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.

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

 

Stars ready for fun offense under coach fresh out of college

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DALLAS (AP) — This is the third season in a row the Dallas Stars have a different coach and a different style. They’re ready to have some fun with the guy fresh out of college.

After the differing approaches of grizzled veterans Lindy Ruff and then Ken Hitchcock in a one-season return of their Stanley Cup-winning coach from two decades ago, there is more of an emphasis on relentless offense with new coach Jim Montgomery in his transition from the college ranks to first-time NHL head coach.

”It’s going to be a lot of fun,” captain Jamie Benn said. ”We’re going to work hard and it’ll be a high-flying Stars team with a lot of pressure on the ice.”

The 49-year-old Montgomery said he’s sure the team has the speed and depth to play his style.

Montgomery spent the past five years at the University of Denver, where he had a 125-57-26 record and won a national title two seasons ago. He won two championships as a head coach and general manager in the United States Hockey League before that. He was part of a college national championship as a player at Maine in 1993, and did play 122 NHL games – his last was with Dallas in December 2002.

”We’ve had some great coaches in here,” Tyler Seguin said. ”But at the end of the day, we haven’t had this kind of coach, a younger guy, a player’s coach if you want to call it that, someone that’s won pretty much everywhere he’s gone and is going to change things up. I think everyone’s excited for that and looking forward to a fresh new year.”

SEGUIN AND THE TOP LINE

Seguin, the 26-year-old five-time All-Star with a career-high 40 goals last season, could have become an unrestricted free agent after this season. But he signed a nearly $80 million, eight-year contract extension through 2026-27 just before training camp. Seguin is on the front line with 29-year-old two-time All-Star Benn and Alexander Radulov, who had 27 goals and 45 assists last season. Only Benn had more total points than Seguin’s 78, with Benn at 79 (36 goals, 43 assists) after eight goals and two assists in the last five games.

ON THE DEFENSE

John Klingberg led NHL defensemen with 59 assists last season, when Marc Methot was limited to 36 games in his Stars debut because of knee issues. A healthy Methot should be a boost to the Stars defense.

”If you look at the lineup, we know we have star power. We have everything on paper. It looks good,” Klingberg said. ”We’re just going to have to find those pieces blending into each other.”

MISSED TIME

Dallas missed the playoffs for the eighth time in the past 10 seasons after an eight-game losing streak last March. They finished 42-32-8 for 92 points, which was a 13-point increase from 2016-17 but three points out of the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot.

”I think we’ve got to stop, I guess, wasting the good talent that we have here and take advantage of it,” Benn said. ”Ten years later, goes by fast. You’ve got to take advantage of the good teams that you have. We have a good team here. So we’ve got to make a good run here.”

TOP 10 BACK IN BIG D

Right wing Valeri Nichushkin played 166 games in three seasons for the Stars by time he was 21 before returning home to Russia and playing the past two seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. The 10th overall pick by the Stars in the 2013 draft is back after signing a $5.9 million, two-year contract with Dallas at the start of free agency over the summer.

STARTING AT HOME

The Stars open the season Oct. 4 against Arizona, the first of four consecutive home games in 10 days before their first road game.

”I don’t think I could have picked a better schedule to start the season in my first year because everything’s new,” Montgomery said. ”Being at home, having those three days of practice in between home games, is going to be instrumental in us getting off to a good start.”

The Stars have now been in Dallas for 25 years.

AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Can Coyotes avoid another awful start with Galchenyuk injured?

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Last season, the Arizona Coyotes came into the year with great expectations. Then they only won one game in all of October.

Their 1-12-1 start (including a loss to begin November) derailed Arizona’s 2017-18 campaign before it could really start, serving as a cautionary tale for any Coyotes fans getting too excited about this season’s possibilities. Sure, the team showed promise late last season, yet such finishes can drum up false hope.

Adding Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta revved up excitement for the Coyotes last time around; this year, the possible growth of young players and the (perceived?) upgrade from Max Domi to Alex Galchenyuk is inspiring plenty of optimism. Coyotes fans even had a reason to gloat during the preseason, as Galchenyuk made a strong first impression in an exhibition at almost the same time that Domi was suspended for punching Aaron Ekblad.

So, the Coyotes are riding high into 2018-19, right? Well, we might need to pump the brakes on that, as Galchenyuk is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

To rain a bit more on the parade, the team warned that he might not be available for Arizona’s season opener (an Oct. 4 road game against the Dallas Stars).

