What’s Goin’ On?
If you can figure out what’s going on in this league, there’s a Nobel Prize nomination in your future.
In non-conference games, Hockey East is 3-7-0 against the ECACHL and 1-2-0 against Atlantic Hockey. In past seasons, league teams were expected to win all the games against the Atlantic and a clear majority over their traditional eastern rivals in the ECACHL.
So Hockey East stinks, right? Time to give ourselves an “Overrated!” chant?
Well, not so fast. We’re also an okay 3-3-0 when matched up with CCHA teams and, more to the point, 6-4-1 against the WCHA. That’s the same WCHA that monopolized last year’s Frozen Four.
Then there are individual teams that must be driving their fans bonkers. I speak, in particular, of Boston University and Massachusetts-Lowell.
The Terriers swept Vermont and Maine one weekend with the win over the Black Bears coming at Alfond Arena. One week later they lost at home to New Hampshire and on the road at Massachusetts. Hello?
And what about the River Hawks? They seemed to be coming around with league wins over BU and Merrimack only to lay an egg against Maine, losing 9-2 at home in embarrassing fashion. Emerging without a point against the Black Bears would have been no cause for alarm. Maine looks like the real deal. But playing defense so poorly with one mental mistake after another? Wow.
Then there are the positive surprises. How ’bout them Providence Friars, 6-2-0 in the league, good for first place? And Maine rolling along with a 9-3-0 overall record, not to mention Vermont at 8-2-0?
The only thing that seems to be matching preseason expectations is New Hampshire kicking it into high gear with its fourth win in a row. Now 5-1-0 in the league, the Wildcats are only two points out of first place with two games in hand.
Now that makes perfect sense.
Open Season On Seniors
The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, signed this past summer, hit Hockey East hard. Harder than any other conference by far. And it will continue to affect schools well into the foreseeable future.
The new CBA gave a drafted collegiate player who stays in school unrestricted free agency after Aug. 15 following his senior year. Instead of having to sit out if the team that held his rights made an offer he deemed unacceptable, the player could now wait until mid-August and field offers from all teams prior to training camp.
With the leverage delivered in no uncertain terms to the player, NHL teams had a gun to their heads. Gone were the days when they could let their draftees develop for free in college for four years and then still be their property. Teams had a huge incentive to act prior to a top player entering his senior year.
The resulting exodus of players late this past summer, particularly those about to enter their senior years, was predictable.
Each of the other three traditional conferences lost a significant player. Denver’s Brett Skinner, a defenseman who scored 40 points last year and was the Pioneers’ captain-to-be, led that list. Cornell lost Shane Hynes, a 28-point producer. And Chris Holt was Nebraska-Omaha’s top goalie, one who played almost every single minute.
But no conference lost three all-star caliber players like Hockey East did. The departure of Patrick Eaves, Jimmy Howard and Ben Walter dramatically altered the league’s landscape.
But not in the ways anticipated back when the leaves were still green and hanging from their branches.
In the Maine season preview, yours truly wrote:
No team suffered a bigger early-signing loss to the pros than Maine…. BC fans might argue that the departure of Eaves, the reigning Player of the Year and an All-American, was the worst defection to recover from. River Hawk fans might argue that their team’s depth, in comparison to perennial powerhouses like BU, BC and Maine, made the Walter signing a bigger blow.
They would be wrong.
Jimmy Howard is a goaltender. End of story.
It was a reasonable sentiment.
In fact, Maine coach Tim Whitehead had to address “packing it in.”
“We’re going to miss him a lot,” Whitehead said. “But we’re very determined to make this a special season and that’s our challenge now, no different than if you lost your quarterback a week before the season. You don’t pack it in.”
So what has happened? Maine, the team expected to have the toughest time coping with its loss, has instead fared by far the best. The Black Bears haven’t missed a beat, compiling one of the best records in the country. The Maine goaltenders, perhaps considered Jimmy Howard Wannabes at one point, have been compiling Howardianly outrageous statistics: Ben Bishop (1.87 GAA, .923 Sv%) and Matt Lundin (0.75, .965).
Whitehead’s other comments about Howard, Eaves and Walter now seem prophetic.
“You can certainly say that that’s [half of] the First Team All-Hockey East that is gone,” he said. “But we’ve seen in the past, guys will emerge. They always do. Guys will surprise you. It will be fun to see who emerges and how the league unfolds.
“There will be a new group of elite players by the end of the year and we’ll say, ‘That kid is a helluva player.’ Hopefully, a couple of them will be on our team.”
Note to Tim Whitehead: consider that wish granted.
On the other hand, the losses of Eaves and Walter have certainly been felt at BC and Lowell.
The Eagles stand at 4-3-1 and other than a nine-goal explosion at Bowling Green have not scored more than three goals in a game. You think Patrick Eaves would have made a difference in that regard?
That said, Eaves might have been destined to leave with or without the new CBA. While Walter was a fifth-round pick and Howard a second-rounder, Eaves was selected in the first round. NHL teams often view their top pick in a different light.
