NCAA hockey going with new “super conferences” a dangerous route to take

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With college hockey becoming more well known to mainstream sports fans with the proliferation of the Frozen Four and more games appearing on cable TV, many people around the NCAA feel like it’s their time to seize the day. The first shot in this happened when Terry Pegula gave Penn State $80 million to help start the varsity program there that will begin play in 2012.

Penn State joining the varsity ranks helped give rise to the Big Ten Conference in hockey, a group that will pull teams out of both the CCHA and WCHA to form their own little party as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State will team up with Penn State to form their own league.

That drastic move that awaits in a few years meant that the WCHA lost two of their biggest earning and drawing teams and the CCHA essentially lost their lifeline with the two Michigan schools. Everyone else that will be left behind in 2013-2014 when the Big Ten comes to order would be left trying to figure out what in the world they’re going to do. As it turns out, six schools figured things out on their own and will form a “super conference” of their own that will see North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, and Miami University form the Collegiate Hockey Conference that will start in 2013-2014 as well.

Left on the outside looking in are the rest of the teams from the soon-to-be-defunct WCHA and CCHA (St. Cloud, Mankato State, Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage; Alabama-Huntsville is already independent) with a future that is uncertain at best. Ryan Lambert from Yahoo’s! Puck Daddy says that the start-up of this new conference along with the Big Ten Conference means that pain is on the way to those who are left behind.

What they’ve essentially done is left other programs for dead. Far be it for me to advocate a welfare system in college hockey, but what the hell, one has existed for years anyway. The NCAA has been giving autobids to shall-we-say undeserving conferences for years, and how much good has it done them? Next to none. Teams and conferences have been folding left and right in the last few years, and no one seems particularly concerned about the state of the sport at the college except for people who want to write weepy eulogies to teams no one cared about at relatively small schools that can’t support the team without the money brought in by bigger teams. Imagine what a weekend’s worth of gate receipts against Minnesota or NoDak means to teams like Michigan Tech.

By creating this new conference, the six teams are ensuring their own insulation from the fallout created by the Big Ten by shoving smaller teams into its path.

On the opposite side of this view, there are those that think by doing things this way that college hockey can become more of a draw for television and that by breaking everyone into this odd sort of caste system will make life better for those who are able to keep up. Minnesota-Duluth radio play-by-play man and former Fanhouse writer Bruce Ciskie makes his case for why this isn’t the death knell for college hockey.

It’s a chance for the schools in Minnesota and upper Michigan to build new rivalries that will excite the fans. It’s a chance for all of them to get into a situation where they are battling peer schools for recruits, as opposed to trying to recruit against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

We could end up not losing programs, giving more teams a real chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and we are setting up a league structure that allows for future expansion if it becomes feasible for someone to add the sport. If this scenario plays out, tell me how this isn’t a good thing for college hockey, a sport that simply needs to find ways to expand.

The possibilities are there for this pan out well and pay off for college hockey, but by creating groups of “haves” and “have nots” which is what this new set up will do is dangerous for a sport that’s both expensive for schools to budget and one without a definitive television presence to help pay the bills. With these conferences all breaking off and doing their own thing, doing so and seemingly having it happen without regard to the schools struggling to stay afloat isn’t wise.

College hockey is the ultimate niche in what’s a niche sport as it is. With the NHL being fourth among the professional sports and college hockey being on very few radars, potentially losing programs to send players to reeks of cutting off the nose to spite the face. You can argue about the merits of the schools that might fail and disappear (Bowling Green and Alabama-Huntsville top the short list) but in a world that sees the number of FBS football programs slowly increasing and the number of D-I college basketball programs on the rise as well, having programs fail and reduce the playing field is brutally unwise.

