We are now two years into B1G Hockey being a...thing? yeah, thing works...and it still feels weird for most Gopher fans. Realignment sent shock waves through the college hockey world, resulting in two new conferences, the loss of one, and a barely recognizable former giant. With the announcement of Penn State Hockey, Minnesota (and Wisconsin) had no choice but to leave the Western Collegiate Hockey Conference for a new B1G conference, effectively killing what was once the premier hockey conference.
Gopher fans were outraged, lamenting the loss of long standing rivalries, storied trophies, and a historically strong conference. The only silver linings were being reunited with the Michigan schools and not having to deal with North Dakota fans regularly. Two conference crowns, 1 conference tournament championship, and a NCAA Championship game appearance have quieted some of the angst but a middling to weak B1G last season...everybody point at and shame Wisconsin...has many still wondering if this move will pay off in the long run.
In order to separate out the facts from the emotion I decided to take a closer look at the last 4 years and how realignment has impacted Gopher Hockey.
- Do we see our rivals on a regular basis?
- The former WCHA was the best conference, top to bottom, in College hockey, has the B1G lived up to expectations (4 former champions, 3 of the top 5-7 programs and another top 10 program)?
- Has the B1G sufficiently prepared the Gophers for the NCAA tournament?
- Have the Gophers taken advantage of a larger non-conference slate?
- How does the B1G compare to the former WCHA, current WCHA, and the NCHC?
Differences in Opponents
Conference Strength Comparisons
Those of you who were around last season know that I am a big supporter of the KRACH system (click the link for explanation) to rate teams. Unfortunately, it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be to find historic KRACH ratings. Since Gopher fans really only care about titles, I decided to look at NCAA qualifiers as a way to gauge conference strength. I consider a qualifier a team that finished in the top-16 of the final PairWise Rankings (again click the link) or that won it's conference tournament.
While the B1G isn't that much worse than the old WCHA, one of the top teams having a down year (looking at you Badgers) really drags the conference down. This is where adding 2-4 more teams will help the conference in the long run. You need lower level programs to step up and fill the void when a top team drops. The NCHC's success amplified how bad the B1G looked. As Penn State continues to add real D-1 talent and the BTN checks continue to pour in they will improve. I see the Nittany Lions as the B1G's wildcard. If Gadowsky can continue to work his magic, this will be a good conference with some great years.
Minnesota's Performance Before and After Realignment
Minnesota's last 2 seasons in the WCHA match up pretty evenly to their first 2 in the B1G. The Gophers have done slightly better against New WCHA and much better against B1G teams while doing worse against the NCHC. They have won 4 straight conference regular season crowns (shared in 2013) and had similar post-season results in before and after the split. The table below shows Minnesota's winning percentage against members of each of the conferences during regular season play.
Where do we go from here?
When 3 of the top 4 B1G teams are clicking, it is not much different from the old WCHA. If 2 of the top 4 are having bad years (especially if one is having a Wisconsin-like season), this conference is a one-bid league. Penn State is still probably 2-3 years away from national relevance so Wisconsin, Michigan, and Michigan State need to get things moving in the right direction fast. Hey anOSU, maybe give some support to your team?
In the long run, I think the conference will thrive. The BTN money gives the schools an inherent advantage especially if/when players get paid while BTN coverage is a huge recruiting pitch. The B1G has the best TV coverage even if the Gopher's coverage got worse with the move. As the BTN money grows (Thanks Maryland and Rutgers), the conference should improve and more teams will be added. I honestly have no clue what to make of Arizona State hockey and am going to continue to pretend they don't exist. I'm pulling for Rutgers to go D-1 as that likely forces another AD's hand (Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa?).
Hockey fans are the first to talk about how great the sport is but are extremely resistant to change and letting new people into the club. You see it during the Olympics and Stanley Cup Playoffs, fans love pointing to the amazing skill and speed of the game but also ripping on other sports--specifically basketball--for being soft or weak. You can't have it both ways, either accept new fans openly or deride other fans until hockey disappears from the national conscious. I have decided to embrace the B1G as it offers a bigger stage for the sport than any other conference. The conference race begins December 4th, see you there.