Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New World Order

We are in the final season of the fourth iteration of the conference system in college hockey. Next year, things are going to look mighty different.

Fourth, you ask? What were the other three? Well, here they are, roughly.

1961 - 1981: The ECAC and the WCHA rule the roost, though the latter is generally stronger. Every national championship during this time period was won by a team from one of these conferences, through to 1983. The CCHA begins as a relatively minor conference midway through this period.

1981 - 1985: Still largely a period of dominance between the ECAC and the WCHA, but the CCHA's addition of Michigan and Michigan State shifts the balance a bit away from the WCHA.

1985 - 2000: The Hockey East split leads to a shift of power between the new conference, the WCHA, and the CCHA, with the ECAC in slow decline, especially after the early 1990s.

2000 - 2013: The era of the "Big Three," as the ECAC moves out of a position of power to become the lone mid-major, while the MAAC/AHA comes to being as the lone minor conference.

2013 - ???: The Big Ten tsunami rearranges the college hockey landscape as never before.

What could we be looking at in this fifth iteration of conference paradigm in college hockey?

Well, now that every team has lost a game this season, let's look at the current KRACH ratings to see where the new conference structure would stand if it were theoretically in place today - not a perfect comparison, since conference schedules will shift, but this is what it looks like.

Hockey East - 1, 2, 6, 7, 14, 19, 26, 34, 43, 44, 45, 52
NCHC - 3, 9, 10, 11, 15, 18, 20, 39
ECAC - 4, 5, 8, 13, 16, 17, 21, 23, 31, 32, 33, 46
Big Ten - 12, 27, 37, 42, 49, 54
WCHA - 24, 25, 28, 29, 30, 35, 36, 38, 50
Atlantic Hockey - 22, 40, 41, 47, 48, 51, 53, 55, 56, 57, 59
Independents - 58

Look at the NCHC - that's a holy cow stat right there. Seven of its eight teams are currently among the 20 best in the nation, and the eighth (Minnesota-Duluth) won a national championship two years ago. Think that might be a power conference?

The Big Ten is having a shockingly bad season in it's year before birth (to wit - independent Penn State is ranked ahead of 1-7-2 Wisconsin, and Michigan ain't that far ahead of them), but this season is likely the exception and not the rule, considering that four of the six teams in the conference are regulars in the national tournament under the current structure.

Also, no one can deny Hockey East's excellent standing, especially with Notre Dame about to join the fold. Three of its usual "Big Four" are off to a great start (Maine... not so much), although the biggest problem Hockey East faces is its gap between haves and have nots. Providence's decent start has them somewhere in the middle (26th), but besides the Friars there's a big gap between UMass-Lowell (19th) and Merrimack (34th). Still, in recent seasons we've seen the Warriors competitive and the River Hawks not so competitive. They'll be a strong conference.

Atlantic Hockey, with all but two of its teams outside the top 2/3 of the nation, will continue their current role of providing their tournament winner an automatic bid and nothing more. They are still a cost-containment league and until that changes, they are where they are.

That leaves the fate of the original two up for ponderance... the ECAC and the WCHA.

First, the ECAC. The only changes our league needs to worry about is how the shifting paradigms affect recruiting. The last shift certainly affected things for the worse, but with five teams offering a full complement of scholarships and the league as a whole attractive for the educational side, there's only so far the ECAC will slide. It's probably already reached the bottom, really.

But the new WCHA could be in an almost worse situation than the ECAC, and quickly. A mashup of the leftovers between the CCHA and current WCHA after the Big Ten and NCHC tore away basically all of their top programs, it's hard to peg an absolute best program from this new group of nine. By KRACH, right now, it's Alaska followed by Ferris State. You'd almost have to call the Bulldogs early favorites.

The currently comprised ECAC has won only five national championships, among only three of its members, and none since 1989 (Harvard). The new WCHA will have eight, among four members, but none since 1994 (Lake Superior State). That's not overly dissimilar.

There's one other way to look at which conference has the most power teams - NCAA bids. The conferences have averaged the following total bids per season in the last 10 years (since the tournament was expanded).

WCHA - 4.4 mean, 4/5 median, 5 mode (High 6 - 2008; Low 3 - 2007 and 2009)
CCHA - 3.9 mean, 4 median, 4 mode (High 5 - 2004 and 2012, Low 3 - 2003)
Hockey East - 3.6 mean, 4 median, 4 mode (High 5 - 2007; Low 2 - 2008)
ECAC - 2.2 mean, 2 median, 2 mode (High 3 - 2005, 2009, 2011; Low 1 - 2004)

Now apply the total bids per season to the new conferences.

NCHC - 4.2 mean, 4 median, 4 mode (High 7 - 2011; Low 3 - 2003 and 2005)
Hockey East - 4.1 mean (High 6 - 2007; Low 3 - 2008 and 2010)
Big Ten - 3.1 mean, 3 median, 3/4 mode (High 5 - 2004; Low 1 - 2011)
ECAC - 2.2 mean, 2 median, 2 mode (High 3 - 2005, 2009, 2011; Low 1 - 2004)
WCHA - 0.9 mean, 1 median, 0/1 mode (High 3 - 2010; Low 0 - 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011)

That's astounding to see. In the new WCHA, there were four different years in the last ten that none of the teams made the tournament. In fact, between 2004 and 2009 (six consecutive years), there wasn't a single team that will play in the WCHA next year that earned an at-large bid - Bemidji State, on three occasions in that span, won the CHA's automatic bid.

What does that mean? Well, for starters, it means the WCHA is dropping off a long ways prestige-wise. But a cursory look at the numbers tells us that, at least at first, hockey's new world order is still going to consist of the "Big Three," but two of those will be brand new conferences. The ECAC will still be a mid-major, in all likelihood.

The WCHA, however, looks like it's going to have to fight - and hard - to be mid-major level. It essentially ended up as the Island of Misfit Toys after realignment, and although its autobid now represents a big chance for teams that frequently don't get to compete for either the WCHA or CCHA autobid most years in the past, the new league may be hard-pressed to pick up an at-large bid even with the regularity of the ECAC, which almost always gets one and not unfrequently snags a second.

The NCHC, once it gets assembled, will almost certainly never get 7 bids as it did in 2011 (that would be almost the entire league, and someone has to finish in last), but the mean totals could average out about right. That would likely mean, more often than not, the WCHA will probably have to settle for its autobid, but at least they'll probably grab an extra bid every once in a while, which pegs them above Atlantic Hockey. But it looks like a quick drop from the top for college hockey's oldest conference, almost certainly quicker than the ECAC's fall from grace. Their motto is "just got tougher," put in place after Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha joined the fold. They can keep it next year, but it'll have a different meaning.

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