Perhaps things will work out the way Ciskie sees it and things will work for the betterment of the game and see a rise in the number of programs and a rise in attention for the sport, but with so many things up in the air right now it’s hard to believe that smaller schools can withstand the blow of losing all of their big money conference rivals. Creating a second class in a sport that needs all the help it can get is a dicey proposition. For college hockey fans and supporters, they’ll have to wait to find out who’s right in the end. Here’s to hoping those in charge have their act together and aren’t looking for the neck-saving cash grab.

Marc-Andre Fleury set for return after getting taken off IR

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The Vegas Golden Knights have their starting goaltender back.

After nearly two months and 25 missed games, Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to make his return to the lineup on Tuesday after being pulled off injured reserve on Sunday.

Fleury hasn’t played since Oct. 13 when Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha collided with the 33-year-old as he drove to the net. Fleury was shaken up on the play but saw it through, picking up his first loss of the season after allowing six goals on 27 shots.

Fleury was solid in the crease in the four games he figured into, going 3-1-0 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.48 goals-against average.

Since he went down, the Golden Knights have had four other netminders see the crease after injuries ran rampant through their goaltending stable.

Their combined record, despite a clear lacking of NHL experience, has been remarkable:

  • Malcolm Subban – 10 GP, 7-2-0, .924 save percentage
  • Maxime Lagace – 14 GP, 6-6-1, .872 save percentage
  • Oscar Dansk – 4 GP, 3-0-0, .946 save percentage
  • Dylan Ferguson – 1 GP, 0-0-0, .500 save percentage

Remember when Subban was claimed off waivers on the eve of the start of the regular season? Quite the steal.

That adds up to a 16-8-1 record with Fleury out of the lineup, which is incredible given how banged up Vegas got between the pipes.

The Golden Knights are on a four-game heater at the moment, and with Subban playing admirably — winning his past three starts — it remains to be seen if Fleury takes the crease on Tuesday.

If not Tuesday, Fleury is surely a lock to get the start against his former team. The Pittsburgh Penguins come to town on Thursday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jaden Schwartz’s ankle injury derails career-year pace

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Jaden Schwartz was on pace to flirt with a triple-digit point total this season.

‘Was’ is the keyword here because, for the second time in three years, Schwartz will miss a significant chunk of time with an ankle injury.

How long he will be on the shelf this time around is undetermined, but Schwartz won’t be evaluated for six weeks after blocking a shot off his right ankle in a 6-1 rout of the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.

The injury bug hasn’t been kind to Schwartz’s ankles. During the 2015-16 season, he was limited to just 33 games after sustaining a broken ankle in practice.

The fresh diagnosis is a frustrating blow for Schwartz and the Blues, who have watched his line with Brayden Schenn and Alexander Steen turn into one of the top trios in the NHL this season.

Through 30 games, the 25-year-old had 14 goals and 35 points, placing him second on the Blues, behind Schenn, and ninth in league-wide scoring, tied with Connor McDavid.

At his current pace, Schwartz, playing roughly 20 minutes a night, would have hit 98 points. And a little lucky bounce or two here and there might have propelled him above the century mark, setting career highs along the way.

For the Blues, dealing with devastating injuries is all-to-familiar this season.

But what’s probably most impressive about how successful the Blues have been this season is how they’ve been able to exceed all reasonable expectations despite dealing with a hefty number of major ailments.

The injury bug has been more akin to a foul beast in the Gateway to the West. From Robby Fabbri gone for the season with a torn ACL and Zach Sanford sidelined for months with a shoulder problem to Jay Bouwmeester missing 20 games to start the year and Steen missing the first six.

Not many predicted the Blues to be where they are in mid-December: second place the Western Conference standings with 42 points, just two back of top spot in the league.

And now the Blues, in the midst of a three-game winning streak, will have to navigate another injury to a key piece of their lineup.

They’ve shown the ability to overcome injury adversity before, but losing a key piece of your top six and a top scorer is never easy.

