NCAA Hockey 101: Arguing about East vs. West isn't tiresome at all (just kidding)

AP Photo/Gretchen Ertl

The NCAA tournament began this past Friday and ended on Sunday night, whittling the field of 16 down to just four in three days.

In all, it was a tournament that went mostly as expected: There were just four upsets in the 12 games played, and two came as a result of what Providence did to take down the top two teams in its bracket. In a matter of speaking, the tournament has been a little boring to this point, just because picking chalk would have worked out so well for you. And one of the other upsets — Michigan Tech losing to St. Cloud — wasn't really much of one; the NCHC was a much better conference than the WCHA this year.

But indeed, it was talk of conference strength that dominated the weekend. The facts are these: If you break it down by conferences putting teams into the 16-team field, the NCHC flat-out dominated. Six of its eight teams made the cut, compared to three for Hockey East and the ECAC, two for the WCHA, and one each for the Big Ten and Atlantic Hockey. In terms of percentage of teams from each conference that made it, the field breaks down to 75 percent, 25 percent, 25 percent, 18 percent, 16 percent, and 9 percent, respectively.

And yet at the end of the weekend, only two conferences made it through. The NCHC and Hockey East got two teams each. As you might imagine, when you put six teams into a group of 16, you're going to cannibalize yourself to some extent, St. Cloud lost to North Dakota in the West regional final, which was basically always going to happen. But as to the NCHC supremacy expected, well, there was no way a good-but-not-great Duluth team was ever getting past BU, and Providence knocking off both Miami and Denver — two mightily impressive teams — in what was effectively its home regional.

College hockey is achingly provincial, and most people from the West can't admit that a team from the East might be better than what its own side of the country has on offer. And vice versa. This parochial view of the sport is dimming, and boy is it easy to make Midwesterners boo-hoo in their beers when you say something like, “The NCHC went 1-3 against Hockey East teams this weekend,” even if it's true. They will point out that all the games the NCHC lost were played on states that border the Atlantic Ocean, and that any Eastern team which ventured out to those regionals in the central time zone got massacred (Quinnipiac, RIT, and Harvard were outscored 13-4 in the four total games they played). Many Miami and Denver fans are still complaining about the Friars effectively having two home games because its regional was in Providence; nary a word has been breathed about this with respect to North Dakota playing an hour down the road in Fargo, because those wins were 100 percent fair and square.

(In furtherance of that point: You can't raise legitimate criticisms of teams in either time zone without being accused of “hating” such-and-such because they are “very bias” against Eastern/Western teams, depending upon the geographical location of the writer in question.)

These aren't, however, the National and American Leagues prior to interleague play; these teams play each other quite often in the regular season. We have a reasonable basis for comparison between the NCHC and Hockey East when it comes to how good they are against each other. And hey, wouldn't you know it, in the regular season they played 15 times, and went 7-7-1. Add in the postseason and it's 10-8-1 in Hockey East's favor. And if either conference wins both those games, the reactions from the people who care about this sort of thing — mostly NCHC fans — is going to be off the charts.

Now, using just 19 games isn't a good way to compare these two leagues, but it's the best way we've got right now. And an even closer breakdown of those wins shows that Hockey East went 4-2 at home sites, 2-4-1 when visiting NCHC teams, and 1-1 in neutral-site games.

And the thing is, the NCHC has been decorating itself with unearned laurels for the first two years of its existence. (For instance, the official St. Cloud State Twitter account went in on me last week for merely saying the NCHC is a “good conference” as though this were somehow a slight.) And it would further like for you to please ignore that first season, when it put three of eight teams in the tournament to Hockey East's five of 11. This season is obviously what's important now, though.

If it's any consolation — and believe me, it won't be — we're getting at least two NCHC versus Hockey East matchups at the Frozen Four. Which isn't going to make the next week and a half intolerable at all. Especially if the NCHC doesn't win. Because guess where the Frozen Four is this year.

Everyone needs to calm down. Nobody will. We're all too biased.

