It has been a while, so it’s time to shake off the rust as the key part of the season starts.
On the World Junior Championship
I often get accused for defending USA Hockey at the Under-20 level if it doesn’t go well. I’ll take that hit. There is plenty of blame to go around but one thing stands out: There were too many players expected to play big roles that didn’t.
Goaltender Jack Campbell will be the first one to tell you he didn’t play as well as he wanted to and he expected more from himself. He is such a fierce competitor that maybe he put too much on himself to succeed.
Goaltending was suspect, defense wasn’t tenacious at times, and the big forwards played with indifference. The Americans’ defense was big but wasn’t snarly. They were hard to get around but lacked at times in winning defensive zone battles.
The forwards got to the net but never physically imposed themselves in the slot. They outchanced the Czechs by about 24-5 but were beaten by great goaltending and some poor execution in the offensive zone. They took the Finns a little too lightly, helped by watching them get crushed by Canada before the U.S. blew out a Denmark team that would have struggled to beat a decent NCAA team.
The Finland game sent the collective psyche in the wrong direction, similar to the way the New Year’s Eve loss to Canada in Ottawa did in 2009.
In the Czech game (which followed the Finland game) the Americans outplayed, outshot and outchanced their opponent much like they did against the Slovaks in 2009 but could not score. They even missed a penalty shot in each of the games. Petr Mrazek was the brick wall this year as Jaroslav Janus was back in ’09. Both Mrazek and Janus are/were OHL goalies.
Team USA had lousy luck but good teams make their own luck; this group didn’t. Keep in mind that this team had three-fourths of the coaching staff from the gold-medal performance in 2010, the one change being Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin replacing Mark Osiecki, who took a year off after two years on the job at the WJC.
They didn’t forget how to coach. The pervasive feeling among many observers in Edmonton and watching back here in the U.S. was that the team didn’t execute, and that is on the players. Additionally, injuries, illness and never being able to build momentum in a tournament based on health, chemistry and momentum were factors.
On the NCAA front, I liked the efforts from defenseman Jacob Trouba, a Michigan recruit. He showed his inexperience at times in an 18-19-year old tourney but overall the kid was terrific. I thought Stephen Johns had a good tourney; he overpinched at times but made an impact more often than not. Austin Czarnik, T.J. Tynan, Josh Archibald and Jon Merrill were solid.
I loved Charlie Coyle for most of the tourney; he fought a flu bug for part of it. Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau were good at times. I really liked Billy Arnold in the tourney.
Attention, players: Smarten up on your Twitter follows.
As you know, people can see who you follow. Some of you follow some accounts that leave a little to be desired about your ability to judge what is in good taste. Kids are kids and by all means be a kid when you still can. However, scouts can also see who you are following and some of your follows are bad ideas.
NHL management teams want to know who their prospects are away from the rink. Scouts are always evaluating character, especially among free agents. The more information they have the better picture of you they see.
Way too much is on your social media sites that can possibly turn off a team quickly. Pictures on Facebook of you holding beer bottles or empty cups at a party might not be the image you want to portray. Don’t put yourself in a spot where you are answering questions you don’t want to have to answer to future employers with big contracts on the line.
On the Frozen Four
I’m starting to feel Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame are teams that should be in Tampa. I haven’t seen every contender yet, but these two I’m sold on.
Notre Dame needs the goaltending to be solidified and it is as good as any team in the nation. Nick Larson slowly is becoming my favorite NCAA player. Duluth is deep, can skate, is great in goal and is well coached.
I know Ohio State is having a great season but it is rare to see a team that hasn’t had a track record of success get to the Frozen Four without hitting a speed bump or two in the process (ask Miami). Boston College is always a threat. Minnesota is certainly heading in a good direction.
On Michigan State
I like a lot that is going on there. The team plays a nice, spirited game and the program is trending upward.
One note here: The Spartans have a “Coffee With Coach” program that allows members of the media to sit and have a cup of joe with Tom Anastos (kind of like coffee talk). It’s a great way to sit in an informal situation and chat hockey. I like what MSU is doing there. Tom Anastos and his outgoing persona and social graces are a huge asset.
On College Hockey Inc.
I loved the idea of a game in Winnipeg featuring North Dakota. UND and Clarkson played in a game co-sponsored by UND and College Hockey Inc., run by the indefatigable Paul Kelly. In addition to the game, Kelly and his staff ran an educational/recruiting event for elite young players in the Winnipeg area, further exposing the U.S. college game to kids north of the border.
UND coach Dave Hakstol and Clarkson coach Casey Jones also joined in, as did Mark Chapman, president of the Winnipeg Jets. Once again, Kelly and his staff are doing all the right things to promote college hockey.
On Western Michigan
Having seen a lot of its games the past season and a half, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say Western Michigan will make a Frozen Four in the next few years.
Well coached, with great support and steadily improving, the Broncos are a team to keep an eye on. Coach Andy Murray always was intrigued by the idea of coaching in the NCAA. He has coached at every other level and brings a ton of experience and a recent induction to the IIHF Hall of Fame to Kalamazoo.
When asked about coaching players in the NCAA age group as opposed to NHL guys, he said, “This team is older than some of my teams in L.A. or St. Louis.”
The players have responded to him and to his predecessor, Jeff Blashill. Blashill left after last season to become an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings but left a well-stocked cupboard for Murray, who will continue to stockpile talent and probably win a few recruiting battles in Michigan against the Wolverines and MSU. He’ll have his experience and track record of success, potentially the best conference in college hockey and a rabid fan base to sell to recruits.
Minnesota-Duluth visited Kalamazoo to play Western Michigan for a nationally televised game on CBS Sports Network last Friday. One thing that struck me as unique: All three of the coaches on the visiting bench had once called Kalamazoo home. Sandelin, Derek Plante and Jason Herter all played for the Kalamazoo Wings/Michigan K Wings franchise, which plays its home games a couple of miles from Lawson Arena.
Western Michigan visits Notre Dame on CBS Sports Network Friday night. Both games last semester were great games. Ben Holden, Shireen Saski and myself are on the call. Notre Dame is featured again next Saturday (Jan. 21) vs Michigan on CBS Sports Network. It’s the first visit by the Wolverines to the Compton Family Ice Arena. An interesting note is many of the artists renderings showing what the arena would look like full with a game being played were drawings of a game between Notre Dame and Michigan.
Intermissions feature a weekly Twitter question, this week’s being “Does college hockey need more non-conference games in its schedule?”