“They don’t let the first-rounders stay four years historically,” BC coach Jerry York said. “It’s been very difficult to get most first-rounders to stay for four years no matter what CBA is involved. We couldn’t keep players like [Marty] Reasoner, [Brooks] Orpik, [Krys] Kolanos and [Chuck] Kobasew for four years. So that hasn’t changed much.
“But I think down the road it’s going to affect a lot of us.”
When it comes to Lowell, it’s hard to quantify how much the presence of Walter would mean to the up-and-down River Hawks. Their biggest struggles have been in the defensive end, where they rank last in the league, allowing 4.11 goals against per game. If Walter were a goalie or defenseman, a causal link would be easier to find, but Walter was a goalscorer.
Even so, his leadership and go-to capabilities, and the void in those areas his departure created, might be a significant source of Lowell’s problems.
In the preseason, Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald said, “Generally speaking, the BUs and BCs of the world and UNH and Maine, are better equipped to lose a player early simply because of their quality and quantity of depth. We perhaps don’t have that luxury of having so many game-breakers in our lineup. It hurts us more.”
It appears he was right.
But looking forward, how much of an impact in upcoming years will the CBA have on teams? Will the four-year star go the way of the dinosaurs?
“I think we’re navigating uncharted waters in assessing the long-term effect of the CBA,” MacDonald said. “There are two sides to every story, but if you’re a senior and you can go into your senior year and you’re a mid-round draft pick, you’ve got a chance to create tremendous leverage for yourself with a great senior year.
“On the other hand, if you’re running a business, you can hedge your bets on some players, thinking, ‘Hey, we want to get this kid locked up early because he may have a great senior year and then it’s going to cost us more down the road.’ If I was running a business, I’d probably try to do the same thing. It makes sense. But I’m not sure if it’s going to look the same five years from now.”
One thing seems certain. The lament of college coaches will remain, “I have to recruit them once to get them here. And I have to recruit them again to keep them.”
In The Nick Of Time
How huge was the UMass win over BU last weekend?
Let’s count the ways. Following a nonconference split to open the season, the Minutemen had lost six straight. They were 0-5-0 in Hockey East play. And five of their next six overall games were against Top 10 teams.
Sounds like a must-win game to me.
“Well, we’re on the board,” UMass coach Don Cahoon says. “We had obviously thrown up a bunch of blanks, and quite honestly we’re disappointed in the bottom line.
“On a couple of those occasions we certainly were outplayed and deserved to lose. But on a couple of occasions we played pretty darn well, but either because of a lack of scoring or an anemic power play we couldn’t tilt either of those games we played well in our way. It was nice to be able to have enough going in special teams that we could tilt the board [against BU] when we played that well.”
Although the Minutemen generated 41 shots against BU, offense had been a problem. UMass ranked last in league scoring, averaging only 1.78 goals per game even after scoring four against the Terriers.
“Every team in this league needs its best players to play well production-wise,” Cahoon says. “Stephen Werner has played great all year, but his production has not been — until last Saturday — what he maybe hoped it to be. Marvin Degon has put up some numbers, but you’re looking for those guys and guys like Matt Anderson and P.J. Fenton to kind of lead the way in terms of scoring the big goal in the big moment. Every team is looking to their go-to people that way.
“So when they all shut down at the same time and one of them isn’t able to have a big game and chip in a goal or two, it really takes away from your offensive prowess. The team can struggle and lose its confidence in that regard. And I think that that’s been a little bit of the case early in the season. We haven’t had a big breakout set of games from those guys in general.
“That’s not to pin it all on them, but if you look around the league and you look to the go-to people, if they’re productive then their teams do pretty well.”
In that regard, there’s reason to believe those go-to guys will become more productive in the near future. Werner appears to be heating up, Fenton is getting over a nagging illness and Anderson should be rounding into form after missing, due to injury, the second half of last year and the entire season before that.
“I think that [health] will have a lot to do with the resurgence of P.J. as a scorer,” Cahoon says. “Stephen just has to get into a rhythm. For Matty, it’s almost unfair to put the expectations on him that we do because he’s missed so many games over a long period of time. He’s just trying to get back into the flow of the game and feeling really comfortable shift-to-shift out there.
“So I think once these things solve themselves, knowing the type of people they are, I expect that they’re going to start to be productive and start to play on the offensive side of things as consistently as they can.
“All of those kids are playing hard. I don’t think anybody that’s watched our team play has suggested that we don’t play hard more often than not and that there are issues on that front. It’s just we have to be more optimistic, we’ve got to convert more and we’ve go to be better on special teams.”
The man advantage has contributed to the offensive shortfall, ranking last in Hockey East at 8.9 percent efficiency.
“The power play is a work in progress and it has been for well over a year,” Cahoon says. “Part of the issue is having the complementary pieces. The whole is the sum of the parts and we’re missing a couple of parts. We’re working on that and hopefully we’ll bring it together so that we can become a lot more consistent in that area.”
The penalty-killing has been much more effective, stopping opponents at an 84 percent clip, a figure that is fifth best in the league.
“We have been able to improve our penalty kill remarkably from last year with a couple of minor adjustments and little bit more attention to detail and good goaltending,” Cahoon says. “That’s the formula for a good penalty kill.”