If anyone has the formula down, however, it’s the Bluenotes.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Another shutout for Bobrovsky; Kings make it eight in a row

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Player Of The Night: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Already with a pair of Vezina Trophies in his trophy case, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky looks like he wants to add another one to his collection. Thanks to his 35-save effort on Saturday night against the Arizona Coyotes Bobrovsky was able to record his league-leading fourth shutout of the season. His save percentage after Saturday’s game sits at .930, a mark that is tied for the top spot in the league (minimum 15 appearances) with Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford.

Eight in a row for the Kings

It wasn’t easy, and they nearly let it slip away by giving up two goals in the final seven minutes of regulation to send the game to overtime, but the Los Angeles Kings extended their winning streak to eight games with a 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Tanner Pearson scored the game-winning goal in overtime.

Vegas Does It Again

Speaking of winning streaks, the Vegas Golden Knights were able to keep pace with the Kings in the Pacific Division by winning their fourth in a row with a 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars. They have already put together two five-game winning streaks this season and have a chance to do it again. They are an expansion team. It is early December. They have a shot at three five-game winning streaks in their first season and are likely headed to the playoffs. This is all astonishing.

Highlight Of The Night.

The Colorado Avalanche blew out the Florida Panthers on Saturday night with a 7-3 win. It also produced the highlight of the night when Nathan MacKinnon cruised through the Florida defense and scored this absolute beauty to tie the game, 2-2. The Avalanche would score five more goals after that.

He made that look easy.

The Panthers were happy to help, it seems.

Factoid Of The Night.

If Mike Cammalleri could play all of his games against the Montreal Canadiens this season he would be unstoppable. His goal on Saturday night in Edmonton’s 6-2 win over the Canadiens was just his fourth of the season. Three of them have come against Montreal. In three games against the Canadiens (with two different teams — the Los Angeles Kings and now the Edmonton Oilers) he has five points in those games. He has just six points against everybody else in the league in 22 games.

Panarin Offers Another Helping Hand

With his assist on the lone Blue Jackets goal Artemi Panarin has now assisted on each of the past six Blue Jackets goals. He set up all five of their goals in the Blue Jackets’ 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night. All six of those assists over the two games have been the primary assist on every goal. He is the Blue Jackets’ leading scorer with 26 points in the team’s first 30 games. He is eight points ahead of Josh Anderson, the second-leading scorer on the team.

Scores

St. Louis Blues 6, Detroit Red Wings 1

Boston Bruins 3, New York Islanders 1

Edmonton Oilers 6, Montreal Canadiens 2

Tampa Bay Lightning 4, Winnipeg Jets 3

Colorado Avalanche 7, Florida Panthers 3

New York Rangers 5, New Jersey Devils 2

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 1, Arizona Coyotes 0

Vegas Golden Knights 5, Dallas Stars 3

San Jose Sharks 5, Ottawa Senators 0

Calgary Flames 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

Los Angeles Kings 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Backes ejected for head-butting; Marchand catches Tavares with late hit

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The NHL’s department of player safety will have a couple of things to look at from the third period of the Boston Bruins’ 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday night as the Bruins were assessed a pair of major penalties, including one that was accompanied with a game misconduct.

Let us start with the latter play.

Bruins forward David Backes was ejected with just under nine minutes to play when he was called for head-butting Islanders forward Andrew Ladd during the skirmish seen below.

That is not one that you see get called very often, but it did get called here and it ended up giving Backes an early exit.

That came about 10 minutes after Bruins forward Brad Marchand was given a five-minute major for interference when he hit Islanders captain John Tavares with a high, late hit.

Video here (via Chris Abraham)

Tavares seemed to be a little shaken up initially but remained in the game.

Marchand and the Department of Player Safety are quite familiar with one another and Marchand does have a history of suspensions and fines throughout his career, so it would not be a shock if he ended up getting a phone call this weekend from the league for that hit.

Marchand has become one of the best players in the league in recent seasons, a development that makes his repeated run-ins with the DoPS all the more frustrating.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.