Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wild, 15 Others Chase Lord Stanley

You can have your March Madness, your September football openers, your October baseball playoffs/cranking-up of football season, December bowls into NFL and college football playoffs, or whatever sports time of year you prefer.

Nothing makes goosebumps form on top of  goosebumps like the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I mean, well, um ... hold on. Just watch this.

Says it all.

First team to 16 wins gets the spoils. And the tears.

Anyway, the playoffs start Wednesday. I'll deliver some predictions later, but here are some thoughts on the Wild as they prepare to open up Thursday at Colorado.

This is really simple, in many ways. Colorado is a great story, but the story masks some problems with this team.

The nerds like to note that Colorado is the worst possession team in the tournament. The Avalanche get by that issue by carrying the best shooting percentage of any of these 16 teams. Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog are elite. Semyon Varlamov had a great run this season.

However, Colorado's possession problem could rear its ugly head in this division bracket. St. Louis and Chicago are going to go to war for the right to advance, but both teams sport the kind of hard-nosed forwards it takes to break down the Avalanche.

So does Minnesota.

Ever since a 5-1 loss to St. Louis had the Wild on the brink of a lot of bad things, the group has banded together. If you're enough of a diehard, you probably know about the off-day "summit" the Wild on-ice leadership had in Phoenix after that St. Louis debacling. If not, stud beat writer Michael Russo wrote a lot about it, including here.

Bottom line: This team has been much more system-strong since that day off. Zach Parise made a comment after the St. Louis loss about the Blues' commitment to their system, and it was a subtle shot at his guys for a bevy of blue line turnovers that led to chances (and sometimes goals) for the opponents.

The Wild have been much better since then at getting pucks behind defensemen and going after them on the forecheck. It's one part of the success story, but it's a huge one, especially going into this best-of-seven.

Colorado isn't weak on defense, but the Avs aren't strong there, either. There are some young guys there, and some potentially vulnerable players. I'd like to see the Wild make them work for possession and make them earn their space up the rink. Colorado wants to play a rush game, but if the Wild can make them get away from firewagon hockey, the Avalanche can easily be beaten in this series.

Make Colorado break out more slowly, and make their forwards more engaged in the defensive zone. Puck retrievals and wall play take energy. Sap their will by making them earn every puck they get and every rush they're able to generate. Colorado has been really good this season at getting into run-and-gun type of games.

Remember the structure and the system. Stick to it, and good things will happen.

Of course, it ultimately comes down to goaltending. Varlamov has been great, and while Ilya Bryzgalov has been good for the Wild, the sample isn't very big. I did say when the Wild got him from Edmonton that I thought Bryzgalov would be solid playing for a team that has some structure in front of him, as Minnesota certainly does.

If Bryzgalov, who has a promising .923 even-strength save percentage, even matches what Varlamov (.933, by the way) can do, Minnesota probably wins. Ultimately, the talent gap in goal, which I do believe exists, is the biggest reason I have Colorado beating the Wild. If the Wild avoid getting suckered into run-and-gun hockey and get good goaltending, they very much have a shot in this series.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

College Hockey Almost Certainly Not Done Changing

One-time Minnesota Wild executive Bill Robertson was named the new commissioner of the WCHA Tuesday. Robertson will replace Bruce McLeod, who ran the league for 20 years and will retire in June. Robertson will actually join the league next month, providing a bit of a buffer between his official arrival and McLeod's official departure.

(Notice how I resisted jokes about McLeod's departure actually having taken place about a decade ago. I'm actually proud of myself for that.)

Robertson's task is not a small one, but he's not alone.

College hockey is not in a stable position, for a variety of reasons. Namely, there are schools in virtually every league that aren't happy. Something is irking them, be it travel, scholarships, finances, or administrative issues of some sort.

I'm not here to say everyone was happy with the old arrangement. I'd bet there were unhappy types back then. It just wasn't as vocal a group, and everyone had their traditional leagues to lean on. The WCHA and CCHA had their warts, but they'd also been around for a long time and had experienced a ton of success, both on the ice and off.

(Example of off-ice success in the old alignment? Look what the WCHA Final Five became at its zenith, in the early and mid 2000s.)

When the Big Ten and NCHC plucked all the "big-name" programs from those leagues, the CCHA died completely and the WCHA changed dramatically.

Now, it seems the majority of hockey people involved in these leagues would probably revert back to the way things used to be, if only it was that easy.

Since we know that won't happen, it might be time for fans to resign themselves to more changes.