It’s a shame that the Coyotes didn’t get to show off their shiny new toy against the Stars. Let’s consider a few of the other factors, and who might be affected by this in the short term.

Schedule

While the Coyotes noted that Galchenyuk might miss that first game on Oct. 4, it’s important to realize that week-to-week is a vague description. For all we know, Galchenyuk may only miss a handful of games, or he might even play on opening night. Then again, it could also mean Galchenyuk may be sidelined for multiple weeks of the regular season.

The former Canadiens forward figures to be a top-six forward for a Coyotes team that’s still expected to be a little light on scoring, so a lengthy loss would sting. That said, it’s not necessarily a lethal blow. When you wonder if another lousy October is looming, the actual context of the schedule may factor in:

Thu, Oct 4 @ Dallas
Sat, Oct 6 vs Anaheim
Wed, Oct 10 @ Anaheim
Sat, Oct 13 vs Buffalo
Tue, Oct 16 @ Minnesota
Thu, Oct 18 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 20 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Oct 23 @ Columbus
Thu, Oct 25 vs Vancouver
Sat, Oct 27 vs Tampa Bay
Tue, Oct 30 vs Ottawa

That four-game road trip (and five of six games on the road from Oct. 10-23) seems challenging, yet note that the Coyotes don’t face a back-to-back set during the first month. For all we know, that could provide a nice opportunity for Galchenyuk to limit games missed, or strategically heal up. Maybe he’d only need until Oct. 10, thus missing just two contests?

(Such a schedule also opens the door for further coaching sessions – possibly fruitful for a team ripe with young talent – and possibly allows Raanta to soak up a lot of starts.)

Overall, the Coyotes’ early schedule seems manageable enough. Their 2017-18 October wasn’t abnormally difficult, either, so that’s clearly not the only determining factor here.

A window for Strome?

One player’s injury is another player’s chance to earn a spot. Just ask Kurt Warner and Tom Brady how random luck can help you establish a sports career.

With Galchenyuk out, the Coyotes may let Dylan Strome get some extra reps as a center, or maybe a more prominent position on the power play. Even if it’s just for a couple games or merely just extra practice time, Strome badly needs to earn Rick Tocchet’s trust.

Perhaps someone else would run with the opportunity if Galchenyuk misses significant time, but Strome comes to mind as a player who’s really at a fork in the road.

***

We don’t know how much time Galchenyuk might miss. Actually, the Coyotes may not know, either.

It’s not the greatest way for Galchenyuk to begin his Coyotes career, especially since he was probably feeling quite liberated to be out of Montreal. Injury limitations could make it difficult for him to make a good first impression.

Still, this might only be a minor hiccup, and heightened opportunities for Strome (or a peer) could serve as a blessing in disguise.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Senators waiving Smith is latest ‘kick’ to Duchene, fans

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At this point, it would be tough to blame an Ottawa Senators fan if they decided to just take the year off. Seriously, if you were in their shoes, would you mute mention of the team and its players on social media, and maybe just act as if you’re on a deserted island when it comes to news coverage?

We’re getting to the point where it’s refreshing if there’s only one bad news item per week.

The Senators seemed to meet their quota on Tuesday, then, as waiving forward Zack Smith hasn’t exactly been met with rave reviews from other embattled players. It seems like Matt Duchene is saying hello to his old friend darkness, considering the quotes shared by reporters including TSN’s Brent Wallace and the Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan.

That specific Duchene quote will draw cringes and giggles, yet there are other comments that are honestly a bit more disconcerting, at least if you’re hoping that the Senators can convince Duchene and Mark Stone to stick around.

” … Unfortunately, I guess, sometimes in this business, things happen that are sometimes beyond hockey reasons and things like that,” Duchene said. “It’s tough right now, we are hurting.”

That last bit speaks volumes. The Senators are hurting before they’ve even played their first shifts of an 82-game season.

Hockey teams sometimes depend upon players valuing loyalty and security over getting the most money possible, so the “it’s business” vibe isn’t exactly promising for a franchise that’s projected every sign of penny-pinching.

It’s tough to deny the dark humor of Duchene going from a seemingly miserable situation in Colorado only to eat several extra helpings of extra misery in Ottawa. Still, the situation might be even grimmer for Mark Stone, as he’s spent his entire career with the Sens. Losing his trust risks losing whatever’s remaining of the soul of the Senators.

” … I’m surprised. But again, it’s not my decision,” Stone said, via Wallace. “I have to come to the rink every day and prepare the same way. To say I wasn’t surprised would be a lie.”

In a vacuum, placing Smith on waivers really isn’t that unreasonable.

