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Season Recap Part II; Syner Signs

Yesterday I recapped how UMass fared through the schedule, outlined some of the key stats to the season, and gave some thoughts on each player’s performance.  Today I wanted to touch on my thoughts on the job by the coaching staff and some overall opinion on the season and the program.

Xs and Os

I think specific to this season coach Toot Cahoon and his staff had some wins and losses.  Early in the season he took some heat, including from myself, for not going forward with a combination of Mike Pereira, T.J. Syner, and Danny Hobbs, aka the HoPS line.  Fans argued that these were arguably the team’s best players and they seemed to have great chemistry together.  Cahoon made the point that he’d rather have them on different lines so the team had two equally balanced scoring lines.  In the end, with these players split between the top two lines for much of the season, UMass had their best offensive output since the 2002-03 season.  Can’t really argue with that.  Overall, though there were tweaks here and there, I thought the lines the staff put together were really gelling at the end of the year, including the impactful the third line of Carzo, Power, and Kiley.

I think the staff also deserves credit for the progression the power play made during the season.  For the first few months of the year it was absolutely dreadful and a huge liability for the team.  But the coaches changed things up, focused on it in practice, and by the end of the season was converting regularly at over 20%.  The team finished in the middle of the pack among Hockey East teams with the power play.  The penalty kill improved somewhat as the season went on but still ended up being a huge weakness on the team, as it has been for years.  This has to be something addressed next year as it really limits the team’s ability to win.  Lastly I have to say that the schedule itself was a win for the staff.  From a fan’s perspective it was disappointing not to see any WCHA or CCHA teams on the list, but as I mentioned yesterday it’s currently the 10th toughest schedule in the country according to the RPI.  UMass got some good wins against the harder teams on the schedule, if they had just won against the middle and lower levels teams more consistently this schedule would’ve put them in prime position for an at-large NCAA bid.

But, they didn’t take care of business against those teams.  This team won the season series against league champion Boston College, played even with BU, yet couldn’t win a single game against Providence or take the season series against anyone else but last place Vermont.  Even if UMass had won one against the Friars, held onto the 3-0 lead at BU, turned one of the losses to UNH and Merrimack into a tie, and taken even a single game from Lowell things would’ve turned out much differently.  In fact if all that happened UMass would’ve tied with Merrimack for fifth place.  But it didn’t.  Too often UMass came out looking completely unprepared to play.  Too often they played down to their competition, just as they played up to the competition when playing ranked teams.  Certainly the players deserve some of the blame for this.  We’re talking about young men who have playing hockey their whole lives.  They should be able to prepare themselves.  But anything that becomes a habit or trend like this ultimately falls on the coaching staff as well who has to find a way to get through to their players, even if it’s constantly changing methods.  That never happened until it was too late.  Starting with the second game in Maine UMass was ready to play every game.  Before then, not so much.

Another miss for the coaching staff this season was the goaltending situation.  Now in their defense none of the three goaltenders made their lives easy by stepping up and being the clear #1 choice.  But that said, the goaltender rotation probably did not help things when the team struggled in January and February.  Only Jeff Teglia’s injury whittled it down to just a two man rotation but even that seemed to cause problems at times.  No one was able to get in a rhythm.  Neither were able to try to build on a recent success.  I’m not sure what next fall holds but I hope any potential three man rotation doesn’t last more than a few weeks and I hope if someone puts a couple solid games together they’re given ample chance to establish themselves as the regular starter.

Season Thoughts

Yesterday I outlined some of the statistical improvements and in the one stat that matters most, wins, the team improved too; from six last year to 13 this year.  But, like last year, it took until the very last weekend of the season to qualify for the Hockey East playoffs.  And they only did that by the very thinnest of margins, taking the third level of tiebreakers from Northeastern.  Once the team got to the playoffs it was another two game sweep at the hands of Boston College who have dispatched the Minutemen for three straight years.  If this team had been mediocre all year, beating lesser teams and other mediocre teams while losing to the best teams in the league and finished with 13 wins I think it would’ve been understandable.  The fact that the fans were treated to some amazing highs; the wins over #1 BC and #1 BU, the shutout over BC to take the season series, the victory at Maine, and defeat of Cornell, just makes the overall outcome that much more disappointing.  For at least 7 of the team’s 27 games, those being wins against ranked teams, they showed they could play with the best and beat the best.  Where was that team the rest of the time?  How could they beat the top ranked team twice and go winless against Providence and not even look competitive against Lowell?  How could the team be so dominant at home, undefeated for much of the season, yet had to wait until mid-February to get their first road win?

