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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

UNO Extends Learfield Radio Contract; New Station in Fall?

UNO has extended their multimedia agreement with Learfield Sports for ten seasons, building on the previous three year deal that originated with Nelligan Sports Marketing, which was later acquired by Learfield. Learfield works with 120 division 1 schools across the country, including Iowa, Iowa State, Missouri, Alabama and Texas A&M. Besides advertising signage and digital marketing, Learfield also produces the radio broadcasts of UNO hockey and basketball.

While Learfield will remain, I suspect that UNO broadcasts will need to find a new radio home next season, moving on from KZOT (1180 AM), aka "The Zone Two" or "The Deuce".  The 1180 signal is perhaps the weakest radio signal in the Omaha area, barely reaching the western edge of the city at night. The online stream could be an alternative, but more than once, I've found syndicated programming on the stream instead of the UNO game.  (Most recently during UNO's final hockey game of the season.)
But a recent FCC rule change may require 1180 AM to go off the air. When the AM radio bands were expanded above 1600  a few years ago, NRG Radio was granted a license to broadcast on 1620 AM in exchange for their license to operate on 1180 AM. Some legal maneuvering has allowed NRG to operate both frequencies, but that appears to be coming to an end with the FCC's AM Revitalization Act. In as soon as a year, NRG will need to shut down one of the their two AM stations, and based on signal strength and branding, you have to figure that 1180 will be shut down.

So who would pick up the rights to UNO sports? KFAB (1110 AM) might be a possibility; they originally carried UNO hockey when the program started. But I suspect sports programming doesn't fit with their political talk focus.  KXSP (590 AM) has a full commitment to Husker broadcasts, so that would not be an option either.  NRG's KOZN (1620 AM) has a full commitment to Creighton sports, while KOIL (1290 AM) has been the home of the Omaha Lancers and overflow Creighton broadcasts.  Boomer 1490 (KOMJ) hasn't had any sports programming in the winter, and could be an option.

Would UNO find an FM station to carry UNO games?  I liked it when the Mav broadcasts were on KVNO (90.7) and 96.1 FM a few years back; the signals were very strong. (Also strong was the jolt of hearing classical music before and after the hockey games...but that was workable.)

If I had to predict, I'd put KOIL (1290 AM) as the most likely home for UNO hockey broadcasts moving forward, with some broadcasts potentially moving to an FM station in the NRG family when multiple UNO or Creighton games are happening simultaneously.  I'd prefer to have UNO hockey move full-time to a FM station, but I suspect that might be a pipe dream.  (A good fit IMHO would be 101.9 FM - aka The Keg.)

Don't sleep on Boomer 1490, though.  1490 has shown a willingness to take a chance on sports programming, and will be getting an FM simulcast at 106.5 FM later this summer. (Sadly, this won't cover most of the Omaha area, though.)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

On The Mend: The Cast is Off!

For those of you who wondered where I went, I broke my left wrist and right thumb in early February. Surgery followed a few days later, followed by four weeks in a cast. Needless to say, with only four functioning fingers, typing has been very difficult. (Hello, hunt and peck!)  Hence, my lack of posting anything of substance except on Twitter. (140 characters is a manageable task...but much more than than that gets excruciating at times.)

The cast has been replaced by a removable brace, and I'm starting to regain the use of my left hand slowly. Hopefully after Easter, I'll be back and blogging a little more often. And it'll probably begin with a few topics that have been chafing me over the last few weeks: the collapse of UNO hockey, the questions surrounding the finances of the new Baxter Arena, and Mike Riley's backtracking on running the ball.