Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Keepin' it local: Section 7AA seed prediction

It's the most wonderful time of the year. Time for winter sports tournaments! As we dive into March Madness, I'll start things off by projecting the seeds for the Section 7AA boys' hockey tournament.

Ratings I quoted in this post are done by Lee Pagenkopf and Mitch Hawker.

1. Duluth East (18-5-1, 5th in MinnHock, 5th in USHSHO)
vs 7AA: 4-2 (W – Brainerd, Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Forest Lake, Grand Rapids…L – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Elk River)
vs AA: 16-5-1

Duluth East gets the nod, in my view, based on a few factors. They played more games against AA opponents than anyone else in the section, and they have more games against highly-rated AA teams than anyone else in the section. As usual, the Greyhounds have prepared themselves for the postseason by playing one of the toughest schedules in the state. East has won 13 straight games after a 5-5-1 start, and they own wins this season over Moorhead, Centennial, Apple Valley, Roseville, Grand Rapids, and Cloquet, all of whom are in the top 25 of both power ratings that I consulted.

Say what you want, but Duluth East plays great teams, and they beat great teams. They’ve gotten better throughout the year, and you know they’re battle-tested heading into the playoffs.

The schedule strength, coupled with a nice three-goal road win over Rapids, should be enough to vault the ‘Hounds to the top seed.

2. Grand Rapids (15-7, 15th, 19th)
vs 7AA: 5-1 (W – Brainerd, Cloquet/Esko/Carlton (2), Elk River, Forest Lake…L – Duluth East)
vs AA: 8-5 (one game left)

In looking at the power ratings (which are nice, and I applaud the efforts of both Lee Pagenkopf and Mitch Hawker in compiling these every week), it becomes clear that Rapids is noticeably closer to Elk River than they are to Duluth East. Rapids has worked hard to improve their non-conference schedule in recent years, and they played some very good teams this year and posted some very nice wins along the way. The win over Bloomington Jefferson is a great feather in their cap, but what hurts them when you compare them against Duluth East are the head-to-head loss to the ‘Hounds and the common opponents.

While Rapids has a win over Elk River, who beat Duluth East, the Greyhounds have beaten Apple Valley, Moorhead, and Edina, three teams that beat Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids also has losses to Class A Virginia/MIB and St. Louis Park. Also hurting Rapids is a schedule that included only about half their games (13 out of 24) against Class AA teams. While I’m not a big fan of penalizing teams for the conference they play in, I also can’t ignore the fact that Grand Rapids’ affiliation with the Iron Range Conference had a detrimental effect on their schedule strength.

I’m a big believer in taking off the blinders when it comes to ranking teams, and the recent seedings in 7AA would lead me to believe that more than just section record comes into play here. Also, power ratings can’t be the only factor considered. You have to look at section record, head-to-head, and schedule strength when you compare teams. When you look at everything, it’s hard to justify Grand Rapids being the top seed.

3. Elk River (16-5-2, 9th, 8th)
vs 7AA: 3-1-1 (W – Andover (2), Duluth East…L – Grand Rapids…T – Brainerd)
vs AA: 16-3-2 (two games left)

This was tough. Elk River has certainly merited consideration for a high seed in this tournament. They have wins over Duluth East, Blaine, and, well, um, I guess that’s about it. And that’s where the problem lies.

Much like Grand Rapids, you can’t be too harsh on Elk River. They play in a conference that really didn’t have a great year, and as a result, the schedule isn’t as strong as one would expect. The Elks don’t have the quality wins in the section that Grand Rapids does, and they don’t have the quality wins throughout the schedule that Duluth East does. There’s no doubt that Elk River is dangerous, and there’s a chance they could leapfrog Rapids for the two seed. But I’m going to place them third because of the lack of quality wins and the head-to-head loss to Grand Rapids.

4. Cloquet/Esko/Carlton (17-5-1, 8th, 10th)
vs 7AA: 3-3-1 (W – Brainerd, Duluth East, Forest Lake…L – Duluth East, Grand Rapids (2)…T – Brainerd)
vs AA: 10-4-1

The Lumberjacks are an interesting case. A couple weeks ago, CEC was 16-3-1 and it looked like they were still going to be no better than a third seed. They lost twice to Grand Rapids and tied Brainerd, which hurt their overall standing in the section, even though they were taking care of business outside of section play. Even a win over Duluth East wasn’t enough to vault them ahead of East and Rapids.

Since then, the ‘Jacks have lost to Hermantown and Duluth East, with the loss to Hermantown possibly more damaging because it came to a Class A team. CEC plays a lot of Class A teams because of their affiliation with the Lake Superior Conference, so like Grand Rapids and Elk River, the chances for quality wins aren’t as frequent. But CEC has some. They beat Blaine, who is on the verge of 20 wins. They beat White Bear Lake, another highly-rated team. The Lumberjacks also have a win over Edina. But they struggled in section games, and that will be what ultimately pushes them behind Elk River.

5. Brainerd (16-5-2, 26th, 29th)
vs 7AA: 0-4-2 (L – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Duluth East, Forest Lake, Grand Rapids…T – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Elk River)
vs AA: 7-5-2 (one game left)

Brainerd has increased their section schedule as of late, but it didn’t pay off with any wins in 2005-2006. The Warriors came close, losing by one and two goals and also getting two ties. But they needed a win or two to have a case for being ahead of CEC. In the end, there are a few factors that put Brainerd, in my view, ahead of Forest Lake: 1) Brainerd is much better in games against Class AA opponents than Forest Lake, and 2) You can make the case that Brainerd was more competitive against the top teams in the section, despite the record they posted against them. Forest Lake fans might not like it, but I’ll give Brainerd the fifth seed.

6. Forest Lake (7-16-1, 50th, 53rd)
vs 7AA: 2-3 (W – Brainerd, Cambridge-Isanti…L – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Duluth East, Grand Rapids)
vs AA: 5-15-1 (one game left)

The Rangers are hurt by a nearly complete lack of quality wins in section play and against AA teams. And it’s not for a lack of chances. Forest Lake has Hastings, White Bear Lake, Roseville, and Cretin-Derham Hall on the schedule twice each. Zero wins. Forest Lake’s schedule keeps them ahead of the bottom three, but their record keeps them out of the top four or five.

7. Andover (9-12-1, 86th, 87th)
vs 7AA: 1-3 (W – Cambridge-Isanti…L – Elk River (2), St. Francis)
vs AA: 7-11-1 (two games left)

I’ll give the Huskies the nod for the seventh seed over Cambridge, despite the obvious discrepancy in overall record. They beat Cambridge, and overall have a much tougher schedule to deal with.

8. Cambridge-Isanti (19-5, 100th, 99th)
vs 7AA: 0-2 (L – Andover, Forest Lake)
vs AA: 6-3

It’s nice to see C-I winning games they haven’t won before. Despite the fact that their schedule is virtually the same as usual, the Bluejackets should hit 20 wins before the postseason. With no other real factors to use in comparisons, Cambridge’s record against a weak schedule trumps St. Francis’, despite the common opponent comparison in the section (Andover beat Cambridge but lost to St. Francis).

9. St. Francis (13-10-1, 99th, 98th)
vs 7AA: 1-0 (W – Andover)
vs AA: 6-2-1 (one game left)

They’re better than they have been for some time, but it still doesn’t translate into a higher seed than we’re used to seeing from St. Francis. The Saints might get the eighth seed, but they won't go any higher.

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