The Weekend Ahead: October 10th

October 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

This is an early bellwether weekend for a number of mid-range teams. Stats tell us almost nothing until teams start playing programs at around their own level, so there’s little to go on right now.

North Dakota is coming off a loss to Vermont and needs to get a sweep against MSU to look like it can hang at all near the top of the WCHA this season.  It’s disappointing that Bemidji gets the week off given its hot start.  It will be fascinating to see how the Beavers fare against top competition.  Ohio State will find out whether one key piece of recruiting, at goaltender, can spur the rest of its historic underachievers.  Probably not, but I’m curious whether anything can slow the relentless Wisconsin squad, and allowing fewer than four goals per in this series is some kind of moral victory. [I was looking over the USCHO picks and I noticed I completely forget to mention UMN/UMD, which shows what I think of this year's UMD squad. -Ed.]

Clarkson will not be defending its title this year, but returned more pieces of its championship squad than I think most observers initially realized.  Erica Howe and Rattray had such an outsize influence on the team, as evidenced by the five goals the Golden Knights have already given up in a game this year, but they’re well-matched against Providence.  The Friars also recruited decently and are in their usual recent place in the middle of the pack zone.  They had the bad luck to start the season against Mercyhurst but they hung in, and one out of two against Clarkson would be an excellent result for them.  Either ‘Hurst or Maine will see if their hot defensive starts were an illusion (better luck to the Lakers there).

Can a Robert Morris team that returns basically everyone from last year save itself from second-half collapse?  Conversely, can the second-half phenomenon that was Northeastern play a full year this time?  They will face an RIT squad that is trying to prove it really has successfully made the D-I transition.  Meanwhile the entirety of Hockey East has to contend with the juggernaut that is BC, and SLU will not have the firepower.  At the farthest reaches of the ticket, Saint Cloud State can pick up its lonely points against another team still struggling to prove it belongs in the D-I ranks.

The most inspiring weekend of hockey?  Probably not.  But certainly important for those teams for whom .500 is the key goal.

The Wrong Lesson

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Back when I was so foolish as to write about other sports, one of the first stories that caught my attention, in part because I once found myself sitting across the aisle from her at an invitational,* was that of Jamie Carey.

Some of you more dedicated women’s sports nerds may remember this one.  Carey was a point guard at Stanford majoring in one of those ritzy complex systems programs, a combination of computer science and philosophy.  She also had a penchant for taking charges and other scrappy things beloved of coaches.  Unfortunately this caused her to suffer from what we would now term severe post concussion syndrome. She had headaches and dizziness.  She could no longer concentrate or remember well enough to do her mathematical schoolwork, and had to switch majors to something with more writing.**  Certainly there was no chance of playing basketball again.

Over time, however, her acute symptoms faded, although as I recall the cognitive ones didn’t entirely and she had to stay with the other major.  But Stanford refused to clear her to return to the court.  So she transferred to Texas, where (to be fair after extensive testing) they had her pop in a mouthguard and get back into the game.***   Texas was still a top ten women’s program at the time, and Carey helped them to their last major gasp of success before their recent woes.  When I first covered this story, about a decade ago, the sports commentariat was in agreement that it taught us about lawsuit-shy programs that didn’t serve their players’ needs, versus more flexible teams that prospered.

We got it backward.  Based on what we now know about the science of concussions Jamie Carey should never have played a sport with contact again. A mouthguard! For extreme post-concussion symptoms!  Pundits are fond of saying about professional male athletes that they are free to make their own choices.  The fact the players were working with incomplete information fails to come up, although certainly Carey was much more educated than many of her compatriots. She was extremely happy and successful playing at Texas. She even went on to serve as a backup in the WNBA and is now coaching for the U.S. national team.  I have no evidence to suggest she’s suffering from any serious deficits at the moment.  But our current research shows she put herself at risk for longterm damage.  I suspect this was something Stanford guessed at and I have to say I also suspect Texas, which is no slouch in the academic medicine department, did as well. But Texas wanted to win more than it was afraid of being sued if she developed, say, early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Again, I have no information to suggest that will happen in this particular case and I devoutly hope and pray it does not.  Yet ironically Stanford acted in Carey’s best interests even though at the time it was simply protecting itself against future liabilities.

