Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Dilemma Facing UMD

There are times where hockey coaches have to make some difficult decisions. Sometimes, fans will tend to agree with the coach, or at least side with him, because the coach is paid to make those tough decisions.

Other times, fans will act like they know more about hockey than the coach does. You know someone like this, in all likelihood.

Beyond this, there are other decisions that coaches have to make, and normal fans understand that no civilized person would ever want to have to make them.

In hockey, one of these such times comes when a struggling offense is faced with the question of how to structure their lines. Do you keep your best players together, or break them up in hopes of invigorating other forward lines?

There could come a time this season where UMD is facing this dilemma.

The Bulldogs have three top-notch offensive players. Everyone knows it. Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly, and Justin Fontaine are three of the best forwards in the WCHA. With all due respect to the other forwards on the team, these three are a cut above the rest.

After experiencing some serious struggles in generating five-on-five offense, UMD appears ready to put their eggs into one basket, or line. This week, Mike Connolly has joined Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine in practice, and it sounds like the three will play five-on-five this weekend against Clarkson.

This isn't meant as any disrespect to Mike's old linemates, guys like Travis Oleksuk (one game), Rob Bordson, and Cody Danberg. They're good players, and it would help them immensely to play with a guy like Mike Connolly, whose constant hustle, underrated grit, and offensive ability make guys around him better. However, the Bulldogs have a bigger picture to think about.

If having the Connollys (or is it "Connollies"?) paired with Fontaine will make the team more dangerous offensively, they have to take a shot at it. This opens the door for Oleksuk to be paired with Bordson and either Danberg Jordan Fulton when he returns (perhaps as soon as next weekend).

Of course, if the 2004-2005 Colorado College Tigers are any barometer, this won't be the last change that is made involving UMD's top players. Coach Scott Owens had senior stars Brett Sterling and Marty Sertich, and while he started the season with the high-scoring forwards on the same line, he eventually separated them, then reunited them and separated them again before the season was over. The year ended in a first-round NCAA regional loss to Cornell, and the team may not have realized its full potential.

Owens is a good coach, and this isn't about blaming him. It's about showing how hard this type of decision can be.

Having three really good players on one line might hurt the balance of your four forward lines, but if those three players are generally not going to be stopped for 60 minutes, you know that you can win games. It helps that you can see some real potential in the Bulldogs' third line, featuring captain Drew Akins, junior Kyle Schmidt, and freshman Keegan Flaherty. They played very well on Friday (in fact, head coach Scott Sandelin said Saturday that this threesome was probably UMD's best line in that Friday tie at SCSU).

Improved production from this group means the Bulldogs would have one really good scoring line, another capable scoring line, and then two lines that shouldn't have a ton of pressure on them to develop and chip in a lot of goals. Oleksuk's return should help solidify that second line, while also giving the Bulldogs more depth at center.

It's early in the season, too, so it's a good time to experiment. Yes, all regular season games count in the Pairwise, but if you're truly good enough to make the tournament, you're probably good enough that you've kept far away from the bubble on Selection Sunday. There's only one exhibition game, and WCHA games only get six or eight non-conference games (depending on if they travel to Alaska for a series or not) to tinker with things. The conference games have to take precedent over non-league contests, meaning that these dates with Clarkson are the best shot UMD will have until New Year's weekend to see if this line will work.

As the freshmen develop and younger guys push for ice time, there will be more opportunities to experiment with line combinations for the Connollys and Fontaine, assuming this doesn't work or UMD doesn't like having their three best offensive players on one line. This is just the first of those trial runs.

Don't be terribly shocked if it works.

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