Between the Lines, Nov. 26, 2003

• So college hockey is not the only sport that struggles with its mathematical ranking system. The perverse football BCS is a logical freak show, far worse than the moderately-flawed Pairwise/RPI system used by hockey. It uses many of the same flaws hockey has, and then throws in numerous more wrinkles. The biggest problem is, it uses numerous different computer ranking systems, plus two polls(!), to come up with an amalgamated final ranking. And these rankings can be so wildly different, that each team gets to throw out the worst one, like it was some sort of Cold War-era gymnastics meet. Miami (Ohio) ranks between 4 and 21. LSU is between 2 and 9, Texas between 2 and 10, Florida between 5 and 17. There are differences between the flawed RPI (used in some capacity by most NCAA sports) and KRACH (advocated by USCHO as a superior method of comparing strength of schedules), but the two may as well be twins compared to some of the BCS computer rankings (see: The Massey Ratings come the closest to KRACH, but that’s only one component of the BCS anyway.

This is what you get when you try to ramrod new ideas into old systems. Football seems to think that using many different flawed methods balances each other out. Maybe it does, in a perverse way, but they also tend to influence each other, especially in regards to the polls. And I’d rather have one method that’s known to work. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather tear the whole thing down, do something new from scratch, have it not work, and then have to think of something else, than to try to keep fitting square pegs into round holes.

• That being said, we have yet another egregious example of this being perpetrated upon us by the Division I men’s ice hockey committee this year. Last year’s tinker job had “bonus” percentage points added for “good wins” — an attempt to reward teams that played tough opponents on the road. Good thought, horrendous execution, for reasons outlined in the past. In this year’s shenanigans, teams can throw out wins earned during their league tournaments, if those wins — against inferior opposition — caused a team’s RPI to go down. Once again, this is a good thought — the RPI’s biggest flaw is that your rating can go down even after a win — but it is again awful execution. Why can’t a team throw out a regular season win from two months prior that had the same adverse affect? And yet again, KRACH solves this problems all by itself, without the need to jury-rig it. But nobody asked me.

All these RPI machinations “fix” one thing, and cause other problems. Just chuck the dang thing and use something that actually works all by itself. Criminy.

Ohio State's Dave Steckel has it going for the Buckeyes this year.

Ohio State’s Dave Steckel has it going for the Buckeyes this year.

• It’s hard not to be impressed with Ohio State so far this season. The Buckeyes are playing “as a team” better than any time in the recent past. In the last few years, there had always been one tumultuous thing or another going on. But despite losing NHL first-round draft picks R.J. Umberger and Ryan Kesler early to the pros this summer, the Buckeyes have improved. And a lot of it is the play of the other first-round pick, who decided to stay for his senior year, Dave Steckel. He’s a force right now, and he’s playing with the dynamic winger Paul Caponigri on one side and the workhorse J.B. Bittner on the other, to provide a lethal combination that can play both ends of the ice. The defense and goaltending are experienced and strong. “You know, it’s hard when you lose 80 points,” said Steckel, “but I think that made us come closer as a team, personally, and we’re working pretty hard to fill that void.”

• Two weeks ago, I said I’d be surprised if Minnesota didn’t go at least 3-1 in its next four games. Well, it went 2-1-1, but I’m not that surprised. The Gophers ran into a hot Wisconsin team on the road, and earned one point. Then it beat up on Michigan Tech at home. The problems for Minnesota have mostly been defensive. After star Paul Martin split early to play for the New Jersey Devils, and their goaltender quit, it left a big void defensively. Then the remaining defensive standout, Keith Ballard, got hurt. It’s no coincidence that Ballard returned and the Gophers held offensive-oriented Michigan Tech to just two goals last weekend. Whether this means the ship is righted for the 4-7-1 two-time defending champs, who knows. But we should know a whole lot more after this weekend’s College Hockey Showcase, at Michigan and Michigan State.