Although UMass goaltenders Gabe Winer (3.03 GAA, .911 Sv%) and Jon Quick (2.41, .936) lead the league in saves, averaging over 33 per game, that isn’t the kiss of death it might be. The team still ranks sixth in team defense, allowing 2.89 goals per game.
“We’ve given up more shots than we usually give up and that’s a result of playing a little different style of hockey,” Cahoon says. “We’re playing a more transition game than we have in past years. We did a lot of trapping in my initial years here simply because we didn’t think we skated as well as some of the teams we played against.
“Now we’re playing a little bit more of a transition game, the puck is up and down the rink a little bit more and we’re giving up shots. But hopefully we’re not giving up high quality shots on a consistent basis.
“So even though the goaltenders are handling the puck a little bit more, maybe they are seeing it better. The quality of the shots isn’t always as difficult as some of the shots we’ve given up in the past. A few years ago, even when we had those teams that were successful in the end, we’d only give up sometimes 20 to 22 shots in a game, but half of those shots were grade A stellar opportunities. So we’re trying to limit that.”
Another factor is the youth of the blueliners. Degon is a senior, but the only other upperclassman, junior Mark Matheson, has been playing up front. Developing those freshmen and sophomores bodes well not only for future years but also the stretch run.
“I’m happy with how the defense has stayed within themselves,” Cahoon says. “And when you look at our defensive core, we have two or three sophomores and a couple of freshmen playing every night. So from that standpoint, I’m happy we have a foundation that we can develop and there’s room for improvement. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but, geez, there’s time to work with these kids and give them the opportunity to develop.”
The immediate road ahead is a tough one. As noted earlier, five of the next six games come against teams high in the rankings with all but two of them against league opponents.
Of course, fans (and writers) might check off some games as wins and others as losses, but coaches and players can’t think that way.
“Coaches just take it day-by-day and game-by-game,” Cahoon says. “If you start trying to figure out when you have a better opportunity in this game or that game, you get stung.
“Everybody probably thought the way we were competing that we’d go into Northeastern and there was a good chance that we were going to succeed. But that’s a game where Northeastern outplayed us and they outcompeted us.
“You just have buckle the chin strap up and get your skates tightened up and get ready to compete every night. If we’re playing at a high level and we’re really executing and we’re thorough, then the wins will take care of themselves. If we’re less than that then we’re going to have difficulty.”
That was the subject line in my email to D-III NESCAC Correspondent Tim Costello.
Isn’t that how all readers address the correspondent of the league their team is in? I had assumed that was the case based on my own email bucket.
More to the point, Tim, who is otherwise a really great guy, had the audacity to pick Wesleyan to finish last in his season preview. To those readers who have always fallen asleep by the time they get to this point in the column, my son Ryan and nephew Kevin are both Cardinals. They certainly don’t intend to finish last.
Hence, my message.
It’ll be an interesting season. With the graduation of only a single senior, the depth should be much better. It won’t take much for the Cardinals to be a big surprise in the NESCAC.
Their season starts this weekend with a trip to Amherst on Friday and then on to Amherst’s “travel partner,” Hamilton. Travel partner comes in quotation marks because there is no NESCAC school remotely close to Hamilton, so Amherst, a mere three-plus hours away, suffices.
Let’s go Wesleyan!
Last week’s question was: which UNH hockey player has a brother playing hockey at the University of Maine? Hint: There’s more to this one than meets the eye.
A popular incorrect answer was Brian Yandle of UNH, whose brother Keith was expected to play for Maine. However, the younger Yandle never became a member of the Black Bears, leaving the answer elsewhere.
The correct answer was Kacey Bellamy, a freshman defenseman on the women’s hockey team at UNH. Her brother Rob is a sophomore forward at Maine. Last Friday, he scored a goal and assisted on another at Lowell.
First to respond correctly was Ronald Daugherty. His cheer is:
“GO MAINE – all the way this year for No. 3!”
This week’s question has nothing to do with hockey or even sports as a whole. It asks what is special about the number 525,600 and how does that apply to an upcoming event in the arts? Email my trivia account with your answer. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
A more conventional question will be asked next week.
As a reminder, you can submit suggested trivia questions to the same email address and if your question is used, you’ll get a cheer as long as you were first to submit it. Please include something like “SUGGESTION” in the subject line so I don’t have to go through a bajillion non-winning responses.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
I decided to throw out what I wrote for this segment.
I realized that you didn’t want to read my whining about the day job, even though I was trying to be amusing and witty in the process. I was mostly failing at the amusing and witty part, while succeeding wildly with the whining.
There’s also the issue of what happens if upper management should ever read this drivel. I had, after all used phrases like “sadistic manager, pardon the redundancy.” It’s not as though I haven’t made enough other Career Limiting Remarks in my years at the sweatshop. One of these days, I’ll go too far and they’ll decide that my brilliance just isn’t worth it.
So we’ll call it a wrap and if I develop a backbone between now and next week, the whining may return.
Until then: I love my job. I love my job. I love my job.
Thanks to Scott Weighart and Dr. Spartan Pompous.