NCAA Hockey 101: Clarkson's case for ECAC supremacy

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Clarkson has been one of the hottest teams in the country, but can they sustain it? (Clarkson Athletics)
Clarkson has been one of the hottest teams in the country, but can they sustain it? (Clarkson Athletics)

Thanks to a weekend sweep of RPI and Union, the Clarkson Golden Knights improved to 6-3-1 on the season. That’s one of the best records in the country.

But those who have been around college hockey for a while know this isn’t anything new. Quite often, Clarkson storms out of the gates to start the season, amassing big records before mellowing out a bit and usually finishing a few games above .500 for the year.

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So there are two questions one naturally has to ask: “Why?” and “How do they avoid that this year?”

Clarkson has a pair of 20-win seasons since 2011-12, when Casey Jones became their head coach, but has just as many seasons with 20 losses, and is otherwise just okay. Jones’ career record at Clarkson was nine games below .500 a the start of this year (96-105-30), and that’s despite starting at least somewhat hot in three of his other six seasons.

What’s interesting — apart from the fact that this happens literally every other year for Clarkson — is not that these hot starts are unsustainable, insofar as they’ve never been sustained yet in Jones’ tenure, but rather that the circumstances have been so radically different each time.

In Jones’ first year behind the bench, Clarkson played a pretty soft schedule against mostly WCHA and Atlantic Hockey teams and mopped the floor with them in terms of goals and wins, but got outshot by teams that are routinely among the worst in college hockey.

Two years later, the schedule was a little tougher, but not by much, and a much younger roster handled the opponents easily. In all aspects of the game. And because it’s so important in the long term to have results supported by a good process (in terms of outshooting the opponent in all situations), that was the big change for the Golden Knights. However, that team ran into some bad luck against the teeth of the ECAC schedule and finished only four games above .500 despite probably deserving better.

Then in 2015-16, a little more experience went a long way. They played an even tougher early-season schedule and had similar results to start the year, then suffered some bad luck down the stretch again.

This year, with Jones using a solid mix of under- and upperclassmen, the Golden Knights once again look like they did in 2011-12: They’re getting outshot by a not-insignificant margin and relying on a huge PDO to prop up their performances.

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This time, though, they’re playing what is flatly a difficult schedule, and they’re 6-3-1 anyway. You take the wins and the bonus to your strength of schedule, no doubt. The three losses were against a very good Minnesota club (twice) and UMass Lowell, which is playing quite poorly right now but is still expected to be good in the long run.

Otherwise they’re looking at wins hosting Penn State, Michigan, Providence, RPI and Union, and also a win and a tie at Western Michigan (which just swept Denver). Pretty good results against what is currently the ninth-toughest schedule in the country.

But you can see above why there’s room to be skeptical of where this team is headed: Clarkson’s schedule is about to get easier — the ECAC ain’t exactly ninth-in-the-country tough — but they’ve successfully outshot their opponents in just four games out of 10, and been held to under 25 shots more often than they’ve cleared it. The good news is that two of the four times they outshot opponents was this weekend against ECAC opponents RPI and Union (they were plus-30 on the weekend, and plus-9 in goals).

Wins are wins and you gotta bank ’em sometime, and it doesn’t appear as though Clarkson is going to have too many difficult opponents between now and Christmas at the very least. They have currently undefeated Cornell and (maybe, depending upon the winner of another game) Providence on the schedule, and already beat Providence this year, but everyone else is mediocre or worse.

It’s therefore conceivable they continue their winning ways into the new year, and moreover, that they get themselves north of 50 percent in terms of shots on goal, even if Jake Kielly stops being a .947 goaltender at some point in the near future. Which, by the way, is basically guaranteed to happen. He was only a .911 goaltender as a freshman starter last season, and no one besides Connor Hellebuyck in the history of college hockey is reliably .945.

The team as a whole is also shooting north of 10 percent, which is on the high side, but if we’re conceding this is a good team (I think it’s a fair assessment even despite the possession worries, for now at least) then we have to remember that good teams against soft schedules in college hockey are certainly well within their rights to shoot more than 10 percent for a spell. If it keeps up long-term, that’s a different discussion to have, and it’ll be worth revisiting with more games played.

So the issue for this team is whether they can get those shot numbers up to properly buttress the wins. Given the schedule over the next several weeks, it seems possible or even likely. When they’ve played fairly weak teams this year, they’ve put up a good number of shots. They have plenty of “weak” ahead. Nonetheless, you can’t count on a 105 PDO to last, and Jones better have some answers if the questions start getting a little harder.

I think the overall takeaway here is that Clarkson is an above-average team, and one of the three or four best in the ECAC (right now I’d rank it something like Harvard, Quinnipiac, Cornell, Clarkson). But being above-average in the ECAC doesn’t exactly win you a lot of credit in the national picture, even if you’re top three or four.

Maybe Clarkson thinks it can reverse that trend, and if so, it has to avoid doing what every other hot-start Clarkson team has under Jones, and avoid falling apart.

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. St. Cloud (swept Minnesota-Duluth)
2. Denver (got swept at Western Michigan)
3. Harvard (lost to Yale, beat Brown)
4. Minnesota (swept Michigan State)
5. North Dakota (took three points at Wisconsin)
6. Providence (lost at BU)
7. Northeastern (won at BU)
8. Quinnipiac (lost to Cornell and Colgate)
9. Minnesota State (split at Northern Michigan)
10.Western Michigan (swept Denver)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast Hockey Goes to College (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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