I bring this story up now because of the news that Amanda Kessel is sitting out the year due to concerns about concussive symptoms.  The women’s hockey community is obviously pretty bummed.  However we also understand that this is about protecting Kessel’s longterm health, especially since there is no choice between a lucrative professional career and her cognitive function.  In some odd way female athletes are lucky in this regard.  There’s no money awaiting them to sacrifice their future.  We’d all rather that money was there, but it also makes prioritizing much easier.  The sport suffers without one of its most visible stars.  But if we’ve learned anything from mistakes made by teams and coaches in the past, it’s that the sport isn’t bigger than anyone’s ability to live a full post-sporting life.

*Not that I worked up the courage to actually talk to her, mind you.

**I am the last person to suggest such a major is less rigorous.  It simply emphasizes different skills.

***Fascinatingly, her current Wikipedia page emphasizes that it was an ankle injury rather than the concussions that caused her retirement from basketball at Stanford.  While clearly a big part of the equation, this was not the story that got emphasized during her career with Texas.

The American U-22 Invitees Initial Breakdown

August 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Faked you out there, ey?  Hockey news intervened.  I’ll return to the recruits in a bit, although this is a very related post.

USA Hockey has named 69 (or possibly 66) players to its development festival thingy in Lake Placid which will produce the U-18 and U-22 teams.  Yes, Development Festival Thingy is the technical term preferred by international hockey experts. 

The breakdown of where USA Hockey thinks talented young players come from (based *only* on the rosters and not on commits):

Boston College – 8

Shattuck St. Mary’s- 6

Minnesota Public High School- 6

University of Minnesota- 5

NAHA, Northeastern, Assabet Valley, Chicago Mission, – 3

If one were to use this as a scouting report, Boston College should be winning the national title, right? Certainly USA Hockey believes they have the most talented cadre in the country.  Hockey East depends on whether the first half or the second half Northeastern squad shows up, I suspect. 

Interesting how big the player advantage is for SSM given the success of other programs on both the national stage and in D-I recruiting this year. 

There are also two players who are over 22 have played professionally, Blake Bolden with Boston and Kelley Steadman in Russia.  There has been general ire about Bolden’s lack of progress with the national team selection staff, so perhaps this is a step in the right direction.  I’m not adding Chesson in with them because I don’t know why she continues to end up on development rosters at her age and with her most recent team usually blank.  That’s not a dig, I’m genuinely curious. 

Friend of the Blog wwhyte notes some interesting omissions in Pucci and Kessel, both of whom have obviously logged serious time for the senior national team.  

Here is the commit data I’ve managed to cobble together: 

BC- Keller, Bizal

QU- Cianfarano, Samoskevich

Cornell- Gerace

UMN- PIazza, Skarzynski, Woken, Marshall

Harvard- Laing

OSU- Dunne

UND- Kolstad,

UNH- Wenczkowski, a name which is going to give announcers fits

Northeastern- Bugalski

UW- Pankowski (redshirt)

Minnesota wins this battle rather handily.  There was no question they’d reload for future campaigns.  I am more interested in whether OSU can cobble together a complete team. 

I’m sure I missed some incoming first-years, so please let me know in comments. 

Fresh Skaters On The Ice! NCAA Recruiting Classes, Part One

August 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

We have certain assumptions about what we consider a successful recruiting class. At the top of the list are players who have served on the American or Canadian national teams. Then come players who have been invited to camps by those teams, and/or been a part of top-flight junior programs. If you score a lot for a lesser junior team you may also be a good prospect. It’s harder to evaluate foreign nationals because the talent pool is more uncertain: for every Michelle Karvinen there is a random Swede whose skills are being accepted largely on faith. The problem with this system is that at every step along the way there is room for error: the national selection camps may have a flawed process; not every player on an excellent team is herself an excellent player. Although we have statistical measures for isolating her contribution they are largely in their infancy. Also, there is no adequate measure for determining whether a so-called blue chip prospect will make the transition from junior-level hockey to the much more demanding world of the NCAA.

