Usually I do these mid-season Between the Lines pieces, and give my random thoughts on the good and the bad of college hockey so far.
But, really, what is the mid-season anymore?
As teams try to navigate the pandemic, try to practice with as many healthy bodies as there at a given time, try to keep the program from being “paused,” try to find games to play each week, and just keep everyone mentally focused — I can’t help but also repeatedly remember those programs that simply aren’t playing.
There is so much pain for many programs. The fact that this is “just hockey” is not relevant. I don’t think the programs, coaches and players going through the pain and sadness of having a season taken away, fail to realize the greater worldwide calamity of the pandemic and other social matters. But they are allowed to feel their own pain.
Everyone can say I’m biased — which I am, we all are — but of all the teams, the Cornell situation hits the hardest. Being a couple weeks away from a potential Frozen Four appearance last season, the first in 17 years, was bad enough. But this season figured to be just as good — and the entirety of it was wiped out. And like all the other ECAC programs that shut down, it will be years before the Big Red fully recover.
Players are transferring that wouldn’t have otherwise transferred, due in large part to the Ivy League’s idiotic decision not to allow graduate eligibility. It’s bad enough the Ivy League didn’t allow this already, but to not allow it now, when the pandemic wiped out a season through no fault of their own, is downright cruel.
I was on the fence when Ivy League presidents shut down sports for this year. It was a brutal move, but understandable on some level. This stubborn insistance on sticking to out-dated “standards” makes no sense anymore, but particularly in these circumstances.
So far Cornell has lost Tristan Mullin, a tremendous pickup for Vermont if there ever was one. It will soon lose more players, including goalie Matt Galajda, who would’ve returned next season if he was allowed.
Of course Cornell is not alone. Yale and Harvard have lost big-time players. Union lost Jack Adams among others. Rensselaer lost its standout goaltender, Owen Savory.
“It’s all hard. It’s hard studying remote only. Their on-campus experience is not the same. Their identity — their mental health is hard, because their identity is as a hockey player,” RPI coach Dave Smith said. “They came to RPI to play hockey. Now that’s been removed. So their routine is disrupted. Their academic pursuit is disrupted. There isn’t a thing about this that isn’t hard. … This is a once in a generation event that we’re in the middle of.
“What hurts is, we were turning some heads — look at what RPI is doing.”
RPI is hoping to at least allow its remaining players to practice together soon.
The NCAA is allowing transfers to be eligible immediately, and is granting many players an extra year. That’s part of a long-term change coming soon anyway, waiting for final approval of the NCAA’s Board of Governors. Free reign for first-time transfers is going to open up some chaos, but maybe that’s OK. Time will tell.
But the Ivy League powers-that-be need to get a clue here.
Post-Pod Plot Thickens
We’ve written extensively about the success of the NCHC’s “pod” idea in Omaha. It was a great idea, getting the teams together at a time when school was out, into a city that could handle everyone best in a pandemic-laden world.
But as I said all along when anyone asked, I was never worried about the league’s ability to pull it off once everyone was there. That was never the hard part. The hard part was the logistics of getting everyone there and testing and isolating them. But the games — no issue. To me that was never in doubt — and I don’t say that to diminish the job anyone did.
But the real issue was going to be what happens outside the pod. As we’ve seen, two of the league’s eight teams, have already had issues with games getting postponed due to COVID-related issues.
The NCHC does a lot of things well, but praise for the league often comes at the expense of other leagues. Some people put the league on a pedastal, and say how much better they are than everyone else. (Note, mainly talking about fans and pundits here — no one in the league does this.)
But no one is immune from pandemic-related problems. The NCHC will have just as many fires to put out as all the other leagues now that everyone is back on campus. It’s no fun for anyone.
Colorado College had the only pre-pod COVID issues, and has been OK afterwards. The need for isolation, however, meant a delay getting to the pod, and then playing eight games in 14 days once there.
“It’s a lot,” CC coach Mike Haviland said. The Tigers went 2-4-4 in the pod, and are 1-3 since then. “I’m not making any excuses but there’s a lot of things I’m proud of. We got better aas the pod went on.
“I love coaching, I love being around the rink. It was great, an outstanding experience (the pod). … It’s something these student-athletes will never forget, and I know we won’t as coaches. It was just hockey all the time and a lot of fun.”
Midseason Award Report
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but this is a strange year.
This will sure make for a lot of intrigue, though, in terms of picking Hobey Baker Award frontruners; and top goaltenders, freshmen and coaches for that matter. That’s why they pay us pundits the big bucks.
Like team records themselves, the schedules are so insular that it makes deciphering statistics even harder than usual in some cases. Not to mention the wide disparity in games played. That situation may improve, but it may not — certainly not all the way.
And at best, teams will play 28 games. Most will wind up well south of that.
Bowling Green has three players in the top 13 scorers in the nation. Same for Robert Morris. Those teams have had nice seasons so far, but that’s certainly weird, and hard to interpret.
Odeen Tufto leads the country in points with 20, though just four goals. He’s an outstanding player, but again, hard to know what to make of it.
Is there any doubt guys like Matt Boldy and Logan Hutsko of Boston College would be among the leaders if they had enough games? Or a guy like Bobby Brink with Denver, or even Dylan Holloway with Wisconsin?
Arizona State freshman Matthew Kopperud leads the country in goals with 12, and it’s legit. Eight of them have come against Notre Dame in four games. But next up is American International’s Tobias Fledeby with nine. He’s a nice player, but probably wouldn’t be up there in a normal year. But who knows.
Then you’ve got a pair of Massachusetts guys with eight — a defenseman, Matthew Kessel; and a grad transfer from St. Lawrence who missed all of last season, Carson Gicewicz.
Weird, I know.
There’s a ton of freshmen doing well. In addition to Kopperud, Carter Savoie of Denver and Ty Smilanic of Quinnipiac each have eight. They have been a delight to watch so far. St. Cloud State’s Veeti Miettinen and North Dakota’s Riese Gaber each have seven (Gaber added an 8th on Monday).
Four of Michigan’s top five scorers are freshmen — Kent Johnson, Thomas Bordeleau, Brendan Brisson and Matty Beniers. All dynamic players. Then there’s freshman Michigan defenseman Owen Power, who has been a stud already.
BU defenseman David Farrance has played two games, but is easily a top-5 player in the country, and could be the best. Will his team even play enough games to qualify for the postseason?
But if it comes down to it, this might finally be the year a goaltender wins the Hobey. Jack LaFontaine has been stellar for Minnesota, and Dryden McKay/Minnesota State fans are sure to raise a fuss on his behalf again.
But if I was a betting man, I’m putting my money on Boston College’s Spencer Knight when all is said and done. He’s 5-0 with a .950 save percentage this year, he just needs more games to prove his worthiness. And he’ll have sentiment in his corner, after leading Team USA to a gold medal at the World Juniors.