More pro signings of note

Well with more teams getting eliminated, more teams also lose players to graduation and pro signings. And once again this week, there was a decent number of NHL signings as a consequence.

And no surprise here, but the teams that are usually most active in signing college players — whether they drafted them or not — kept themselves busy once again over the last week. Of that group, the Minnesota Wild was the busiest, locking down three undrafted free agents in the space of just a few days.

First was UNH senior forward Grayson Downing, who scored 21 goals for a not-great team, and has generally been a good two-way player more or less since he got to college. Then over the weekend it was Minnesota State's Zach Palmquist, a strong senior defenseman who had 29 points in 40 games from the blue line and helped drive the best possession machine in the country. Finally — and this was the perplexing one — the Wild scooped up Vermont junior netminder Brody Hoffman, who actually found himself benched for a good portion of the year and only bumped his save percentage up from .909 to .922 because he stopped 87 of 88 in one weekend against Boston College. Now, Hoffman is a project, but a big one at 6-foot-4, so you can see why a team takes a chance on him, especially if you can buy a little bit low here. 

Meanwhile, San Jose and Chicago each scooped up two prospects each. The latter signed Mike Paliotta, a giant and mega-skilled blueliner who was Vermont's leading scorer this season, after he finished up his eligibility, and also got UFA Kyle Baun, a junior out of Colgate. Baun's numbers didn't jump off the stat sheet (14 goals and 29 points in 38 games this year) but it was second on the team, plus he's a 22-year-old junior who uses his big body to some effect and carries two-way value. This is the kind of player that gets bought out of their senior year all the time.

San Jose speculatively added Cornell senior defenseman and Wisconsin senior goalie Joel Rumpel, the latter of whom was a UFA. Ryan's an undersized mobile defenseman who only put up one goal this year, but the season before he scored eight. Clearly they're hoping the former Sweden U20 will return to that form. Rumpel, though, is coming off a lost season in which he went .902, and the hope is obviously that he'll get back to the .929 he posted two years in a row behind teams that weren't dismal.

Rounding out the activity, Winnipeg signed Michigan's Andrew Copp (who was on the US World Junior team two years ago) as a junior — and boy was Red Berenson pissed — after the 20-year-old scored 14-17-31 in 36 games. Florida signed Minnesota's Kyle Rau, college hockey's version of Patrice Bergeron the last two years, to forego his senior year as well.

Finally, Boston signed UFA winger Colton Hargrove out of Western Michigan, and this is the kind of fertile ground to which Peter Chiarelli often turns.

As for Mike Reilly...

While all the college signings were going on, one that's conspicuous by its absence to this point is that of Minnesota super-D Mike Reilly, a 21-year-old 2011 Columbus fourth-rounder. 

Basically what the deal is with college hockey players is that if they play a year of junior hockey after getting drafted but prior to heading off to the NCAA, they become like Jeff Schultz: Able to sign with any team they like after a certain date.

Reilly, obviously, fits that description, having returned after his draft year to play a season in the BCHL for Penticton (where he put up 24 goals and 83 points in 51 games; the BCHL is not a goaltenders' league). He's been dominant for Minnesota the last two years in particular, and would be a prized prospect for Columbus. Except the expectation is that he probably won't sign with them.

He'd become an unrestricted free agent as late as June 1, and the fact that his dad is a minority owner of the Minnesota Wild suggests that he might not be too amenable to, say, signing elsewhere. It'll be very interesting to watch this unfold, unless you're Columbus, in which case it'll be a knife in the gut.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. BU (beat Yale and Minnesota-Duluth)

2. North Dakota (beat Quinnipiac and St. Cloud)

3. Providence (beat Miami and Denver)

4. Nebraska-Omaha (beat Harvard and RIT)

5. Denver (beat BC, lost to Providence)

6. Minnesota-Duluth (beat Minnesota, lost to BU)

7. St. Cloud (beat Michigan Tech, lost to North Dakota)

8. RIT (beat Minnesota State, lost to Omaha)

9. Miami (lost to Providence)

10. Yale (lost to BU)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here

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