Back to Class: Being at the top of the conference doesn’t guarantee anything

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We’re taking you “Back To Class” for our roundup of the weekend’s action in college hockey. Look for more college hockey on NBCSN this Friday night as WCHA rivals Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin face off at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Until this past weekend happened, Merrimack College was feeling good and sitting atop Hockey East. With schools like Boston College, New Hampshire, UMass-Lowell, and Providence all in the mix for first as well, it would seem likely that Merrimack would be sitting well for a shot at the NCAA tournament.

Alas, that’s where the fun mathematics of the Pairwise Rankings (PWR) comes into play. Sure, Merrimack is near the top of one of the strongest conferences in the country (they’re now one point behind BC, UNH, and PC) but they sit tied for 23rd in PWR. Getting in the top 16 is what helps you stand your best chances at getting a spot in the tournament and as it stands now, unless Merrimack wins the Hockey East tournament, they’ll be sitting at home.

What’s killing them is their record against teams under consideration (TUC). They’re just 6-8-2 against schools who could wind up in the NCAAs. Compare that with their equals in the HEA standings. BC is 9-4-3 and UNH is 11-7-3. Providence finds themselves in a worse spot than Merrimack as they’re a miserable 4-8-5 against TUCs. Meanwhile, UMass-Lowell sits 11th in PWR with a 5-7-0 record against TUCs but are 18-9-2 overall this year.

What can teams like Merrimack and Providence do now to help their chances? Just win, baby. It’s the simplest of mathematics.

That’s the fun part of all this. With all the acronyms and records and varying ways of breaking things down, it just boils down to taking care of your own business and then hoping you get a little help elsewhere just in case.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Unless your team is sitting on that PWR bubble or hoping another team doesn’t fall off/climb over the TUC cliff to royally jumble things up.

All right, don’t lose the slide rules just yet.

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Feel-good story of the weekend: Give it up for Colgate’s Spiro Goulakos. The sophomore played in his first game back since undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Friday night and scored the game-winning goal to help the Raiders beat Union College 4-1.

Conferences wrapping up: Both the ECAC and CCHA wrap up their conference schedules this weekend. Atlantic Hockey, Hockey East, and the WCHA are done next week. Let’s look at who gets done this week.

Quinnipiac has the top seed in the ECAC wrapped up. RPI, St. Lawrence, Yale, Union, and Dartmouth are hoping to finish in the top-four to get first round byes. SLU faces Union on Friday and RPI on Saturday.

In the CCHA, Miami, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Ferris State, and Ohio State all have first round byes in their tourney secured. Miami has the top seed to themselves, but WMU and Notre Dame are duking it out for second and FSU and OSU are battling for fourth.

The rest of the conference is a bit of a mess below that. Alaska is all but certain to face Michigan State in the opening round while Bowling Green, Lake Superior State, Michigan and Northern Michigan could all find ways to jumble their pairings.

(Photo: Hockey East Online)

Zibanejad jumps at opportunity to be Rangers’ No. 1 center

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It’s reasonable to assume that the New York Rangers were comfortable trading Derek Stepan in part because they believed Mika Zibanejad could step into the No. 1 center role.

That puts a lot of pressure on Zibanejad, who’s never been the top pivot on an NHL team before. If that wasn’t enough, now he’ll need to justify the first big contract of his career (seeing his cap hit rise from $2.625 million to $5.35 million).

MORE: Rangers lock up Zibanejad for five years

At least he isn’t oblivious to this challenge, and as the Rangers website notes, he’s actually super happy* to raise the stakes.

“I think even before signing, seeing Derek being traded was a little bit of an alert to me that I might get a chance to play a bigger role,” Zibanejad said. “As a player, you always want more responsibility and a bigger role. It’s something that I’m working really hard to make sure that I’m … taking advantage of the chance I’m getting.”

Stepan drew criticism – arguably unfair criticism – from Rangers fans for not being quite the No. 1 center many of them wanted, so it will be interesting to see how Zibanejad handles the challenge/burden.

If you were to grade his first season with the Rangers, you might be tempted to hand him an “Incomplete.”

Injuries really limited him for much of 2016-17, but when he played, he was solid, scoring 14 goals and 37 points in 56 games. Zibanejad had a flair for the dramatic, too.

Still, in full seasons, Zibanejad’s produced nice-but-unspectacular numbers. Two straight 20+ goal seasons to finish his Senators days were helpful, but many of his stats more or less fell in line with Stepan’s production.

Now, at 24, it’s reasonable to believe that Zibanejad’s best days are in front of him. It’s also true that, while he’s received nice opportunities to succeed, he wasn’t quite getting those top-line reps that Stepan received.

In all likelihood, it will come down to expectations. If Rangers fans want Zibanejad to produce at a level far exceeding Stepan, they might be disappointed; the bar for a successful season by most forwards’ standards has chanced in the NHL, and Stepan’s mostly made the grade. On the other hand, if expectations are kept in check, Zibanejad could be a very nice fit for the Rangers.

Though he might miss the Derick Brassard comparisons now that the measuring stick changed to Derek Stepan.