In short, this discussion may be total balderdash, but let’s have it anyway ;)

Here’s the first part. It is now basically a truism that the Big Two will recruit North America’s top talent. Annoy UMD as it will, this is simply fact. We need go back to last year to understand the depth of Wisconsin’s new bench, since Super Junior Annie Pankowski will finally be able to play after redshirting last season. She is joined by U.S. U18 member and Shattuck St. Mary’s standout Baylee Wellhausen, her teammate defender Maddie Rolfe, Canadian U18 skater Emily Clark and Canadian selection camp attendee Lauren Williams. This is still impressive given that the Badgers lost major commit Taylor Cianfarano to BC in circumstances that remain murky (for rumors, see the USCHO forum). They are fielding only six defenders initially and losing Alex Rigsby, but Desbien is an able replacement and given that their woes in the past few seasons were primarily a moribund offense, this year should mark another return to the top for the program. While I am not sold on Johnson as a coach (heresy!) having seen him work unsuccessfully with slightly lesser talent the past few seasons, if he can handle player development this team could coach itself within a year.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s major rival is presumably still reeling from the destruction meted out by Clarkson in the astonishing national title game. It feels like a dream, doesn’t it? Unfortunately Tech has lost its most exceptional class and even with the championship boost in interest did not entirely make up for that, being forced (gasp!) to turn to the United States for a recruit ;) Brielle Bellerive is both the most impressive player and the most impressive name in this year’s frosh squad, and Clarkson has inked several players in the level directly below including Downers Grove’ own Savannah Harmon and a potential replacement for Erica Howe in Shea Tiley, although Howe is really irreplaceable. With their team philosophy still in place they could contend in the ECAC…but read on for further news about who may have actually picked up the best class in the conference.

As for Minnesota, although the loss must sting, they are soothing it with another epic group from within Minnesota (good players from Minnesota public schools are another holy grail, comparable to an exceptional junior hockey career). UMN picked up Ms. Hockey Sydney Baldwin, runners-up Kelly Pannek and NIna Rodgers, and Chicago Mission’s Cara Piazza, all of whom were members of the U.S. U18 squad. We should see no strings and wires for the transition in Gopherville. But who, surprisingly, signed the one of the best initial classes in the ECAC? Colgate, a team that I am embarrassed to say I sometimes forget exists (sorry!). Harvard has brought in a very, very strong group but if the Raiders can ramp up to college speed quickly they can contend. Top of the list is the AMAZINGLY-NAMED Lauren Wildfang, one of the star players on Canada’s U18 team. She is joined by all-province-level talents Kaila Pinckney, Megan Sullivan, and Shelby Perry, plus American prep standouts (although not on the most elite squads) Annika Zalewski and Ellie DeCaprio. I don’t think anyone is going to overlook Colgate in the coming years. But I also recall being pretty excited about the incoming class at Saint Cloud State a few seasons back, only to see them flame out spectacularly (although they only inked two real high school stars which is not enough to turn around a program’s fortunes).

Next time: whither Duluth, a look at Harvard as well as conference rival Princeton, fortune falls in BC’s lap, etc. In researching this post I was excited to think that somewhere in Canada there is a George Eliot High School, but sadly it is George Elliot High; how disappointing.

Still Here!

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

TFL has taken a while to recover from the Olympic situation.  The Twitter account (@firstlinehockey) has still been active.  I’ll start posting again soon with the off-season slate of college profiles and previews, and hopefully some interviews. 

American Fans: Something To Remember

February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Good luck to the Canadians, who must live with both the joy and the incredible burden of their sport being so much more than a sport. 

