Friday, April 2, 2010

State of the ECAC

RIT's improbable run to the Frozen Four this season gives Atlantic Hockey another step forward in its continuing development as a conference. Considered a laughingstock when they first formed in the late 1990s as the MAAC, the conference has been on an upward trend practically since the beginning. They received an NCAA autobid in 2001 (Mercyhurst), had a program deemed solid enough to accede to one of the four traditional leagues in 2005 (Quinnipiac), earned their first NCAA win in 2006 (Holy Cross), got within an overtime goal of the Frozen Four in 2009 (Air Force) and finally broke through this year (RIT). The only two things remaining on the resume for Atlantic Hockey is to earn an at-large bid and to win the national championship.

With Bemidji State's Frozen Four appearance last season and CCHA, WCHA, and Hockey East representatives also making Frozen Four appearances this season, it means that the ECAC has been the conference missing from the culminating experience of the college hockey season for the longest time.

Is the ECAC now a non-entity?

Let's look at the hard truths.

The ECAC hasn't had a Hobey Baker winner (Lane MacDonald) or a national champion (MacDonald's Harvard) since 1989.

The ECAC hasn't placed a team in the national championship game since 1990 (Colgate).

The ECAC hasn't placed a team in the Frozen Four since 2003 (Cornell).

Those are streaks of 21, 20, and seven years respectively. Yes, it's a partial indicator of the ECAC's current status in the college hockey world, but does it mean the ECAC is dying?

There can be little discussion about where the ECAC honestly places among the five conferences - it's fourth. The pundits can bicker and argue all they want about which conference reigns supreme between the WCHA, CCHA, and Hockey East, but the consensus ought to at least come down that the ECAC is behind those three conferences but ahead of Atlantic Hockey.

The NCAA Tournament expanded to 16 teams for the 2002-03 season.
Average bids per conference
WCHA: 4.38
CCHA: 3.75
HEA: 3.63
ECAC: 2.13
CHA: 1.13
AHA: 1.00

See that? With the CHA now defunct, it's pretty cut and dried - the ECAC hasn't been achieving the success of the WCHA, CCHA, or Hockey East, but they're easily more competitive than Atlantic Hockey despite the recent gains.

It isn't for lack of trying. Yale (2010), Cornell (2005, 2006 and 2009) and Clarkson (2008) all came within a single game of reaching the Frozen Four since the Big Red made their last appearance in 2003. Cornell was actually a trendy pick this year to get the Frozen Four slot that eventually ended up going to RIT.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Yes, a 3-bid season for the ECAC is considered something of an outstanding showing, where it's a disaster for the WCHA. No, the ECAC still hasn't been able to field 4 teams in NCAAs. But there's hope.

Conference dominance is somewhat cyclical. The CCHA from 2000 to 2002 was able to place only two teams (Michigan and Michigan State) in the 12-team NCAA tournament. From 2004 to 2006, they had no teams in the Frozen Four.

Yale will be strong again next season. RPI, Union, and St. Lawrence are on their way up. Cornell might take a step back but they're always pretty strong. Clarkson and Princeton are almost certainly going to rebound, as is Harvard.

So what is the state of the ECAC? Don't let an exuberant RIT fan convince you that they've passed the rest of the world by. They had a fantastic weekend last week and earned their place in the Frozen Four. But Brown earned their place in Albany this year, too. That didn't mean they were one of the top four teams in the league. This is the Tigers' moment, but it'll be all too fleeting. The truth is, they're a very dominant team in a pretty weak league.

The ECAC had a nightmarish year in non-league play. The league's 12 teams put together a total of 2 wins in 16 games against WCHA teams, 4 in 15 games against CCHA teams, and just 9 in 31 games against Hockey East, a whopping 30.6% winning percentage.

Against Atlantic Hockey, though? 18 wins in 27 games. Yes, 10 years ago it was headline news when Sacred Heart beat Cornell to achieve the then-MAAC's first ever win against a Big Four team. Now it happens with a bit more frequency, but the divide is striking.

The truth about the ECAC is this. It exists today as hockey's lone equivalent of the "mid-major" conferences in basketball. Not full of world beaters, but every once in a while, you get a team or two that comes out of it with a real chance to take everything. There isn't (and won't be) a steady stream of national contenders coming out of the ECAC, but it'll happen from time to time. Mark my words - there will be, in the future, a national champion to come from our ranks. It'll be real, and earned.

The tournament? The admissions standards? Those are questions for another day. We may not be the WCHA... but we're not necessarily the "EZAC" either.

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