Friday, July 29, 2011

Gibson Spurns Michigan for OHL

Another Michigan goaltending recruit has decided to leave the CCHA school without ever suiting up for the Wolverines.

John Gibson, who signed a letter of intent to attend U-M this fall after backstopping the U.S. National Development Team, will instead join the OHL's Kitchener Rangers after being drafted 39th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Gibson follows former NTDP netminder Jack Campbell, who also committed to Michigan, got drafted in the first round by the Dallas Stars last year, and then jumped to the OHL's Windsor Spitfires without ever making a start at Yost Arena.

Michigan has long been a top program that has seen more than its share of players jump early to the professional ranks. Now those players are not even bothering to enroll in school, much less play in any college games. At least Shawn Hunwick is coming back to Ann Arbor for his fifth year after backing the Wolverines to within an overtime tally of a national title in April.

It's the same old adage of major junior plays more games and will get you to the pros faster. Well, you get to play more games, but doing well in juniors is no guarantee that you'll be ever be a star in the NHL itself - especially for goaltenders, since there are so few positions to go around at the top level. Martin Brodeur may be in the twilight of his career in New Jersey; but Jonas Hiller is still going strong in Anaheim, and Kari Lehtonen isn't looking to leave Dallas any time soon after escaping Atlanta. Not only would Gibson and Campbell have to shine in the OHL, they'd have to play well enough to supplant two veteran NHL netminders - easier said than done, especially if they have to apprentice in the minors first.

There are simply no guarantees when it comes to the NHL, no matter how highly you are drafted. I saw Jason Bacashihua win 20 games for the NAHL's Chicago Freeze in 1999-2000, then go to the OHL's Plymouth Whalers after not being eligible to play at Michigan. He won 26 games for the Whalers in 2000-01, then was drafted 26th overall by Dallas. He went to the AHL the next season and a decade later has played grand total of 38 NHL games, all with the St. Louis Blues, and none since 2006-07.

College hockey itself is no guarantee of NHL stardom - Scott Clemmensen won 99 career games and a national title in 2001 with Boston College. Since then he's appeared in 122 NHL contests with New Jersey, Toronto and Florida - granted, he was stuck as Martin Brodeur's backup with the Devils and never really got a chance to play until 2008-09. Brodeur was injured that year and missed most of the campaign, while Clemmensen went on to win 25 games before later going to the Panthers. That's about as big as it's gotten for him in his NHL career - quite serviceable, but admittedly nowhere near superstardom.

Gibson and Campbell may have been drafted higher than Clemmensen, but there's absolutely no guarantee they'll have it any better when they're ready to move on to the next level, which may or may not include the NHL itself.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

NCHC Now a Done Deal

Say hello to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

It was formally announced on Wednesday in the state of Colorado that five WCHA schools and one CCHA club will make up the newest college ice hockey league in the NCAA Men's Division I ranks. Starting conference play as a unit in 2013-14 will be Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska Omaha and North Dakota. That same season will also see the nascent Big Ten Conference (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin) step onto the ice as a group for the first time.

More changes at college hockey's highest level are still in the offing, as Notre Dame and perhaps Western Michigan will be extended invitations to join the NCHC. Rumors have it that Northern Michigan and Alaska Fairbanks may soon jump to what's left of the WCHA and join Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State.

If the defection of NMU and UAF does comes to pass, then the CCHA will be left with only Bowling Green, Ferris State and Lake Superior State. The Michigan-based association could then try to survive by adding current independent Alabama-Huntsville, which was rejected by the CCHA last year. It could then perhaps add two or more teams from Atlantic Hockey - such as Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris - that would like to offer 18 hockey scholarships instead of the dozen they annually award now.

What happens with Hockey East and the ECAC could be two whole other stories. Hopefully this is the end of the college hockey conference upheaval for the time being, but no one can say it's been a boring summer so far.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blashill Leaves WMU for NHL

One and done indeed.

Jeff Blashill, who led Western Michigan to 19 wins and the national tournament in 2010-11, won't be returning behind the bench in Kalamazoo this fall. The former Ferris State goaltender and assistant coach just accepted an assistant coaching position with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings, who seemed to have been seeking new blood on the bench commanded by head coach Mike Babcock.

The timing is not great for Western, just two months before the start of school, and three months before the start of a much-anticipated hockey season under a coach who led the Broncos to perhaps the best turnaround in all of college hockey last year. It was WMU's first winning campaign since a 19-15-4 mark in 2001-02, and included its first appearance in the CCHA title game since 1986, and its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1996. The Broncos ultimately finished 19-10-3 after falling to Denver by a goal in the NCAA Midwest Regional.

There's also been a ton of upheaval in Division I lately, with both the CCHA and WCHA set to lose multiple schools to both the new Big Ten Conference and a newly-announced six-team super league that will both begin play in 2013. Where Western will eventually wind up is anyone's guess.

Still, you can't blame Blashill for leaving to join the Wings, the timing notwithstanding. Critics may rail on his lack of NHL experience; but Detroit reached out to him, and the Red Wings have seemed to know what they've been doing for the last 20 years or so. There was no guarantee that Blashill would have had this opportunity next year, or possibly ever again, so he had to take the chance. At least the results he helped WMU attain last season after so many futile winters should make Western a more attractive destination; especially with the bump in pay up to $275,000 he was set to receive, and which will allegedly go to the new coach as well.

Onward and upward now, for both the Broncos and the Red Wings.

New Six-Team Super League on Its Way?

Well, that sure didn't take long.

Multiple outlets this week detailed the impending establishment of a new six-team "super league" that would consist of current WCHA members Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota, along with CCHA school Miami and possibly Western Michigan. Those schools supposedly felt they had to take (knee-jerk) action in light of the future loss of WCHA members Minnesota and Wisconsin to the new Big Ten Conference in 2013, along with CCHA constituents Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State, and newcomer Penn State.

Where that leaves the remaining schools is anyone's guess if this new conference does indeed come to fruition in two years' time. Assuming WMU (and possibly Notre Dame) also leaves the CCHA, that league would then be left with Alaska Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan. What's left of the older WCHA would consist of Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State.

The two five-member leagues wouldn't subsequently choose to go it alone, as you need at least six teams in a conference to be eligible for the biggest prize of all, an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Would those circuits each attempt to woo a sixth member from somewhere else, possibly Air Force from Atlantic Hockey, or current Division I independent Alabama Huntsville? Would the two outlets join forces and instead fashion a new 10-team league that would include both Alaska schools, and necessitate that the other eight travel to the 49th State at least once each every season?

Current CCHA member Notre Dame, which opens a new on-campus arena this fall, is still mulling its options, It could join the proposed new super league; sign on with the Big Ten as an affiliate, or; even jump to Hockey East, which itself would then likely pursue another school such as UConn in order to ice an even number of teams.

The new six/seven-school league is slated to host a press conference next week, at which time the upheaval of the once more or less staid landscape of NCAA Division I men's college hockey will continue. Who knew that one day bringing Penn State into the D-I fold could have possibly caused such cataclysm?