• So Harvard finally defeated BU, its first time defeating a Top 15 team (1-11-2 in last two seasons) since the 2002 ECAC championship game, including three close losses last year to both BU and Cornell. You had to be worrying in Crimson-ville, after coming into the season with huge, deserved, expectations, then going 2-2-1 in ECAC play in the first five. Now you have to wonder if the two teams they lost to, Dartmouth and Brown, aren’t just pretty good themselves. Tough to say. But last year, the losses to tough teams were all too often excused away by some. To be taken seriously, you have to start winning some of those games. Harvard has played a lot of close games against high quality opponents in the last few years, but has lost just about all of them. Under Mark Mazzolini, the Harvard program has unquestionably improved every year. The problem, however, is they haven’t improved as much as people think they have — and it’s frustrating, because until you understand the problem, it can’t be fixed. Getting from 10 wins to 22 wins while playing in an ECAC that’s not even as strong top to bottom as it was just four years ago, is a lot easier than getting from 22 wins to 25 wins. I think their coaches understand this, but I don’t think all their fans and “people” have understood this. This is a very talented team. And if it continues to pay the price, for 60 minutes every night, like it did against Boston University on Tuesday, it can go very, very far. But there’s still some ghosts to exhume from the closet. A big one was exhumed on Tuesday. Another one looms in Ithaca on Dec. 6.

The Crimson also need to get goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris on track. We’ve seen him be great, but he’s allowing some pretty bad goals so far this year. Both goals allowed against BU came on monsterous, inexcusable rebounds. If he gets going, it could really be fun in Cambridge.

• We’ve often talked about professional hockey organizations that “get it” when it comes to college hockey players, and others that flat out don’t. New Jersey is always the first that comes to mind in the “get it” category, and all it’s done is won three Cups under the leadership of ex-Providence coach Lou Lamoriello. There are others.

It is true that extensive use video tape and satellite dishes has made defensive systems more potent. And the crackdown on the size of goalie equipment must continue. But the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that goalies are just flat out better.

The organization that flat out doesn’t get it is the New York Rangers. It’s not just about college players, though, it’s about all its young players. Forget the fact that a 43-year old living legend is getting 20 minutes a night — Mark Messier is actually the team’s top scorer — but there are so many other high-priced loafers and malcontents on that roster, year after year, it’s no wonder the team has missed the playoffs six straight seasons. Meanwhile, across the river, Lamoriello plugs in Brian Gionta, John Madden, David Hale, Paul Martin, Scott Gomez, and so on … and just wins. Lamoriello runs the organization like it’s … organized; he runs it almost like a college program, in the sense that there are seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshman. He’s constantly turning things over and bringing in young, hungry newcomers, many of whom were overlooked by other franchises. Meanwhile, the Rangers continue to bury their youth. Currently, those most notably include Harvard product Dominic Moore, Michigan product Jed Ortmeyer, and Jamie Lundmark. Every time these guys are given ice time, something good happens. They all had good training camps. Yet they are forced the languish on the bench, or in Hartford, until five malcontents guys get injured. I don’t get it.

• The Showcase is the only Thanksgiving-time tournament this year, and it’s not really a tournament. What happened to all the tournaments? There used to be tournaments at Thanksgiving and Christmas-time. Now they’re all loaded into the Christmas time. I’m not sure why that changed — I’m sure someone will tell me — but it happened about four or five years ago.

• North Dakota is rampaging through its schedule right now, and everything is falling into place. And while anything can still happen in the ultra-competitive WCHA, I said since the beginning of the year I wouldn’t be surprised at a North Dakota-BC title game. If it happens, it would be the third time in five years. That would make it the first time anything remotely close happened to the three straight meetings between Minnesota and Michigan Tech from 1974-76.

• Mercyhurst did it again last weekend, winning its second game of the season on the road against a CCHA team. The Lakers have wins against Ohio State and now Western Michigan, and account for Atlantic Hockey’s only two nonleague victories against ‘Big 4’ opposition. The Lakers also have two league losses, both to Holy Cross. The Crusaders have played nonleague games against Maine, Massachusetts and Dartmouth and lost them all, the latter two by one goal. Atlantic Hockey will never be one of the big boys, and that’s OK — college hockey needs all kinds. But at least it is competitive now in a lot of these nonleague games, some against the very big boys, which makes the college hockey world more interesting. And interesting is always good.