After generating 30+ points for two straight seasons along with solid possession stats, Smith’s play really slipped alongside his struggling team in 2017-18. For a team trying to count every nickel and dime, there must be real consternation regarding Smith’s $3.25 million salary/cap hit. Moving Smith to the AHL saves the Senators a bit more than $1M, according to Cap Friendly. Such demotions are just a sad way of life in the “What have you done for me lately?” NHL.

With added context, such a move likely registers as callout to players like Duchene and Stone, and could provide yet another pull toward getting out of Ottawa at the first earthly possibility. Loyalty hasn’t exactly been a two-way street with this team:

Yeah, yikes.

Let’s take a quick look back at this debacle of a Senators summer, asking ourselves: how much money would you need to avoid abandoning this sinking ship? (You know, assuming that the Senators won’t just opt to trade Duchene and/or Stone in the near future, anyway.)

The Karlsson – Hoffman catastrophe

You can’t really blame the Senators for everything that happened regarding Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, and those who know them. The franchise blundered their way through the fallout to a jaw-dropping degree, however.

Even outside of the context of the protective order Melinda Karlsson filed against Monica Caryk, the Senators almost certainly could have landed a better collection of assets for Karlsson if they moved the star defender during the trade deadline, rather than before training camp.

Ultimately, they settled for a bucket of “meh,” in part because the lure of one run with Karlsson is less transfixing than the lure of two (as a bidder would have received during the deadline). If it’s true that the Senators limited their offers to West teams, then the situation somehow gets more bleak. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin deserves to get ripped over many of his trades, but he did a whole lot better – after similarly boxing himself into a cornerin getting some actually useful assets for Max Pacioretty.

The Senators also could have parted ways with Hoffman at a more opportune time. Instead, everyone in the league knew that their locker room was on fire, and GM Pierre Dorion received a humiliating return as a result.

Overall, it was a masterclass in how to implode as a front office, and it was far from the only forehead-slapping moment.

Randy Lee

This development might not be on the radar of casual fans, but assistant GM Randy Lee resigning amid harassment charges is likely the ugliest incident of them all. Lee was with the Senators organization for 23 years, including four as an assistant, running the AHL team as part of that gig.

Owning it

The Senators went viral with laughable video moments sandwiching the lousy Karlsson trade.

From The Department of Unforced Errors comes this absolutely surreal interview between owner Eugene Melnyk and veteran defenseman Mark Borowiecki:

[Even more on that odd interview.]

You’re not really going to “top” that, but Dorion’s response to a question about what to look forward to this season at least kept the ball (of shame) rolling.

Time flies when you’re having fun, right Senators fans? (Sorry.)

Not even having the lure of tanking

One can quibble about the Senators selecting Brady Tkachuk over, say, Filip Zadina with the fourth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. That debate is mostly beside the point, though.

Thanks to the Matt Duchene trade, the Senators are sending their 2019 first-rounder to the Avalanche after keeping their 2018 first-rounder. For all the miseries of the 2018-19 season, they won’t at least be able to … “Slack for Jack?” Or would it be “Lose Huge for Hughes?”

(Let me know, Hockey Internet.)

For all we know, a mix of lottery luck and possibly better-than-expected play might leave the Avalanche with an inferior pick in 2019. Strange things happen in hockey, and a combination of a solid-to-good coach in Guy Boucher, a plausible rebound for Craig Anderson, and contract years for Duchene and Stone could propel them into more competitive play.

Still, most are betting on abject misery. The prospect of all of that losing and brooding opening the door for the Avalanche to land an elite talent pours a mountain of salt in the Senators’ many, many wounds.

That’s especially true if Brady Tkachuk ends up being nowhere near the prospect that his brother Matthew Tkachuk is.

***

Those are some of the big-picture nightmares that occurred for the Senators, and they probably overlook some other headaches. (Example: attendance issues should only get worse.)

It was already bad enough that the light at the end of the tunnel seemed so dim, and so distant.

To some extent, every rebuilding team faces asks their players “tough things out.” Sometimes you need to just pull the Band-Aid off, which occasionally means ruffling feathers by doing things like they did today in waiving Smith.

The reality, though, is that the Senators continue to pile on more reasons for Duchene and Stone to want to escape what appears to be an explosively dysfunctional franchise. The controversies and poor trade returns for Karlsson and Hoffman might serve as the haystacks, yet sometimes a smaller move like waiving a well-liked player such as Smith may actually be the last straw.

At best, it’s another kick below the belt.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.