Whatever happens tomorrow, we Americans are free from having our identities depend upon this game.  We care deeply about it, but it will not affect how we feel about ourselves as citizens or as a country.   That is very liberating. 

Given that we care deeply, it may be difficult to embrace the effort but not be overly concerned with the fruits of the effort.  Especially if the Canadians win and they stage a repeat of their somewhat unfortunate celebration in Vancouver (PLEASE DON’T DO THAT).  Cigars are gross. But no matter the outcome the players should be able to hold their heads high. They have worked incredibly hard. They have nothing to prove. They’re just here to play hockey. 

The Game Doesn’t Stop After A Bad Call

February 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Before we launch into that, let us pause for a moment to contemplate exactly how bad that call was.  It was probably top three in the worst call pantheon I have personally witnessed.  What makes it particularly egregious is that the referee knows she blew the whistle.  It was her own action, not a player’s.  It makes absolutely no difference that she blew it in error.  Unless you are that jerk who always finishes his lay-up after the whistle sounds, you stop what you’re doing when you hear that.  Even the jerk who finishes the lay-up does it in a haphazard way usually.  So Jessie Vetter didn’t think she had to know where that puck was.  The fact that they reviewed the play so they could then hear themselves blow the whistle, which was clearly audible on my broadcast and also apparently from the U.S. bench, is just the icing on the cake.  The terrible, terrible cake.  That is not even touching on the inconsistent enforcement of the checking penalties, and the instances they missed of too many players on the ice (you see how easy, Doc?)

But.  The U.S.’ job once they had absorbed that hit was to try harder, not to appear to be so discombobbled they handed the Canadians the game.  That giveaway at the blue line was inexcusable.  If they had played the whole rest of the period the way they did the last two minutes, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.  I singled out the Coyne line for defensive concern for a reason.  Decker took two huge penalties; Coyne let Wickenheiser’s assist go right past her; and unfortunately they tend to get paired with Marvin/Stecklein, who are porous.  But all of that would have been escapable if the U.S. hadn’t been so shell-shocked by their bad luck.

Now honestly most aspects of this game should give the U.S. little cause for concern.  In the first two periods the shot selection (I’m going to start trademarking that, given how often I mention it) was somewhat weak but honestly given Labonte’s surprising start throwing the puck at the net and seeing what happened was a decent idea.  Knight was getting great chances as were the Lamoureuxs.  Although I have never been more frustrated than when Jocelyne didn’t take that odd-player rush during a change right toward the goal.  Vetter stopped some tough shots.  The penalty kill was looking quite solid.  Then the wheels came off.

The Canadians have to be thrilled with how Labonte performed (although the scene in the final moments might give them pause if they were to be reflective about it).  They also were due some production from Spooner and they got it.  But they should be concerned about Poulin’s not really being a factor on the offensive side, and they really must start moving the defense forward.  Their offense continues to have long periods of stagnation and taking advantage of poor officiating is a lousy way to win.

I have assumed that Finland will come through to be the team the U.S. sees in the semis.  It was a bit shocking it took them overtime to beat the Swiss.  If Canada is to face any of the other teams, it will destroy them.  They are not going to go through a Swedish scare twice.  However if Canada faces Finland again, it will be interesting to see what adjustments Dineen makes.  I have an unfortunate suspicion he will make none.  I hope I’m wrong.  If the U.S. faces Finland they need to guard against complacence.  Luck played a huge role in their early lead too.  Being on the other end of a bad bounce could put them in Finland’s position quickly.  To be gold medalists, this group needs to be able to replace their lost wheels quickly, rotate them if necessary, and get back on the path.  This may come as a surprise but I am more comfortable with Katey Stone at the helm than I was with Mark Johnson a few years ago.  If she can get the players to follow her instructions (for instance taking advantage of the lively boards is brilliant), they should come through this.

Then we can start worrying about the rematch.

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