I want difficult opponents early. I think you find out more about yourself that way. And sometimes that’s the only chance you have to play them. You don’t have the luxury of playing your choices all the time.
“I like a flex. This year we’ve seen ECAC teams, CCHA teams, WCHA teams and MAAC teams. I think that’s something you want. You want a blend that will at least give you an idea of what those leagues are all about.
“I also want to be able to play teams that are emerging. That helps their programs and I think that’s important. I think we owe that to college hockey.”
Playing such teams may put a dent in your strength of schedule, but Walsh feels it’s still worth it.
“If you schedule tough enough teams, when push comes to shove, strength of schedule is not going to hurt you,” he says. “You’ve just got to win your games. Last year was an example. We didn’t have a bye [in the NCAA tournament], but we won the national title.”
An Inexact Science
Sometimes a coach may think he has the perfect balance of opponents when all the agreements are signed, only to find that his schedule plays out as either too difficult or too easy.
“You never know,” says Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder. “Things change so quickly sometimes and these things are scheduled almost two years in advance. You think a team is going to give you a break on a given night, but all of a sudden they’ve got things turned around.
“Or it can flip-flop the other way. A team that you think is going to be great isn’t [strong] for different reasons, either graduation or kids turning pro.”
Maine offers a perfect example of such expectations run awry. While the inclusion of games against Canisius and Quinnipiac, two emerging MAAC teams, might have been expected to hurt the Black Bears’ strength of schedule, the rest of their nonconference lineup looked very strong: Minnesota (twice), Ohio State (twice), Colorado College, Denver, Cornell and Brown.
All but the latter two received Top 10 consideration in USCHO’s preseason poll, and collectively the group posted a 112-91-26 record last season. This year, however, only one of the teams is above .500 and their collective winning percentage has dropped from .546 to .410 (54-80-10).
The strength of its league games has more than salvaged Maine’s strength of schedule (presently sixth in the country), but the difficulty of predicting strong and weak opponents should be clear.
Fitting The Puzzle Pieces Together
How can teams sign contracts for nonconference games two years in advance when the league schedule isn’t finalized that early?
“There are certain patterns that everybody knows,” says Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna. “For example, you don’t schedule league games on Thanksgiving weekends. You don’t schedule league games in the second half of December. You keep certain weekends open.
“We also do [league] schedules in cycles. In other words, this year’s schedule is the first of a cycle so next year’s schedule is basically going to be this year’s flip-flopped. So if [this year] you were at Lowell and then home the next night, next year you’re home and then at Lowell. It’ll be pretty much the same weekends.”
Sometimes, however, that level of predictability isn’t enough. An open date is desired beyond the current cycle or some exception is requested.
“Every once in a while,” says Bertagna, “someone will call me and say, ‘Hey, look it, I’ve got a chance to play so-and-so in 2002, but it has to be on some date. Try not to schedule me on that weekend.’
“Or BC will ask that when they play at Notre Dame [in football], they’d like to play Notre Dame in hockey the Friday night before the game. That caused a change in next year’s schedule where I had to make a shuffle to accommodate them.
“But there isn’t a lot of flexibility. In the ECAC, we always had a problem in January, because Harvard and Princeton have their exams in late January. And we’d also have the Beanpot [on the first two Mondays in February].
“In the Hockey East schedule, we make sure that BC, BU and Northeastern play Friday – [Beanpot] Monday – Friday – [Beanpot] Monday. We don’t schedule them on Saturdays during the Beanpot.
“Harvard has tried to get that same deal, but because of the travel partner situation [each team in the ECAC is paired with another school and the two flip-flop league opponents on Friday and Saturday], and because they’re coming out of exams, they haven’t been able to do it. At best, they’ve had one of their Beanpot weekends in which they’ve just played one game: Friday – Saturday – [Beanpot] Monday – Friday – [Beanpot] Monday. But they usually play two.
“So you do get special requests in advance. But the nonleague schedule is the responsibility of the school, not the league. We just try to get our league schedule out as early as possible to allow them to go to work on their nonleague schedule.”
Clearly, teams would hit calendar gridlock if the conferences varied widely in their choices of dates.
“Fortunately,” says Bertagna, “the weekends that are set as league weekends for us are usually the same weekends that most leagues have for their weekends. Not 100 percent, but quite a few of them are.
“So the coaches get together in Florida [at the Coaches’ Convention] and you see a lot of two-fers, like a year ago UNH and Providence scheduling Miami and Lake Superior, or this year UNH and Lowell going to Clarkson and St. Lawrence, or Colorado College and Denver coming in to play BU and Providence.”
Another variable to the equation is that the acceptability of some road trips varies widely with the time of the year. A case in point would be New Hampshire’s trek to Lake Superior State this past October.
“We flew in and then took a three-hour bus ride up to the Soo,” says UNH coach Dick Umile. “When you get there, it’s a neat little community up by the [Sault Ste. Marie] locks. The people are great and they take hockey seriously.
“It’s pretty out there, to be honest. It was at the very end of the foliage, a week or a week and a half after the peak. You think of only New England having beautiful foliage, but it was really pretty up on the Upper Peninsula. We went out there at a nice time.”
But what if the October three-hour bus ride through autumn foliage had instead turned into an eight-hour, white-knuckle drive through a January snowstorm?
Umile laughs and says, “Then I’d really be questioning, ‘What the heck am I doing out here?'”
Of course, there’s also a positive flip side. While trips such as those to Lake Superior State during the middle of winter have their intrinsic downsides, other road experiences offer a little more bang for the traveling buck.
“I try to schedule games that are going to be learning experiences for our guys,” says Crowder. “A chance to go out to an environment like Wisconsin — that’s a great learning experience for these guys.
“Next year, we’re going out to Notre Dame and Alaska the year after. Those are all things that are, I think, a little more combined than from just a hockey standpoint.
“Hey, sometimes your kids may never have a chance to go back to those areas.”