Thursday, March 31, 2016

Explaining UNO Hockey's Second Half Collapse

Back in October, UNO's hockey team was ranked #1 in the nation and seemingly on top of the hockey world. They opened their brand new arena, and all seemed well for a huge, memorable season.  But by mid-March, the season was over. UNO went from being a #1 seed in the tournament to ending the season on an eight game losing streak. After the Christmas break, UNO only won four out of their last 18 games.


A 14-3-1 start to the season gets wasted, as the Mavs finished 18-17-1 on the season.

What the (bleep) happened?

UNO fans have been asking themselves that same question for weeks, if not for a couple of months, if they are truly being honest with themselves. I'm not a hockey expert by any means, but I do have a few thoughts on the season.  And it's a multi-part answer.

1. UNO's start was overrated.

UNO jumped to near the top of the national and PairWise ratings with their hot start to the season. But that gave everyone a false read on the team. Sweeping #6 Mankato and #20 Vermont looked good in October, but those teams ended up ranked 23rd and 33rd in the Pairwise. Air Force ended up ranked 28th, and Ohio State ended up 31st.  And Arizona State? 59th out of 60 division 1 teams.

Going 10-0 in the non-conference was good...but not as good as it looked at Christmas time.  Even a mediocre UNO team probably would go 7-3 against this schedule.

2. UNO's schedule was backloaded in terms of strength.

UNO played six games against Denver and four against North Dakota in the second half of the season. Those two teams will play next week in one of the semifinals at the Frozen Four. That eight game losing streak to end the season?  All of those games were against top 10 teams in the nation.

3. Goaltending wasn't the same after freshman Evan Weninger injured his ankle

In Weninger's first 12 starts, he ranked second in the NCHC in save percentage (.942) and third in goals-against average (1.99 a game).  His save percentage dropped to .923 and his goals-against-average rose to 2.46 by the end of the season. He looked good against Colorado College, but after that, the freshman struggled down the stretch. He'll get better next season for sure, and let's not forget that he was playing the toughest competition of the season at the end as well.

4.  Most of the roster went into an offensive funk after Christmas

Outside of Jake Guentzel and Mason Morelli, it's hard to identify any Mavs who had a particularly strong finish to the season.  And teams need to have more than one line that can score...but that didn't seem to happen down the stretch for UNO.

So what's next?

Good question. On Tuesday, Dean Blais dismissed his two top assistants: Troy Jutting and Alex Todd.   It was inevitable that something had to change. It'll be interesting to see who Blais hires to fill out his staff - especially because whomever becomes his top assistant will also likely be heir-apparent for the 65-year old Blais.  I'll throw out a few names: 

First, there is Penticton Vees head coach and general manager Fred Harbinson. The former St. Cloud State assistant has built quite a dynasty in western Canada with the Vees and was pursued hard by Wisconsin a year ago to be an assistant. I suspect that he might have passed on the Badgers opening because Wisconsin's Mike Eaves was on the hot seat in Madison - and sure enough, Eaves was fired after a spectacularly awful season.

Next is Minnesota assistant head coach Mike Guentzel, the father of the departed Jake Guentzel. The senior Guentzel is a former Lancers head coach and was an assistant for Blais in the 2010-11 season.  One could easily argue that the Minnesota job is better than the UNO job, but I'd point out that in Omaha, he'd be positioning himself for a head coaching position in a few years, something that probably won't happen in the Twin Cities, I suspect.

Former UNO player Nick Fohr spent a couple of years working with Blais before moving onto the US National Development Team.  He was a candidate for an opening at Wisconsin last season as well; he'd make a good #2 assistant, I suspect.

Harbinson and Guentzel are probably shoot-for-the-moon hires that many will dismiss (or at least doubt). That's fine, but I'd like to see UNO take their shots at their first choices. Certainly that's how UNO landed Blais seven years ago, and that's worked out OK so far.  (Two NCAA tournament berths and one Frozen Four rates more than OK with me, quite frankly.)

This season it became clear that this UNO hockey team, while seemingly more talented than Blais' earlier teams in Omaha, didn't seem to play with the same level of speed and precision that his early teams in Omaha did. Blais arrived with a reputation for "race horse" "run and gun" hockey, but we've seen little of that as of late. Perhaps that's because of the evolution of the staff, and this might be Blais' opportunity to reset his program.  With Weninger having three more years, it might not hurt to unleash the skills on the ice and turn up the level of play.  And with the right assistant coach hires, it still could happen.

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