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B1G 2015 // Gopher Hockey's Transition to the B1G

You didn't really think that we would forget about hockey during Minnesota week, did you?

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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

One of the biggest gripes from the Minnesota faithful was the loss of games against rivals and quality opponents.  Since you can't predict post-season opponents, I am only looking at regular season games played.  The only major losses to the schedule were Colorado College, Denver, and Michigan Tech.  North Dakota is not included because the Gophers are forbidden from scheduling non-conference games against schools with racist/insesitive mascots and North Dakota wouldn't drop their mascot/logo fuck 'em, that's why.  The Gophers have actually played UMD (Duluth, for those of you without ice) more times post-split than in the two years pre-split.  On top of the regular season meetings, Minnesota has beaten SCSU (St. Cloud State aka Jan Brady State) and NoDak and lost to UMD in the NCAAs.

One positive to the switch has been the addition of more games against BC and Notre Dame.  The Gophers continue to schedule the other Minnesota schools (UMD, SCSU, Bemidji State, and Minnesota State University-Mankato) and now see Michigan and Michigan State on a regular basis.

I'd say the worry was largely overblown with regards to not seeing rivals as the only major difference is swapping CC and DU for the Michigans.  I will concede that a bit of the fire may have been lost from the rivalries as the games don't impact the conference race anymore.  Until Wisconsin and Michigan right their programs, we'll have to settle for hating the fact that half of the teams in the B1G are wearing their football team's helmet.

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.

As you can see, the old WCHA had consistently strong teams with a deep middle and some stragglers on the bottom.  No conference could match it's depth, if one of the top teams faltered, another team was ready to snag its place.  The new WCHA was left with the scraps of the old WCHA and CCHA.  The teams that have paced the new WCHA were middle of the pack to top teams in the old WCHA and the CCHA.  They should expect to reach the NCAAs more often as they don't have to face the top teams that left for the B1G and the NCHC nearly as often.

The NCHC was considered by many to be the premier conference in 2015.  6 of the 8 qualified for the tournament and 2 teams, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha, made it to the Frozen Four.  However, only 3 teams, including one via the auto-bid, qualified last season.  Conferences with fewer than 10 teams are especially susceptible to swings in the amount of teams that qualify since one to two teams having a down year will sink the conference as a whole.

The B1G had a pretty good first season with 2 number 1 seeds and a Michigan team that finished in the top 16 but was bumped by Denver (NCHC's conference tourney champ).  If Michigan had beaten Penn State in the conference tourney and OSU had beaten Wisconsin in the championship game, the B1G would likely have had 4 teams in the tournament.  Last year was a brutal year for the B1G as Wisconsin went from a top seed to a bottom 5 team in the entire country. Normally this would bring me great joy, but without the conference depth, it almost cost the Gophers an at large spot. Thankfully, the Maroon and Gold won the conference tournament to clinch a bid the easy way.

Looking at the percentage of qualifiers shows that the B1G was comparable to the Old WCHA in 2012-14. The NCHC will likely be a bear of a conference but may cannibalize itself if one or two programs have a down year (like Miami in 2014).

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.

I was also curious to see how Minnesota fared against higher levels of competition.  While Minnesota has had similar success in the regular season against teams that made the tournament, they have not had the same level of success against the upper tier teams.  On top of that, they have played fewer games against tournament teams.

The sudden drop in games against quality competition prompted me to look at where the drop was coming from.  As can be seen below, Minnesota is playing a greater percentage of non-conference games against top teams, with a noticeable uptick in the quality of teams from out east. This is due to playing the other Minnesota schools and being matched up with BC and Notre Dame during the B1G-Hockey East challenge.  Not to beat a dead badger, lol jk better dead than red, but if Wisconsin didn't have a historically bad year, another B1G team likely makes the tournament and the numbers don't look as bad.  What really hurts the Gophers is that there have been almost no quality opponents on the schedule after January.

What does this mean for the Gophers?  In the short term, not a whole lot as they are just as likely to make the Frozen Four as they are to be eliminated in the first round.  Such is life in a single elimination tournament.  what I can say is that the Gophers looked completely outmatched last spring, losing 4-1 to Duluth. After not capitalizing on an early push, they didn't even look like they belonged on the same sheet of ice.  Gopher fans were left shaking their heads as no one in the B1G could challenge them like that. At the same time, this was a Gopher team that looked lost much of the season and only won the B1G thanks to everyone else being mediocre or worse so they got the fate they deserved.

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.