* – Seriously, the guy said “super happy” a lot.

Yandle is happy Tallon is back running the Panthers

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It’s that time.

We’re approaching August, which means that the deluge of hockey optimism is really headed our way.

Players on teams that missed the playoffs – sometimes badly – will fill notebooks with quotes about how excited they are about next season. Guys whose past seasons were riddled by injuries will say that they’re in the best shape of their lives.

Now, look, there’s nothing wrong with that. And, hey, some of those players will almost certainly end up being right. Sometimes they provide some substance beyond the blindly positive comments.

That’s not really the interesting part of Keith Yandle‘s gushing comments about the Florida Panthers, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. Nope, it’s interesting because he’s praising GM Dale Tallon regaining his post.

“Having Dale back in charge, I think that was the main thing that got everyone going,” Yandle said. “You sense the power over the locker room that Dale can have. It’s such a positive thing when you have a guy like Dale Tallon. Everyone respects him and everything he does for the team. Going into the season knowing he has our back, he has the team, and obviously that he hired great coaches too, it’s a great thing.”

Yandle’s enthusiasm regarding Tallon is interesting because, frankly, Yandle seems like he was part of the batch of analytics-driven signings.

Without knowing for sure, Yandle seems like the sort of defenseman “old-school-types” might not like. There were rumblings that he refused to waive his NMC for the expansion draft, only fueling thoughts that the very executive he’s praising might have wanted him out.

Tallon’s already done work to walk back certain moves from that not-so-old-regime, as he engineered the moves to send not just Jonathan Marchessault but also Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights. There were also rumors that the Panthers were shopping Jason Demers, possibly more than once.

Now, it’s possible that Yandle could be excited about the direction of the team, even if said team might prefer that he was playing elsewhere. Still, it’s an amusing note amid a fairly typical round of optimistic quotes.

(Yandle does make some solid points about why 2017-18 could be better, by the way.)

Willie Desjardins to coach Team Canada at Olympics

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The past two Winter Olympics, Team Canada has been coached to gold by Mike Babcock, currently the NHL’s highest-paid bench boss.

But the 2018 Olympics in South Korea will be a very different animal. The NHL is not sending its players this time. When the Games are on, Babcock will be busy with his Toronto Maple Leafs.

So, today, Hockey Canada announced that Willie Desjardins, recently fired by the Vancouver Canucks, will be the head coach of the two-time defending gold medalists. Desjardins will be assisted by former Team Canada head coach Dave King, as well as Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft.

Sean Burke, who rose to prominence as a goalie in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics — which didn’t feature NHLers, either — will be Canada’s general manager. Burke will be aided by Martin Brodeur.

“This is an exciting time for Hockey Canada and for our National Men’s Team program, and it will be an exciting season for Canadian hockey fans,” said Tom Renney, Hockey Canada’s CEO. “The goal is always to field the best possible team in all upcoming competitions, including this February when we hit the world’s biggest sporting stage in Pyeonchang. The faces on our Team Canada rosters may be different than in previous years, but the expectations will be the same; with the addition of Sean, Martin, Willie, Dave, Scott, and Craig, we have assembled some of the best hockey minds out there to help us meet those expectations of on-ice success.”

Today’s announcement is yet more evidence, if you still required it, that the NHL isn’t bluffing about not sending its players to South Korea.

In an email to The Hockey News, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly refuted a report out of Russia that suggested the league had a backup schedule with an Olympic break in it.

“There is not an alternative schedule,” Daly wrote. “Having NHL Players participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games is not an available option. All of the international federations are planning appropriately for constructing teams that will not include NHL players. I anticipate there will be federation announcements in the coming days that should eliminate any and all continuing doubt or skepticism about the issue.”

The NHL released the 2017-18 schedule a month ago.

Related: Tampa awarded the 2018 All-Star Game, further dampening Olympic hopes

Preds expect answer from Fisher next week

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We should find out next week if Mike Fisher is going to retire or keep playing for the Predators.

Fisher, Nashville’s 37-year-old captain, is an unrestricted free agent. He confirmed last month that he was considering retirement. But first, he needed some time to think.

Yesterday, Preds GM David Poile said he expected an answer soon.

“I’m hoping to talk to him later this week to see where he’s at,” Poile said, per The Tennessean. “I’d say by next week, we should have an update.”

Fisher had 18 goals and 24 assists in 72 games last season, but then had just four assists in 20 playoff games as the Preds reached their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.

If Fisher re-signs, he’ll likely be in the bottom six next season, with Ryan Johansen and newly signed Nick Bonino expected to center the top two lines. Fisher could even be the fourth-line center or a winger, allowing the likes of Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons, and Frederick Gaudreau to take on bigger roles.

But for Fisher, hockey isn’t everything, and after more than 1,000 games in the NHL, he may simply opt to hang up the skates.

“Everyone wants to win in this game, no one probably more than me,” Fisher said. “But there’s other things. At the end of the day, this is a game. It’s an important part of my life, but it’s not everything.”

Related: Predators take Stanley Cup loss with grace and optimism