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Ryan Lambert

College Hockey 101: Problems for NCAA vs. Major-Junior

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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NCAA Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.

As if things weren't bad enough for Michigan.

Earlier this week, not one but two players, current sophomore forward Robbie Czarnik, a Los Angeles Kings prospect and incoming freshman goalie Jack Campbell, the top-rated goalie in Central Scouting's latest report.

Both jumped from the program, or, in Campbell's case, a commitment to the program, in favor of joining the OHL, and both serve to underscore problems with the NCAA's relationship with Major-Junior hockey in Canada.

First is the case of Czarnik, who, unhappy with his current role on the team and his development overall (he only had 8-14-22 in 51 games for Michigan) jumped to the Plymouth Whalers. The reason for Czarnik's desire to change is obvious. Michigan is off to a poor start at just 5-7-0 after going 29-12-0 last year, and they haven't even looked good doing it. Czarnik wasn't playing as much as he'd like, but then he wasn't scoring much either. Interestingly, Czarnik will stay enrolled at Michigan because Plymouth is about half an hour from Ann Arbor.

As a drafted player with what appears to be pretty good potential, Czarnik had options. Theoretically, he could have signed with the Kings, but likely would have gotten a weak contract and would have had to play in the OHL anyway since he's not yet 20. So jumping to MJs seems like a logical step for a player whose development is stagnating.

They play a schedule similar to that of the professional leagues, for one thing. The same is true of the style of game they play. So Czarnik's feeling that he needed a change of scenery so he can improve his game is at least understandable.

Campbell isn't like Czarnik, who went to school for a year and a half and found that, for whatever reason, the NCAA game wasn't for him. You can't begrudge his choice to go to Major Junior based on that. But if Campbell, one of the best players oh his draft class, and the best at his position, is eschewing NCAA hockey as not being conducive to his growing into an NHL player without having played it, then that's a huge problem.

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Campbell is, as mentioned above, very likely to be a first-round pick in June. He committed to Michigan (only verbally, mind you) because, well, he's from nearby Port Huron and Michigan is among the best programs in NCAA history. The fit, especially for a top-flight kid that probably grew up cheering for the Wolverines, seemed natural. And let's face facts here: his star is so bright that it was unlikely that he'd stay all four years at the U. But his stated reason for leaving was that the OHL would accelerate his development to the point he could be in the NHL. In a year or two.

How many highly-drafted Major Junior goalies can you think of that went from their league to the NHL in two seasons in the past 15 years? Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) and Dan Blackburn. That's it. Campbell may be good, but he's not first-overall good like Fleury was. But the perception is that the OHL will make Campbell a better player, and that's what's damaging to the NCAA.

The more top-flight players that choose not to go to college, the worse college will look to future top-flight players.

College hockey needs to do something to change that impression. Where to start? That's anyone's guess.

Pop quiz

Speaking of Michigan (I e-mailed him prior to their players leaving), here's this week's guest, Tim Williams from the wonderful Wolverines site The Blog that Yost Built.

1) Seriously, what's the problem in Ann Arbor this year?

Honestly, I don't think anyone knows. On paper, this team is a contender. On paper they've got one of the best defense corps in the country. (Goalie Bryan) Hogan was solid last year. (St. Louis Blues prospect Aaron) Palushaj was a big loss offensively, but it's not like Michigan hasn't dealt with those before. Two years ago, Michigan lost 50 percent of their goal-scoring and ended up in the Frozen Four. Last year they lost 46 percent of their scoring and ended up as a No. 1 seed. This year? They only lost 27.5 percent. Everything seems to be in place but it's just not clicking on the ice.

Hogan has been shaky at times and seems to be good for at least one soft goal a game. The defense has turned the puck over way too much, they've given up too many odd-man rushes, and they've taken some mind-numbingly stupid penalties. The forwards aren't putting the puck in the net. About the only thing that's really been working is the penalty kill. God knows they've had enough opportunities to get that right.

They used to be able to get it to guys like (Tyler) Kolarik, (Max) Pacioretty, heck even Milan Gajic. But there doesn't really seem to be a sniper. They're also really feeling the effects of not having a go-to scorer. (Louie) Caporusso put up a lot of goals last year, but he was fairly streaky. They don't have the consistent point producers that Kolarik and (Chris) Porter were two years ago.

2) Why is Caporusso on pace for six or seven goals after he scored 24 last year? Does part of the answer rhyme with Baron Balushaj?

