Now that fall is closing in, it’s time for the Old Dog to take a look at the WCHA and see where it stands in the national scheme of things. In this first dive, we’ll peer into the competitive nature of the six NCAA Division I conferences by looking at last season’s results.
Warning for mathphobes: statistics ahead. But the numbers we’ll look at are pretty simple, really. Besides, we are TECH Hockey Guide. A few simple numbers shouldn’t intimidate anyone!
Like most conferences, the WCHA has sorted itself into a group of haves and have-nots. The “haves” clearly include Minnesota State, Bowling Green, our own Huskies and Bemidji State. Northern Michigan vaulted into this group with their outstanding 2017-18 season, too.
In the “have not” category are Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, plus Lake Superior State. Sitting a bit in limbo are Alabama-Huntsville and Ferris State. The Chargers from Huntsville are slowly improving every year, and are no longer an automatic win for any of the haves. The Bulldogs from Big Rapids seem to be sinking—just a few years removed from an NCAA finals finish as well as a first-round Big Skate win in 2015—and it’s starting to look like they may be shifting to the bottom tier.
It’s hard to count out FSU Coach Bob Daniels, though, who’s won a lot of games with less than high-end talent. On the other hand, it’s not difficult to see that the facilities in Big Rapids are so inferior that it might be difficult to get even coachable diamonds-in-the-rough to head for their outdated, undersized rink, a building that would be well below the acceptable standard for most municipal or high school programs.
The joker in the deck is the league’s non-conference record. Overall, it’s been lousy for several years now, although Tech and Mankato had a few notable out-of-conference wins last year. All in all, the WCHA is just a bit ahead of Atlantic Hockey, but sits quite a way back from the ECAC.
Here are the 2017-2018 out of conference records, and you can see where the WCHA stands:
What about attendance? The number of fans in each arena is another place that suggests where a conference stands in national perspective. Looking at home rink attendance for the past season, the WCHA has done reasonably well, but they are firmly behind the Big Ten, Hockey East, and the NCHC by any measure.
The Big Ten had the highest total attendance—just slightly ahead of the NCHC, at more than 850,000—and reached that level with only seven teams. In terms of filling their arenas, NCHC is at 82% and the Big Ten is at 80%. However, Ohio State pulls down the Big Ten in this statistic, because the Buckeyes only fill 30% of the Value City Arena, with a capacity of almost 19,000. But they are hip deep in discussions about a smaller arena.
Hockey East, with more teams and some larger arenas, is about 150,000 behind the NCHC and Big Ten. The WCHA is fourth in total attendance but tied for last in capacity at 56%.
Here are the summary statistics, which (like all of the conference summaries in this article) were derived from team statistics on USCHO.com :
Team scoring can also be revealing. A league with teams that score a lot of goals showcases exciting hockey. Powerplay success is another aspect of individual excellence and coaching acumen. Goals against per game also reveal attention to defense and goaltending. And finally, total goal differential per game shows another aspect of both competitiveness within the league and success in non-conference play.
In terms of these statistics, the NCHC and the Big Ten are again on top, with Hockey East not far behind. The ECAC had the lowest goals against per game average, but was near the bottom on goals for, telling us that there were a lot of close, low-scoring contests in that conference.
In this category, the WCHA was at or near the bottom in almost every single case—fewest goals scored, tied for least successful powerplay, second from the worst goals against, and the worst goal differential per game at -0.21.
By most measures, the WCHA was one of the two weakest conferences last year. Overall, it’s hard to ignore the best teams in the league, but the have-not teams, particularly Alaska-Anchorage, pull the conference average down in most of the categories we’ve looked at. And that’s a common theme for Atlantic Hockey and the ECAC as well. Their standing in these categories is brought down by the poor performance of their second-tier teams.
No matter what WCHA partisans—like The Old Dog—may want to believe or even deeply believe, it’s tough to make a case for the WCHA belonging in the upper tier of NCAA D-1 conferences. That’s significant, and it poses risks to the future stability of the league, including the ability of teams to recruit high-end talent and to capture the national press attention that all conferences crave. This situation also limits potential television revenue, which is another story that might be worthy of a separate column.
That’s enough for now. Before the regular season starts, we’ll take a look at how the WCHA might find its place if and when the next round of conference realignment shakes things up. It’s clear there won’t be anything happening for the upcoming season, but that could change in the next few years, or even after the next season. The future of the WCHA is anything but secure—and the statistics tell a good part of that story.