Monday, June 29, 2009

It's a 400?

There's an old line about baseball: It's a marathon, not a sprint.

The same could be said of the NHL season, but the NHL really has two seasons: one for post-season seedings and one for winning.

I'm looking at college hockey and trying to decide what it is. It's too long to be a sprint, but it's not a marathon either. At most, college teams will play 48 games. So, what's between a sprint and a marathon? Track legend Edwin Moses would tell you, "The 400." Folks in the track world say you can't run the 400 like a distance race or like a sprint. It's a hybrid of getting off to a decent start, setting a pace, and a dash to the finish. And that sounds like a college hockey season to me.

It also sounds a lot like the Stanley Cup playoffs. You need to get out and set a pace. And you have to maintain that pace well and long enough that a strong finish will let you hit the tape first.

The Cup playoffs are at most 28 (bone-jarring, grinding, gut-wrenching) games.

Sometimes I wonder if Dave Hakstol isn't building his UND teams to look and act like the college season is a Stanley Cup season. You really don't want to dig an 0-2 series hole in any situation, you can't get away with being below 0.500 for any stretch (Cup series loss in the NHL, or buried too deep in the PWR in college) but defeats along the way are going to come. Don't believe me? The conference finals losers post-season records were 8-10 (Carolina) and 9-8 (Chicago) and no one would say they had bad post-seasons. Pittsburgh was 16-8 on their way to the Cup; Detroit was 15-7 in coming up just short.

The masters of Cup play in recent memory are the Detroit Red Wings. And what's their formula for success? First ... as a side thought ...

Who are the best players in the NHL? When I ask that question most of you came up with a list of three to five names, and no Red Wings names were on it I'm guessing. (Ovchekin, Crosby, Malkin are probably the first thoughts.) I'm not sure many of you came up with Datsyuk, Franzen, or Zetterberg right away. And there was a point to that. We'll get there.

The Red Wings do it fairly simply by their formula:

- They have a top line that is lethal and can make opponent lesser lines look foolish, but they really don't have that "Ovchekin" or "Crosby".
- They have a second line that can score but can also neutralize the opponent top line. (Guys on these top two lines are virtually interchangable as everyone understands the roles and goals.)
- They have a "grind line" that shuts down everyone (and this tradition goes back to the original "Grinders" of Cleary, Draper, and Maltby).
- They have a fourth line made up of role guys (usually younger folks who are learning the Cup trade), where one of them may be skilled enough to show up on a second power play unit (Jiri Hudler anyone?) or able to "spot" a top six guy who misses a shift.
- Their defense is asked to make all the steady plays and really not much else. They'll occassionally have one "mover" but normally they play smart and tough (think: Lidstrom, Chelios).
- Their goaltender is expected to make all the "ordinary" stops, and maybe one or two more.

And then I think of the teams Dave Hakstol seems to build each year. And then I realized the formula.

It appears to this (admittedly far from expert eye) that Dave is building a team in the same mindset and framework.

Now let's again jump to a strange question ...

Who are the best individual skill players in college hockey? Have your list? Did you come up with Chris Vande Velde right away? Dare I call him the UND "mule" (tip of cap to Johan Franzen).

UND doesn't have the names that jump out at you right now, but they do have names that have shown they know how to, or are quickly learning to, play in the college "Cup-season ... season": Vande Velde, Brad Malone, Jason Gregoire's emergence.

These aren't the names that jump out at you as "the best in the game" but they are names that know how to play and seem to be playing to a system and philosophy that has taken Hakstol and UND to Frozen Fours four of the last five seasons.

I'm not saying UND is Detroit (although if Datsyuk, Franzen, Zetterberg, or Lidstrom had eligibility I'm sure we could find a jersey).

I am saying I think I see some of Hakstol's philosophy and where it may come from: The college season looks more like a Cup season so create a college team that looks like a team that does well in Cup season.

Where it may break down is the lack of margin for a loss in the last four games of a college season, as all of us learned, in some cases harshly, in the last few seconds of many games college games this spring.