You could argue that perhaps fans were expecting too much if they wanted this team with freshmen goaltenders and a ton of sophomores to be competing for home ice in Hockey East.  But if expectations were raised it’s because the team’s own performance raised them.  Those signature wins, some of the biggest in the program’s history is what made us think the team was capable of doing something really special.  Instead they finished in a fashion we’ve become way too accustomed to.  In the end this team gave us equal portions of excitement and frustration.

Program Thoughts

Five years ago this week UMass had just beat Maine for the fourth straight game and were preparing to take on UNH in the Hockey East semifinals at the Garden.  The team would drop that game in overtime but a four goal 3rd period by Clarkson in the ECAC championship would align the numbers and give UMass its first ever NCAA berth.  A Kevin Jarman goal a couple weeks later would give UMass its first NCAA win.  While everyone knew Jon Quick was the difference maker on that squad, fans of the program hoped that season would usher in an era where UMass would regularly compete for home ice in Hockey East and even battle for a league title.  That hasn’t happened.  In the five years since UMass has had a losing record in four of them and finished at .500 in 2009-10.  The six wins last year tied for the least since UMass moved to Division I.  The team has finished in 8th place in the league three times during those five years, 7th once, and tied for 6th once, and just one year was legitimately a contender for home ice.  These are not the results UMass fans hoped for when they gathered in Blue Cross Arena in Rochester in 2007.

There are a lot of reasons for the lack of success in these past five years; youth, defections to the pros, recruits reneging on their commitments, and flat out selfish players.  But, rightfully, UMass fans are going to look to the head coach to be accountable for these last five years.  And the fact is head coach Toot Cahoon has lost the confidence of a sizable portion of the UMass faithful.  How much?  It’s tough to quantify.  However judging from what I read here at FTT and on UMasshoops.com and what I hear from the everyday fans I interact with at games, it’s close to a majority.  Even more concerning is, for the first time, people close to the program I’ve spoken with are vocalizing their doubts as well.

Before the 2010-11 season I happily broke the news that Cahoon received a contract extension that would keep him as coach through the end of next season.  All the arguments I made in Cahoon’s favor then are still applicable.  The players not only graduate but regularly receive accolades for their academics.  Attendance continues to be OK, despite the lack of success.  And he runs a clean program where the players rarely run into any trouble.  I think what’s happening over at BU this year can make UMass fans thankful for that last one.  But, with all that, it’s been a tough last five years.  I know my own frustration at the lack of success is mounting with every disappointing season.  Minuteman fans aren’t expecting UMass to supplant Boston College as league power but I think we can all agree that there’s enough potential in this program that annual 8th place finishes and quarterfinal sweeps isn’t cutting it.

It doesn’t help that in the five years since UMass has been out of the NCAAs and Hockey East semifinals that we’ve seen Merrimack emerge as on of the better Hockey East schools with a former Minuteman assistant at its helm.  The seven win improvement for UMass from last year to this year looks nice until you realize that the two teams that UMass finished ahead of in the Hockey East standings last year did much, much better than that.  Providence only improved their total wins by 6 this year, but they did finish ahead of UMass in the standings and will be playing in the Garden this weekend.  Lowell went from just 5 wins last year to an astounding 23 this year and have locked up an NCAA berth.  I probably don’t have to tell you that both of those teams changed coaches over the offseason.

For those UMass fans hoping for a similar move in the offseason, it’s not happening.  The only way Toot Cahoon is not at the helm next season is if he chooses not to be on his own accord.  And maybe that’s the way it should be.  He has built this program.  There’s something to be said for giving him this last season on his contract to bring the program back to where he and the rest of us fans want it to be or he and he school move on.  Obviously this isn’t the most ideal situation.  There are already questions whether his status is affecting the staff’s ability to secure recruits long term.  One has to wonder how much harm another finish at the bottom standings will do to the program and how much harder it will make it to recover from.  But, that’s out of our hands.  All we can do is continue to support the program and the school.  Some of us will continue to support Coach Cahoon.  There are many who have already chosen not to.  But in the end the best all of us can do is spend the offseason building up hope for next season with the wish that it is finally rewarded.