With that potential inevitability in mind, here are a few ideas -- both mine and others -- that could help alleviate the concerns of programs and remove some of the "buyer's remorse," as Mankato Free Press scribe and wonderful human Shane Frederick tweeted Tuesday.

The WCHA should cut to 24 conference games.

Will this create more holes to fill in non-league schedules? Absolutely. But the NCHC (ten) and Big Ten (14) have plenty of them, too.

Why should the WCHA cut from 28 to 24? Money.

Last season, every WCHA team visited Alaska at least once. Four teams went twice, playing road series against both Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska. Two of those teams made two separate trips north, while Michigan Tech and Minnesota State spent a whole week up there. With a 24-game league schedule, it could be structured so three teams don't go to Alaska at all during a season, and certainly you wouldn't have four teams going twice.

Not only does it remove some of the financial strain, but it makes travel a little less than a pain.

The WCHA should seek to expand.

This one will be a little controversial. I know that there are some teams in Atlantic Hockey that want to go to 18 scholarships. That's been the case for a while. If the WCHA finds two of them, expands to 12 teams, and goes to a two-division format where the Alaska teams are in separate divisions but locked into playing each other four times a season, the league could settle travel concerns without necessarily cutting the league schedule.

A so-called Eastern Division would comprise the two AHA teams, one of the Alaska schools, Alabama-Huntsville, Ferris State, and Bowling Green. The upper Michigan teams, Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and the other Alaska team would make up the West.

Structuring a full league schedule could be difficult. If each team in the division played a home-and-away, that would be 20 games. With a 24-game conference slate, that would leave four games, two home and two away, to be played outside the division. Doing that would mean only two teams out of 12 would have to make the double-trip north, and that would be easily handled around school breaks to minimize academic impact of the travel. At 28 games, you'd have eight games to play against the opposite division. Either way, there would be teams in the league that did not meet during the regular season.

In addition, I'm told the travel arrangements for UAA and UAF are different, and it's more expensive for teams to go to Anchorage. I'm not sure how this is possible, but Robertson needs to fix it if it's the case.

The NCHC should run its tournament the way the Big Ten does.

This has been suggested to me multiple times.

I'm not sure how it would be executed, but there are a couple options.

The first is to bring every team to Minneapolis, which would allow for travel arrangements to be made far in advance, thus making that side of things cheaper than it is now, where arrangements are made on short notice. The negative? Four games on Thursday. You think the tournament wasn't attended well this year? Wait until -- as an example -- Denver and UNO are playing a quarterfinal game at like 10am on a Thursday.

The other option? Take six teams to Minneapolis and play single elimination. Top two get byes into the semifinals, and there are two quarterfinal games Thursday. Same format as the Big Ten. Teams couldn't arrange their travel until late notice, but the tournament would be structured to succeed. Gives the teams at the bottom even more to play for at the end of the season, because they have to fight for inclusion into the conference tournament.

Why go this route? Look at the crowds drawn for first-round campus-site playoff series this season. It could be argued that teams are better off playing in a centralized location and building a cool event that way.


None of this is guaranteed to help, but it's clear change is coming.

I don't know what that change will be, but I'd be stunned if we kept this configuration in place any longer than schools are contractually obligated to stick around for. We might see new leagues formed, we might see current leagues dissolved.

We welcome Robertson to college hockey. Hopefully he doesn't end up regretting what he got himself into, and hopefully all the leagues can find common ground and work together for the good of the sport.

UMD Men's Hockey Schedule 2014-15

As published in Tuesday's Duluth News Tribune, here is the UMD men's hockey schedule for next season.

Oct. 10 -- vs. Minnesota at Icebreaker, South Bend, Ind.
Oct. 12 -- vs. Notre Dame or RPI at Icebreaker, South Bend, Ind.
Oct. 17 -- Minnesota State
Oct. 18 -- at Minnesota State
Oct. 24-25 -- Denver
Oct. 31-Nov. 1 -- Miami
Nov. 7-8 -- at St. Cloud State
Nov. 14 -- at Minnesota
Nov. 15 -- Minnesota
Nov. 21-22 -- at Nebraska-Omaha
Dec. 5-6 -- Colorado College
Dec. 12-13 -- at Michigan Tech
Jan. 9-10 -- at North Dakota
Jan. 16-17 -- Western Michigan
Jan. 23 -- vs. Bemidji State at North Star College Cup, St. Paul
Jan. 24 -- vs. Minnesota or Minnesota State at North Star College Cup, St. Paul
Jan. 30-31 -- at Denver
Feb. 6-7 -- Northern Michigan
Feb. 13-14 -- St. Cloud State
Feb. 20-21 -- at Miami
Feb. 27-28 -- Nebraska-Omaha
March 6-7 -- at Western Michigan
March 13-15 -- NCHC playoffs first round
March 20-21 -- NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Target Center