• I loved this past weekend’s NHL version of the outdoor game, but what I love even more is that Michigan-Michigan State from two years ago was first, and topped the game in Edmonton in attendance by almost 20,000. The record will likely stay in the states, because I don’t think there are any stadiums in Canada that are bigger than the 74,000 that attended Spartan Stadium, are there? There is talk that many other NHL teams want to try it for a special occasion, and the closest to doing so is the Columbus Blue Jackets. And the further word is that their game would coincide with an Ohio State-Michigan college hockey tilt. Sweet.

• Early Hobey candidates: Mike Ayers (New Hampshire), Thomas Pock (Massachusetts), Jim Slater (Michigan State), Brandon Bochenski (North Dakota), Derek Edwardson (Miami) — not in any particular order. And don’t count out any of my preseason all-America forwards: the sensational sophomore trio of Jeff Tambellini, Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. And I’m keeping an eye on Dave Steckel — although Ohio State is a more defensive oriented team, which will hurt him. But you know who leads the nation in points per game? Cornell sophomore Matt Moulson at 1.88.

• I hate shoddy theories. My biggest pet peeve in baseball is that the rise in scoring over the last decade is due to “watered down pitching.” I could go on and on, but I won’t. My biggest pet peeve in hockey, is that the decline in scoring over the last decade is attributed to the neutral zone trap. Banning a strategy always seems like a knee-jerk overreaction to me. Actually, any rule that’s specifically designed to help offense or defense in any sport always seems like an arbitrary decision, and unnecessary, since the conditions usually end up reversing themselves. In baseball, the mound was lowered and DH implemented because offense was suffering, and now there’s too much offense. In football, rules changes were implemented a number of years ago to help the offense because there were too many low scores, and now the scores are higher than ever. In hockey, the 4-on-4 was eliminated because the Oilers were too good at it, and then, once they weren’t good at it anymore, the NHL brought back the 4-on-4.

However, there is one change that seems radical on the surface, but I think is entirely necessary to helping hockey … widening the net. There are many reasons why scoring is down in the NHL and all of hockey, and it doesn’t have to do with the neutral zone trap, per se, or “expansion” (the other whipping boy in all sports). The trap wasn’t always called that, but some derivative of it has been used for decades. It only became an issue because scoring went down for other reasons.

It is true that extensive use video tape and satellite dishes has made defensive systems more potent. And the crackdown on the size of goalie equipment must continue. But the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that goalies are just flat out better.

When I was broadcasting in the minors, you saw quality goaltending almost every night. I’ll venture to say that most starting college goaltenders today are better, overall, than the run of the mill NHL goalie in the 1970s. They are certainly better trained, better conditioned, and much more athletic. I challenge anyone to watch ESPN Classic games from the ’70s and watch the goaltending. Watch how many low slappers from the point, without a screen, just go in past immobile netminders.

The athleticism also leads to the ability to play the puck. Twenty years ago, Billy Smith was considered a rarity for his puck-handling skills. Nowadays, a goaltender must must be at least pretty good at playing the puck or they will never get a sniff in the NHL. Most college guys are decent at it as well. Also, twenty years ago, there was only one European goaltender — Pelle Lindbergh. Now there’s dozens in the pros.

Being able to play the dump in is another thing that hurts offense, because the goalie becomes like a third defenseman, and he can’t be touched by the opponent. This has led to the rule change proposal by Bob Clarke — general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers. He says goalies should be banned from coming out of the crease to play the puck. There is some validity to that, but, again, I don’t like legislating against strategy.

So, if you just widenened the net six measley inches, you could start bringing more offense back. Why is this different from those aforementioned arbitrary rules changes I talk about? Won’t offense just “come back” on its own accord, as it asserted earlier? In this case, no. When the current conditions are created on an irreversible set of circumstances, things need to be altered. Goalies aren’t going to get less athletic. Coaches aren’t go to stop watching videotape. In football, when kickers became so good, they narrowed the goal posts and moved the kickoff spot back five yards (two different times).

This is the same thing. Six inches. Let’s see what happens.