Note: Just a few hours after I wrote the above, Dick Baker posted that Toot Cahoon will in fact be retained for next year as I suggested.

Congratulations to co-captain T.J. Syner who signed a contract with the Washington Capitals, the team who invited him to development camp last summer. Syner is off to Hershey to play for their AHL club.  The linked article also mentions that Syner was named the top winter sports academic student athlete at UMass.

Mike Marcou will likely sign soon as well as I heard over the weekend that he had a number of AHL clubs interested in his services.  Marcou has spent the last two summers at Islanders development camp which may help him land a spot with their AHL club in Bridgeport. Unfortunately Danny Hobbs is unlikely to join the Rangers’ Connecticut Whale due to the injury sustained on Friday.

The Collegian takes an early look at next year’s squad.

Reading this excellent piece on the origins of the infamous Buffaslug makes me want to track down whoever came up with UMass’ triangle.

Please make sure to check back tomorrow night as I unveil the yearly FTT awards as well as my picks for the league awards.

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28 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  March 13, 2012

    Way to go tj. You will be missed and supported from afar. Best of luck chasing your dream. You are truly a class act along with the rest of your teammates.

    Like

  2. Jay

     /  March 13, 2012

    Yet another disappointing season comes to an end. It was fun, frustrating, and over too quickly. Looking forward to next year already… Hopefully Toot and the coaches have a long talk with each other and the goaltenders and spell out for the 3 goalies who will be the 2 they go with and help the 3rd find a new home somewhere in hockey.

    I’m one of those who has lost confidence in Toot’s ability to lead this team. I know what he is capable of and ready to move on with a new coach. However, I do understand that the school wont fire him and we are stuck with him for at least another season. Ever since I attended the first game of the modern era in 1993 ive been hopeful the team will become a contender year to year. Hasnt happened, but always hoping.

    In regards to the Triangle design, my thinking its got to be Mallen, Scott MacPherson or Bob Deraney came up with the idea for it. Deraney might be a good place to start since he’s still somewhat local (providence college). Or hopefully one of the players or managers from 1993-94 would know…

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  3. Anonymous

     /  March 14, 2012

    absolutely must continue to support UMASS…UMASS IS THE SLEEPING GIANT IN HOCKEY EAST….GO UMASS

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  4. So, any idea what toot might have meant by “loose ends on a couple of promising recruits?” Regardless, if he’s staying and that’s the plan, glad hes announcing this to the media and I hope the school announces an extension soon. One way or another, we need to clear up any uncertainty going forward for recruiting’s sake.

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    • You’re favoring an extension beyond this coming year despite recent results?

      No idea what loose ends he may be talking about unless loose end = get a commitment from.

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      • I’ve been pretty clear in the past that I’d rather them bring someone else in. I guess this was a product of skimming the article on my phone at work, but I thought Dick was inferring that Toot’s interest in coming back was shared by the school. My comment was STRICTLY contingent on that.

        If the school is set on Toot continuing past next year (remember, there are worse scenarios, such as giving the reigns to a certain assistant coach who has already proven he can fail with a more talented roster than this one), then it’d be better to extend him now than to dick around and stunt our recruiting even more.

        Now that I read it more closely, though, Dick never mentions that Toot said he wants to continue coaching HERE. But I guess the question is what’s more harmful: giving Toot a vote of confidence and hoping this big rising-junior class is the core of a turnaround, or having a lame-duck coach for one year and taking the hit to our recruiting efforts? The good news is that Toot’s replacement would have a year to recruit to fill all the slots left behind by that huge class.

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  5. Why on Earth would you want an extension for this guy? He was been mediocre at best. Bruiser and Lappas were let go with much more successful teams. We should NEVER be ranked lower than Lowell. Toots holds this program hostage with his Hockey East “credentials”…he has pics of someone they don’t want to get out

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  6. Anonymous

     /  March 14, 2012

    This team really missed Red this year.

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    • Red’s a great guy, but how do you figure? The results weren’t any different than the previous four when he was here.

      Like

  7. Anonymous

     /  March 14, 2012

    The PK suffered, and I think he was a great recruiter from what I have heard. This years class coming in isnt overly promising from what I have read.

    Like

    • PK stats are comparable to recent years (76% vs 78% in 2010 and 77% in 09) and two of the three recruits committed when he was still here. Again, I love Red but I don’t think he would’ve made a huge difference this year.

