Monday, September 22, 2014

Is the Power Back?

There have been a few ruminations this offseason that the ECAC, after 30 years out of the national limelight in terms of being one of the "power conferences," is back.

I'd love for that to be true. However, as I usually end up doing, there needs to be some cold water thrown on this enthusiasm.

Yes, the ECAC has, after 25 years of none of its teams grabbing the mightiest crown, done it two years in a row. The league has produced the top team in the nation these last two seasons and there's an opportunity for the league to do it again this season. But when we're talking about which conferences are the cock of the walk, the ECAC is still a mid-major conference (although it's no longer the only one after the recent rearrangement).

The WCHA for years fancied itself as the very best conference in the nation and between 2000 and 2006, the fact that the conference won six of seven national championships (and placed at least one team in the title game in each of those years) was a point put forward as proof. So why can't the ECAC's back-to-back crowns be fully indicative of the league's ascension?

It's not simply the very best who make up a league. It's a top-to-bottom enterprise, which means Yale and Union count just as much as Princeton and Harvard these last two years. While the WCHA was banging out champion after champion, they were also seeing four, five, and even six from their ranks (back when it was a 10 team league) earning NCAA berths. The ECAC still hasn't seen more than three even in its best season. If the league were truly establishing itself on that level, a rising tide would probably at least add one more team to the tournament mix.

Take heart, though. The ECAC is at least to the point where the conference is pretty much guaranteed at least two berths in any given year (the ECAC was stuck with just one berth in 2001 and 2004), and three, previously seen as a tremendous season for the league, is now much more of a realistic goal with regularity. Four spots for the first time since the Hockey East split is no longer a total fantasy - more of a stretch goal, now.

Three spots split between 12 teams is also not quite as impressive as two out of six, as the Big Ten landed, or three of nine, as the NCHC got. Those new conferences, both born from previous power conferences, join Hockey East (5 of 11 last season) as the three major conferences in college hockey. The WCHA (2 of 12), long legitimately held as the top league in the nation, was stripped of its most storied programs and in the blink of an eye, joined the ECAC as a mid-major last season. It's the western version of the Hockey East split, 30 years later.

The "EZAC" sobriquet was always ridiculous, and anyone still using it today looks even more ridiculous, but that fact isn't enough to say that the league as a whole is due the utmost respect from the rest of the college hockey world. There is more work to be done, over a much longer time, for the league to potentially work its way back to the power ranks. It won't be easy, if even possible.

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