TMQ: Is there a right time for NCAA Division I coaches to leave for NHL jobs?

David Quinn (BU - Head Coach) - The Boston University Terriers defeated the Holy Cross Crusaders 3-2 on Saturday, October 12, 2013, at Agganis Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Boston University’s David Quinn left the school last summer to take the head coaching job with the NHL’s New York Rangers (photo: Melissa Wade).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Jim: Well, Paula, I guess when we look back at this weekend, we can say one thing: the hot teams remained hot.

UMass Lowell and Bentley both extended their unbeaten streaks to 10 and 11 games, respectively. Bentley did it with a sweep of Canisius at home, while Lowell did one better, winning home games against Boston College and No. 2 Massachusetts.

What struck me about the River Hawks is that both wins were shutouts AND that they used two different goaltenders over the two nights, going with Tyler Wall on Friday and Chris Hernberg on Saturday.

I know that people who have read things I have to say about goaltending know I believe that finding and riding a No. 1 is usually the best option. I can think of a couple of great goaltending tandems in college hockey (the most notable, of course, was Garth Snow and Mike Dunham for the 1993 national champion Maine Black Bears). But typically, having that one-two punch where each goaltender is equally reliable is often difficult to find and, even more so, difficult to maintain.

Right now, the River Hawks seem to be doing just that. Both have had long stretches in their careers as a starter: Wall two years ago as a freshman when he set Lowell’s all-time wins record for a goaltender and Hernberg last year as a junior, stepping in while Wall struggled and earning team MVP honors.

In this day of hockey, having two No. 1 goaltenders seems pretty rare, but does this to you seem like a case where it is working?

Paula: It does seem increasingly unusual to me, and it’s especially interesting in terms of Lowell for the very reasons you’ve said.

It strikes me as unusual for goalies who have previously started for extended periods of time to be in a rotation – a successful rotation, that is. It’s not at all unusual to see goalies rotated when a team isn’t doing particularly well.

Throughout my long years of covering the CCHA, I can recall a few seasons in which some successful teams rotated goaltenders, but when it came time to the playoffs, most teams settled on one starter to carry them through to the end.

Last year, Michigan rotated Jack LaFontaine and Hayden Lavigne for a good little part of the season, but Lavigne emerged as the goaltender who brought the Wolverines to the Frozen Four, and LaFontaine left the program in June, after his sophomore season.

This year, Ohio State is rotating sophomore Tommy Nappier with senior Sean Romeo. Romeo played 37 games for the Buckeyes after sitting out a year following his transfer from Maine, with a .927 save percentage, 2.06 goals-against average, and a Frozen Four appearance.

Romeo started a little slowly this year and Nappier was given a chance. Nappier has the second-best save percentage (.946) and GAA (1.60) in the nation plus the top win percentage (.857) in the country.

The two really are rotating. The Buckeyes extended their win streak to seven games with a sweep of Wisconsin last weekend with Romeo winning Friday, Nappier winning Saturday, and each giving up one goal apiece. It will be interesting to see whether Steve Rohlik will go with one during the playoffs or continue to rotate the two.

Jim: Another interesting news item that came out on Monday is that Boston College extended the contract of long-time head coach Jerry York. I only say interesting because many have asked me over the last couple of years when I think York would retire.

My constant answer to that question is the same: “Never.”

And I believe that. Sure, maybe at one point, Jerry York will want to step down, but I don’t see that day coming any time soon. Having covered the Boston College beat for a number of years, my gut instinct on York is that he loves coaching so much he could never be as happy when retired. Thus, it will be on his terms that he retires, I believe.

That said, it does make it difficult to groom a replacement.

I look at New Hampshire and Dick Umile who basically handpicked his replacement in Michael Souza and had him on staff prior to his retirement. It’s difficult for Boston College to do that because you can’t bring in that “replacement” when said coach never understands when he’ll take over that top spot. Greg Brown lasted for a long time as an associate head coach, seemingly an heir apparent, but eventually got courted away by David Quinn who offered him an assistant position with the New York Rangers.

That becomes a conundrum, doesn’t it?

Paula: Yes, indeed, quite the conundrum.

I’m with you in that I don’t see York happy in any kind of retirement because he’s doing what he absolutely loves now. Again with a Michigan reference, but we saw something similar when Red Berenson was given a year-to-year contract and the power to stay or leave as he wished. Mel Pearson looked like the heir there, too, but he was wise to take the position at Michigan Tech, show what he could do with a program that needed to be rebuilt and to get some experience as a head coach. Granted, Michigan seemed to be Pearson’s if he wanted after Berenson retired, but who knew when that would be?

In the end, Pearson gained a lot by leaving and his success at Michigan Tech sealed it for him when Berenson did retire.

Another wrinkle is how the NCAA is developing coaching talent. I get a kick out of AHL affiliates have quite a bit of coaching and front-office talent pulled from the NCAA ranks. I don’t think it was any coincidence that Bowling Green extended Chris Bergeron’s contract when assistant coaching positions became available under Jeff Blashill in Detroit.

As the NCAA becomes an increasingly reliable place for NHL talent to develop, Jimmy, do you think that we’ll see more NHL coaches who came up through the NCAA ranks?

Jim: I think that success dictates the future for NCAA coaches in the NHL. It is still a very unproven market for NHL owners and GMs.

That said, I think that the opportunity always exists, particularly for coaches to elevate to assistant coaching positions.

That said, you have to ask the question: why? I understand David Quinn, who was paid a salary that was reportedly a multiple of what he was getting paid at Boston University. And that’s not a knock on BU. But the NHL has larger budgets that can, when possible, attract college coaches with large contracts.

But why would college head coaches leave for assistant positions? For the most part, they aren’t paid on the same scale. And you also give up control, which may seem minor, but any head coach would tell you that’s not something that comes easy. It’s a difficult proposition for most, I think.

Paula: I hear everything you’re saying here, Jimmy.

That point about control is probably something that many coaches who are offered a way into the NHL but not as a head coach consider. I guess they’d have to weigh the option of advancement in the pro ranks – if that is, in fact, their ultimate goal.

Look at how many NCAA head coaches that we know who are happy where they are, guys whose teams aren’t always in the hunt for a national championship, who speak often of the opportunity to develop young talent and also help to teach young men. Beyond being in control of a team – a gig that is tough to secure given the small relatively small field – every NCAA coach I know today and the vast majority I’ve known throughout my decades of coverage has valued his role as mentor and teacher as much as coach.

Take Wisconsin coach Tony Granato. After serving as an assistant for all but two-and-a-half of his 13 years coaching in the NHL, Granato jumped at the chance to return to Madison as head coach at the start of the 2016-17 season. Part of the job requirement is to hold a degree, so in his first year on campus, Granato finished the undergraduate degree he’d put on hold three decades earlier when family and career came before the last few credits he needed to graduate.

Not only does Granato get the chance to run a college hockey team in a high-profile conference, but finishing his degree in his first year as head coach sets all kinds of positive examples for his players. Maybe that’s what it comes down to for coaches like Jerry York, who may never retire, and Granato who returned to the college ranks – and Western Michigan’s Andy Murray, who spent a decade in the NHL as a head coach before taking the job in Kalamazoo.

Coaching college hockey is a choice that is as much about the process as the product.