Monday, March 28, 2016

Now's Not The Time

Long time readers of Without a Peer may remember that during the "tsunami" of 2011 - the one which altered the landscape of college hockey on a scope unseen in 25 years - we endorsed the idea of RPI leaving the ECAC and joining Hockey East, had they been offered a spot to go along with Notre Dame's accession.

We had previously outlined the arguments from both RPI's and Hockey East's perspective, and while it was never absolute perfection for both sides, we thought it more or less made sense on the assumption that UConn was content giving hockey the short shrift. When that changed, they became the far more common sense 12th team and Hockey East absolutely made the right call by bringing the Huskies on board.

So, now that the question's come up, where do all of the points stand five years on? A good number of them have definitely changed - and they've started making an RPI-HEA marriage look like it's not quite as good of a deal as it did back then.

From RPI's perspective:

Competition: This simply isn't as big of an issue anymore. In 2011, the ECAC had gone eight years without placing a team in the Frozen Four, and just two in the previous 15. Now, as a conference, we've had teams there in four of the last five seasons, won two national championships (including seeing an all-ECAC championship in 2013), and are standing by for a potential third. Whatever has happened, whether it's a partial function of the shuffling or simply a resurgence of the ECAC, suddenly it's not looking like being in the ECAC is necessarily a roadblock to winning a national championship. That's not to say that Hockey East isn't still a step up, it's just that it's not that big of a step anymore.

Recruiting: To some extent, we could be seeing a microcosm of how RPI might fare in Hockey East in recruiting simply by looking at Quinnipiac. While the Engineers are basically already competing with Hockey East schools for top talent, there's also the academic issue that has to be examined closely - Quinnipiac may be a very good school with higher than average selectivity, but chances are pretty good that they've got a step on the rest of the ECAC in terms of the pool of players that can academically qualify to play there. That's just one team out of 11 - now imagine it being more or less the entire rest of the league. While being in Hockey East may help attract some better players simply by association, there's no doubt RPI's already losing most recruiting battles against Boston College. It gets worse when you're in the same conference. And, honestly, one can just go back to the change in competitive balance. Why take the risk when the step up isn't as big?

Exposure: Still better exposure in Hockey East. The league just markets itself better than the ECAC does.

Alumni base: Boston's still a good focus point with tons of alums. They're well represented every time RPI's at Harvard.

Increased attendance: Probably still a net benefit thanks to new matchups and more traveling fans.

Tournament: Hmm. Maybe let's worry about getting back to the semis first, eh? That task is likely to be slightly harder in Hockey East, but at least the ECAC is back in a desirable spot with Lake Placid.

Women's hockey: Probably still a slightly better situation for the women's team, although the top end of Hockey East is starting to get as good as the top end of the ECAC.

Small school security: This more or less now is a reference to the Ivy threat which always exists but has never seemed to come close to materializing. If the Ivies left the non-Ivies, Hockey East would probably be a better spot. But if they don't, it may not be.

Traditional rivalries and Ivy connections: With the change in competitive balance, the rivalries with the Liberty League teams and the Ivy-by-association elements are a little more difficult to relinquish.

Academic profile: It also makes moving to a league with a large public school contingent a little less attractive.

Glass ceiling: This has actually changed a bit toward the positive. In 2011, the top team in Hockey East had never come outside the traditional "Big Four." In 2013, for the first (and so far, only) time, a non "Big Four" team finished in first place - Lowell. In 2011, "Big Four" teams had won 15 straight Hockey East titles. They've now failed to win three of the last four (Lowell in 2013 and 2014, Northeastern in 2016). And of course, Providence won the national championship last year. So there does appear to be a bit more parity developing in Hockey East.

From the Hockey East perspective, things have changed too.

History: There's still no potential addition that can compare to RPI's overall history, but in terms of recent history, that's all to Quinnipiac. They've become a powerhouse in the 2010s - RPI hasn't been one since the 1990s. That's mighty important, for sure.

Traditional connections: Still there, but Quinnipiac seems to be cultivating their own relationships with Hockey East teams as well. These relationships don't go far enough to make for a logical choice.

Facilities: Houston Field House would still fit, but TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden is a far more desirable place. It's another reason why Quinnipiac is winning the ECAC's recruiting war.

Resurgence: In 2011, it looked like RPI was on their way back to the upper pantheon. That hasn't yet borne out in the intervening five years, sadly. But do you know who is resurgent (or at the very least, surgent - if that's a word)?

Geography: Quinnipiac is in New England, RPI is not (although it's very nearby). 11 of 11 remaining Hockey East teams are in New England. That's pretty solid stuff.

Small school: Still a potential tripping point.

Compact conferences: This stopped being a major concern when the CCHA schools either joined the NCHC or the WCHA. There's no concern about smaller conferences being "trendy."

It all adds up to Quinnipiac being a better candidate for Hockey East than RPI is. And that's something everyone should not only be OK with, they should be glad with that. Going over the points from five years ago, it's just kind of obvious that, from where we're standing, both RPI and Hockey East have very good reasons to not be getting together.

There's another reason RPI should stay away: the school's drowning in red ink. Thanks in large part to that big white elephant sitting on the hill above 8th Street, the Institute was facing $1 billion in debts and liabilities as of 2013-14. That situation hasn't markedly improved. Is this really a good time to move the hockey team to a conference that charged Notre Dame a $250,000 entrance fee and that would likely require an additional outlay of resources in order to be competitive? It doesn't seem like a good time, especially when you look at things from a holistic standpoint - to include the fact that the Institute is now taking over the entire athletic budget from the long-held auspice of the Student Union (which now itself may be about to fall victim to a hostile takeover).

If it comes down to adding a 12th team that currently exists - that is, there's no magic intervention from a sudden varsity program at URI or Syracuse - we'd have to peg RPI as 3rd on Hockey East's calling list, behind Quinnipiac's obvious #1 and Holy Cross' "we'd find a way to make this work because you're right here" 2nd.

Fourth is probably RIT, way out of the way but with a spiffy new rink and the history to make it work. Fifth is probably Bentley, completely predicated on the Falcons getting a new on-campus arena underway. Sixth... Union, maybe? It's kind of a stretch, what with the dump they play in and their immediate downturn after winning the national championship (the only thing that even makes them a candidate), but they're probably the only other ECAC team that would appear on their radar, unless Colgate's new rink is enough to make them look interesting (probably not). Clarkson and SLU are pretty much joined at the hip due to the geography and there's only one spot available.

So yeah, if Quinnipiac wants to stay in the ECAC, and Holy Cross continues to feel like their women's team is just fine in Division III, perhaps Hockey East might come calling. But from where we're sitting, the right response is going to be the same as that of the first two... "move along."

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