The loss of Palushaj has probably had some effect on Caporusso, though I think it's probably more by way of not having a threat on that second line to take some of the heat off than it is Palushaj not setting him up. The two of them really didn't skate together all that often last year. They played together on the power play, and they were linemates for maybe eight games in the middle part of the season, but aside from that they didn't play together. Caporusso's linemate, David Wohlberg, has slumped just as badly. He was fantastic last year and hasn't done anything to this point.

While Louie had a fantastic season a year ago -- he could've made some noise in the Hobey balloting if the Wolverines hadn't flamed out in the first round -- he hasn't exactly been Mr. Consistency. He only scored 6 times in the final 21 games of last year and disappeared in a lot of big games. In four appearances against Miami, three against Notre Dame, and the loss to Air Force in the tournament, he had zero goals, three points, and 16 shots on goal. Michigan needs him to produce more than he has. But you can say that about a lot of guys.

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3) Why do you think the team responded to Red Berenson's "spoiled brats" speech with three straight losses?

Umm.... we're not very good?

I don't know. When you take dumb penalties, give up soft goals, and can't put the puck in the net, you're not going to win very many games. The Friday night game against Michigan State included a deflating goal, a long string of (deserved) penalties taking away any chance to get into a rhythm, and a fluky goal that was a back-breaker.

The game against Bowling Green was a classic case of, "You can't fix stupid." They take a dip-you-know-what penalty to go down two men, promptly give up two goals, give up another one a minute later while they're still shell-shocked, and a 2-1 lead becomes a 4-2 loss.

Dumb penalties, shaky goaltending, horrible power play.

4) What do you think are some of the bright spots in this otherwise regrettable start?

One bright spot would be that Robbie Czarnik is showing some flashes of the player we expec... wait, he did what? Dang, this is just getting better and better.

Alright fine. Bright spots: The arena hasn't collapsed, nobody has gotten kicked off the team for stealing a teammate's credit card, Hogan hasn't hurt himself "moving a refrigerator", and none of our defensemen have gotten assaulted (on or off the ice).

Seriously though, the biggest bright spot for me is that Carl Hagelin still plays hockey for Michigan. Watching him play is one of the most underrated joys in sports. The kid is all effort, all the time. He's an incredible skater, he works his butt off, and it's fun to yell "Bork! Bork! Bork!" when he scores. Chris Brown has been as good as advertised and hasn't gone near Rihanna. Chris Summers didn't go pro. That's about all I've got in terms of bright spots.

5) Do you see this turning around at some point?

Yeah, there's too much talent on this team to go 2008-09 Michigan State or anything like that. The question is can they get it turned around in time? I have my doubts about that. Last year, Miami squeaked into the tournament and they only had 12 losses at the start of the tournament. We've already got 7 and it's only a third of the way through the season. The margin for error is pretty much gone. It's hard to project who will be under consideration at the end of the season, but we're probably something like 0-5 against TUCs at the moment. If BU turns it around, it'd be 0-6. That's a big hole to dig out of.

I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they missed the tournament, as hard as it is to believe. I think they'll be fine before too much longer, but there have been a lot of Michigan teams on the tournament bubble who haven't started off this poorly or looked this bad in the process. They're fighting an uphill battle to get in. They need to find some consistency offensively, the goaltending needs to be better, the defense needs to be smarter....that's a lot of big problems to correct. I think they'll ultimately do it, but unless it gets fixed now it's going to be too little, too late.

Extra credit

• Shots to the head aren't just a problem in the NHL. The WCHA, and really every other conference in the country, is plagued by the problem. [Mankato Free Press]

• For the first time in its history, Quinnipiac is ranked in the Top 10. [USCHO]

• Know what's fun about college hockey? When a school gets a commitment from someone who is unbelievably young. That's the case with the latest Denver recruit, 15-year-old Tyler Pham. [LetsGoDU]

• Tuesday's win over Harvard might be a sign of BU getting back on the track to playing like, well, BU. [Boston Hockey Blog]

• The New York Times' Slap Shot blog is usually pretty good (I say this mainly because they once called my blog one of their favorites), but it's misrepresenting the facts about how many college players were taken in last year's draft. They say 3.3 percent, but the number is actually about nine times that. Only a small disparity there, eh? [Western College Hockey Blog]

• A Wisconsin fan's reaction to a letter to the editor calling for an end to fights in college hockey, which is really quite stupid. If you can think of a full-on fight in the last few years at any college hockey game you attended, please raise your hand. [Sixty Minutes. No Alibis. No Regrets.]

• A big win over Vermont underscored everything UMass fans have to be thankful for. [Fear the Triangle]

(Hey guys, I'm always looking for links here. If you have a college hockey post on your blog, please send it along to the address below.)

Ryan Lambert writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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