A few things:
  • Expect at least one home exhibition game to be added, especially with there being a month between games over the holiday break. That seems like a good spot for something.
  • No North Dakota in Duluth next season, and UMD will not visit Colorado Springs. Sad face.
  • Home non-conference is Minnesota and Minnesota State for single games, then Northern Michigan for two. UMD plays in two tournaments -- the Icebreaker and North Star College Cup -- and also visits Michigan Tech in December.
  • As for the Icebreaker, it's a Friday/Sunday event in South Bend because Notre Dame football is home to take on North Carolina that Saturday. If you're traveling out for that event, the football game is probably a must if you're at all a football fan. Actually, I'd carve out time for a campus tour of some sort if you've never done that before. And go to the football game.
  • 2014-15 will be the fourth time in five years that UMD's final regular season home series has come against Nebraska Omaha.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Thinking Out Loud: Twins, Brewers Seek Improvement

Baseball is back. I'll have to admit: I didn't watch much of it last year. The Brewers stunk, and the Twins were much worse. Our local nines were stuck in the bowels of sucktitude. Once June hit, there was no real reason to watch baseball, and I might have seen a couple games through the summer.

In the words of Canadian alternative band Evans Blue, this time it's different.


The Twins look miserable once again. Yeah, they went out and bought themselves some requisite major league pitching. That was good, because they didn't really have any in 2013. For an organization that home-grew guys like Brad Radke, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano (yeah, I know he wasn't drafted, but most of his development was as a Twin), and others, the well ran dry in a hurry.

While Trevor May and Alex Meyer mature in Rochester, the team needs Ricky Nolasco, Philip Hughes, and 2013 newcomers Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey to lead the way. Monday, Nolasco sure didn't start well, giving up five runs and ten hits in six innings as Minnesota fell 5-3 to the White Sox.

I'm actually optimistic about Minnesota's pitching. Less so about the bats.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I've been pretty consistent with the stance that Joe Mauer will have a big offensive season, by his standards. I said that when the team announced his move to first base. I'm thinking 15-20 home runs, the typical 30-35 doubles, .400 OBP, and a jump in slugging percentage, closer to his MVP season (.587) but not quite hitting that unsustainable number.

Mauer won't be the problem. If Monday's lineup is any indication, the problem will lie above him in the batting order.

Spare me the "two hits, three RBI" talk with Kurt Suzuki. He's a good defensive catcher and only a passable, replacement-level bat for the position.

He hit second in Monday's game. Brian Dozier, who makes outs for breakfast every day, was the leadoff hitter. Ahead of Mauer. Poor guy -- figuratively speaking, of course, since we all know Mauer is filthy rich -- is going to lead the American League in "at bats with two out and nobody on base" this season (had one Monday, three total two-out at bats).

I'd love to rip Ron Gardenhire, but until Aaron Hicks proves himself, the Twins don't have a viable leadoff hitter, or No. 2 guy.

Unless you put Mauer in the leadoff spot. And even that's not ideal, because while he gets more at bats, it also takes him away from more of a run-producing role.

And, no, Byron Buxton isn't ready yet.

Meanwhile, the Brewers actually have a pretty formidable top of the order. Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Jonathan Lucroy can all rake. Youngster Scooter Gennett has shown promise at second base, where Rickie Weeks has sufficiently flamed out and has little use to this team in his current form.

This team can score runs from the top of the order. It's the bottom that has me concerned, but lots of teams can say that.

Who's playing first base? Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay.

Who's in left instead of Braun? Khris Davis.


They better get runs out of the top five guys, and some production out of Gennett, because whatever they get from left field and (especially) first base is going to be a bonus.

The pitching staff is solid (the Matt Garza signing was genius, because now Milwaukee has three proven starters in a pitching-rich division), but the NL Central is stacked. The Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are all contender types, so the Brewers are lost in the shuffle in the division race.

I have hope for Milwaukee, though. Ownership is committed to competing, and since the young talent pool is dry compared to, say, Minnesota, the Brewers have to make moves like the Garza and Kyle Lohse (last year) signings to stay above water.

What do the teams have in common? Solid bullpens. Minnesota's has more upside, but both should be just fine, at the worst.

For the Twins, the offense and the lack of high-end pitching will hold them back in a division that isn't exactly stacked.

For the Brewers, it's more about the top teams that already exist, along with the lack of balance in the batting order. Damn, do they miss Prince Fielder in Milwaukee.