Commentary: When the No. 1 team really isn’t the No. 1 team

Michigan is No. 1 in the latest Division I Men’s Poll, but does that mean Michigan is the best team in the country or the best team last weekend? Did routing St. Lawrence in a building that might offer the best home-ice advantage in college hockey make the Wolverines the No. 1 team in the nation?

Polls are troubling because they can be a popularity contest and at other times can be very misleading. Take last season for example. Yale was No. 1 for a long time but there were quite a few NHL scouts who watch a ton of college hockey who felt that while Yale was attaining the best results on a consistent basis it was, at best, the eighth best team in the country.

This is not a column that will thrill my colleagues at USCHO but no matter what poll is being voted on it is time for some formula to end, A, popularity contests, B, bias toward your local team and, C, picking teams with the best record over picking teams with quality wins. We’ll attack this in a later column or an intermission Twitter segment on a CBS Sports Network broadcast. Ideas are welcome.

Michigan at No. 1 with home wins over Niagara (which gave the Wolverines quite a battle despite the score), a sweep of Bentley and a convincing win over St. Lawrence is misleading. Michigan football was 6-0 before last weekend, but was it No. 1 in the NCAA football poll? No, because the reality was it beat some subpar teams, a couple of decent ones at home and — depending on your level of objectivity (full disclosure: I’m a Notre Dame football fan) — they struggled to beat Notre Dame at home. Rank that where you want to.

Looking closely, strength of schedule determines LSU is the best college football team in the nation and deserves to be No. 1. The SEC is the best conference and LSU is dominating that, having beaten three ranked opponents, two on the road, in September.

To be a No. 1, you need big-time wins. Denver beating Boston College in Boston is a big win. BC beating North Dakota in Grand Forks is a big win. Notre Dame winning at national champion Minnesota-Duluth is a big win. Minnesota’s sweep at Duluth has to be a better ranked pair of wins than Michigan’s home sweep of Bentley. That is just common sense.

Northern Michigan won at Wisconsin and swept St. Cloud State. Michigan Tech swept Wisconsin.

Now, North Dakota lost to BC and BC became No. 1, so NoDak lost to a No. 1 team. Then NoDak beat a top-20 team, Maine, in Grand Forks. That should be a better win than Michigan’s over St. Lawrence or Bentley.

I’ll give you one better, actually two. Quinnipiac is 4-1 and won at Ohio State so it has a road win where Michigan doesn’t and their schedules are pretty comparable. Colgate won at Nebraska-Omaha and split with Miami. Boston University hasn’t had a shabby start; it beat the team that beat the No. 1 team. (You can insert any other wins you deem significant here; I was trying to avoid overkill.)

You can make a better case Denver should be No. 1 as opposed to Michigan. North Dakota could have that spot also.

The point is this: Polls are misleading. Whether it be football or hockey, those voting rarely if ever see every team in the top 20 that week or even that season.

Voting based on box scores isn’t my thing. Strength of schedule needs to be a factor at some point. Road wins probably should hold some credence over home wins. The Ivies haven’t played a game yet; how are Yale and Cornell in the top 10? Good rosters, good programs, great staffs but they haven’t played yet. You can’t be ranked without playing a game!

This entire rant is not to say Michigan isn’t a good team or hasn’t had a good start. The Wolverines lost a lot from last year and have come out strong. However, even Michigan will tell you it isn’t the No. 1 team in the nation; it just has the best record.

It is a flawed system.

Then again, do we care enough to fix it?

Top ten

Recently my colleagues put out top 10 lists of forwards, defensemen and goalies. Lists are great because they stir up debate, get people talking and generally annoy die hard fanatics whose favorite player gets snubbed.

I’d like to take a second to comment on the goalie list.

The fact that Shawn Hunwick of Michigan wasn’t No. 1, let alone in the top 10, is ridiculous.

I really like New Hampshire’s Matt DiGirolamo, but if I needed to win a big game Hunwick would get my vote. The reality is Hunwick has won several big games, actually won a regional final that he wound up losing on a bad video review, and lost a national title game in OT. You can make a case that Hunwick is as sound a goalie technically as there is at the Division I level. How he was ignored by coaches that were consulted for the story is beyond me.

Is he an NHL prospect like some of the others on that list? Probably not. Is he a better NCAA goalie right now then the 10 on that list? Absolutely.

More No. 1s

On the subject of goalies, Adam Murray of Denver and Parker Milner of Boston College will have good seasons. Both are cut in that blocker-style mold of the modern goalie but both have some creativity and fluidity to their game and seem to have a grasp on how to play the position with situational reactions as opposed to letting pucks hit them.

Milner is a treat to talk goaltending with. The kid really understands the position and how it works. Murray does as well. He’ll do well holding the fort while he has the No. 1 job.

Two for the road

If I was an NHL general manager looking to fill a spot on my coaching staff at the NHL or AHL level, North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol would be on my radar.

Michigan State’s Tom Anastos won his first NCAA game with an OT win over Air Force on Oct. 8. It was good to see Ron Mason on hand for the beginning of the Anastos era at MSU. Anastos won’t eclipse Mason’s 924 NCAA wins, but keep an eye on Jerry York, who is 41 away.