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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.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.

Capitals bump Todd Reirden up to associate coach

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Assistant coach Todd Reirden of the Washington Capitals talks to the power play unit during a time-out against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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The Washington Capitals announced that Todd Reirden (pictured) was promoted from assistant to associate coach on Monday.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, most directly, the team shared word that he’ll run Capitals training camp while Barry Trotz works with Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Giving Reirden a promotion makes sense, as he’s been linked to some head coaching searches. The Washington Post compiled some of his opportunities:

In the past two years, Reirden has been a serious candidate for two NHL head-coaching gigs. According to the Calgary Sun, Reirden was a finalist to coach the Flames before they settled on Glen Gulutzan, and he was considered for the New Jersey Devils’ vacancy last summer, too. Lane Lambert, another Capitals assistant, was a finalist for the Colorado Avalanche head-coaching job earlier this month, according to the Denver Post.

The Capitals have a pretty well-regarded coaching group, as many credit goaltending coach Mitch Korn with some of Braden Holtby‘s improvement since Trotz took over.

Maybe we’ll see Reirden and Lambert get head coaching gigs at some point, but for now, Trotz’s “coaching tree” stays intact.

Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

Bishop’s expiring contract

The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

(For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

Win low, worry later

GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

(Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

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It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.