Thursday, December 18, 2014

UMD Women's Hockey Struggling With Elite Opponents

Earlier this week, UMD announced it would not renew the contracts of head women's hockey coach Shannon Miller or her assistants, Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury. There's been much made of this story (read the above link for interviews with both Miller and athletic director Josh Berlo, and you can podcast my interview with Berlo from Thursday morning here -- fast forward to around the top of the show's third hour), and there is probably more to come.

Hopefully, the end of the story includes a long and fruitful playoff run for the women. They've worked hard this season, as evidenced by practices and games I've seen, and they're clearly improved from the start of the year. Miller is doing a very good job, and if the group can rally from this and not let it affect play, there's no reason UMD can't return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since a quarterfinal exit in 2011.

Yes, I said 2011. It's the only sustained NCAA Tournament drought Miller has experienced since joining UMD to launch its women's hockey program in 1999. UMD missed in 2004 after three straight titles, but rebounded to make the national playoffs seven straight years -- with two more titles -- before this three-year absence started in 2012.

That stretch of missing the national tournament has coincided with a precipitous drop in success for UMD against the other elite programs of the WCHA, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Since I couldn't sleep Wednesday night, I started doing some research on this topic. The findings are quite interesting.

After going a respectable 6-7-1 against Minnesota in 2008-2010, it fell off a cliff for the Bulldogs against their biggest in-state rival.

In the four-plus seasons since UMD's last national championship -- won, coincidentally, in 2010 at Ridder Arena -- the Bulldogs have played 21 games against the Gophers. The record? 3-16-2. In those 16 losses, UMD has been shut out nine times. Over the 21 games, UMD has scored 28 goals and allowed 78. A tie (followed by a UMD shootout win for an extra WCHA point) in October broke a streak of 12 straight losses to the Gophers by an aggregate of 55-10.

Against Wisconsin, things haven't been much easier. Over the last 20 meetings stretching to the start of the 2010-11 season, UMD is just 4-14-2 against the Badgers. They've been outscored 55-35. Games have generally been much more competitive, even if UMD isn't winning a significantly higher number of them. UMD is 4-10 against the Badgers in games decided by one or two goals in those last 20 meetings. In the 21 games against the Gophers, only six have been decided by one or two goals, with UMD going 3-3.

(NOTE: This research does not differentiate between regular-season and playoff games. Teams meet four times -- two games at each respective venue -- during the regular season, for a fully-balanced, 28-game league schedule.)

So since the start of the 2010-11 season, the score of the average Minnesota-UMD game: Minnesota 3.7, UMD 1.3

The score of the average Wisconsin-UMD game: Wisconsin 2.75, UMD 1.67

Certainly this is a bigger problem against the Gophers than it is the Badgers, but UMD is not nearly as competitive against the WCHA's two best programs as it used to be.

If you throw in North Dakota, which had a nice run thanks to the Lamoureux twins, the numbers don't get much better. In the same time frame, UMD is 5-9-4 against North Dakota.

Here are the overall winning percentages of the WCHA's top four programs over the last four-plus years (all numbers are through this week):

UMD: 84-59-17 .578 (1 NCAA appearance)
North Dakota: 97-58-13 .616 (2 NCAA appearances)
Wisconsin: 138-27-9 .819 (3 NCAA appearances, 1 title, 1 second place)
Minnesota: 155-18-7 .881 (4 NCAA appearances, 2 titles, 1 second place)

In addition, UMD has not picked up a single point against the Gophers at Ridder Arena since Jan. 14, 2011, a run of seven straight regulation or overtime road losses to Minnesota. UMD's last regular season win at Minnesota was Jan. 23, 2009.

(UMD beat Minnesota at Ridder on March 19, 2010, in the Frozen Four semifinals.)

WCHA teams who have won more recently at Minnesota than UMD has (regular-season games only)? Wisconsin (Nov. 6, 2010), North Dakota (Nov. 17, 2013), and Bemidji State (Nov. 1 of this year). Ohio State (Jan. 11 of this year) has a point at Minnesota more recently than UMD's last point there.

All the while, Miller has continued to be the highest-paid women's hockey coach in Division I (at least that we can find). Over the last four years, via public employee salary postings easily accessed for Minnesota and Wisconsin, Miller has made an average of around $223,000 in base pay. Wisconsin's Mark Johnson has averaged $166,000, while Brad Frost of Minnesota has made $134,000 on average.

(All numbers are rounded for simplicity.)


It isn't easy to admit it, but there's no question. The program has fallen off a bit in recent years. Part of that is the push forward Minnesota has made since Frost took over. Wisconsin has also surged ahead of UMD. What's even more interesting is how well North Dakota fared against the Bulldogs. You could argue UMD -- a five-time national champion over a span of just ten years -- has been the fourth-best program in the WCHA since the start of the 2010-11 season.

(In fairness, UND has fallen back a bit so far this season, and I don't think I'm qualified enough to say UND has passed UMD in terms of recruiting. It's clear Minnesota and Wisconsin have.)

Maybe it comes back in 2015, but UMD is 1-4-1 against Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, and that was with all but the UND games at home. A six-game run that starts with UND at home in late January will tell us a lot, because that's followed up by roadies to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Beyond that, UMD would surely have to take down either Minnesota or Wisconsin in order to make the Frozen Four, assuming it finishes strong enough to make the NCAA Tournament.

No matter what happens, it won't be a "plug and play" situation for whoever takes over for Miller. It would be tough enough to ever have to take over at UMD for Miller, but the controversy surrounding her departure at the end of this season will only increase the pressure. Make no mistake: There are many who are very loyal to Shannon Miller. You don't win 375 games in one place -- and she'll add to that number before she leaves -- without building up some equity and earning the respect and loyalty of people around you.

Throw in there the fact that UMD is no longer the top program in its conference, nor is it really knocking on the door of a well-established top two. This should be a destination job for any qualified Division I women's hockey coach, but that person will have plenty of work to do to get this team back to legitimate, year-to-year, national contention.

I don't care who gets the job. I just hope whoever does is able to use the program's history and high-quality facilities to get UMD back to the top of the WCHA. It's a place the Bulldogs haven't been in a while, and it'd be nice to knock on the door again.

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