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  8. Anonymous

     /  March 14, 2012

    there’s no accountability for this coaching staff. other hockey east teams hold their coaches accountable for repeated poor performance… so why do we continue to give Toot a pass? it makes absolutely no sense. the athletic department has created a monster: a coaching staff that has largely become complacent. their jobs (and pensions) are secure… they have no pressure to perform… and they have every excuse in the book.

    here’s a quick example of complacency (amongst many): a few weeks ago i read an article posted here on FTT that outlined how UMass is losing the recruiting battles and had fewer commits than most hockey east schools. does this shock anyone? the umass hockey team has three former head coaches running the program. not 1, not 2, but 3 former head coaches. in college athletics… this is a total recipe for disaster (especially when it comes to recruiting) which one of these coaches is going to spend 3-4 weeks up in moosejaw trying to dig up some diamonds in the rough?… none of them. that’s the job for mid-20’s/early 30 year old assistants looking to make their way in college hockey. it isn’t the job of a 40/50 year old former head coach, with a family, and a huge ego to boot. these guys think they are beneath that… and at least it seems from the statistics… it seems like they are against any recruiting at all (even locally).

    the entire situation is a travesty of epic proportions. this program has had potential for years. however, the break-out we’ve all been waiting for is consistently hampered by a coaching staff with no sense of urgency and a spine-less athletic department afraid to make the necessary/difficult decisions to build a winning hockey program.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts. I can’t say I agree with all of them but you make some good points. Your arugment about recruiting in regards to head coaches now being assistants is interesting. But I’m not sure if it’s the case. After all, Red Gendron was considered a pretty good recruiter for the team and he definitely didn’t fit the 30 year old assistant mold. At the very least, thanks for sharing your opinion. I can certainly understand the frustration of the fans.

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  9. Anonymous

     /  March 14, 2012

    And how do you know so much about the recruiting habits of the assistants? Or are you guessing?

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    • Anonymous

       /  March 15, 2012

      whatever habits the umass assitants do have…well… they should break them immediately, as these habits clearly aren’t working.

      the proof is in the pudding. and UMass hockey pudding tastes like crap!

      Like

  10. Anonymous

     /  March 14, 2012

    David Quinn will bring Umass hockey back to the Garden…..Pull the trigger..

    Like

  11. Anonymous

     /  March 15, 2012

    heard quinn is awesome…how about hire him one yr assistant to groom until toot’s contract is up?

    Like

  12. Anonymous

     /  March 15, 2012

    Quinn has been passed over for other head coaching jobs the past two years, there probably is a reason.

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  13. TBG

     /  March 17, 2012

    It’s been interesting to watch all the banter play out over the last several weeks. Many astute thoughts, some craziness, but certainly wide opinion.

    Rocks… I’ve watch you “grow” from a consumate Umass hockey cheer leader ( Kool Aid drinker), seemingly blind to many issues the program has had and is still has, to now a “calling them as you see them” writer and fan. Perhaps you were reluctant to criticize the coaching staff and administration for fear of alienating your desired relationship with them. It’s better to be on the inside than outside while attempting to establish credibility and gain inside information about the program. Just ask Chip Ainsworth. But I submit to you that you do this program and all the fans that truly want hockey to succeed at Umass an infinitely greater service by not being a cheerleader but a honest analyst. I think you have done that reasonably well recently. Your season analysis was well written and I agreed with much of it. Thank you.

    I believe we need a coaching change.

    I was a season ticket holder for over 10 years and followed the program since its rebirth in ’93. Our group owned 8 tickets. It eroded to 2. Last year my friend and I gave up our tickets in protest to Toot’s extension a couple years ago and fearing that he will be extended again. We found ourselves routing against this team hoping that its failure would sow the seeds for future success under new leadership. I’m amazed how the administration tolerates such prolonged mediocrity and marginal failure.
    They certainly found the motivation to change course for football. Big dollars at stake. If not for arguably 2 players ( Poch and Quick ) we would never have had a season above .500.
    Why is there a hockey culture in a major hockey conference willing to accept 3 winning seasons out of 12. It seems unprecedented that an organization desiring to succeed would stay with a coach that has a life time .452 winning percentage. 9 winning seasons in 24 years. It’s unlikely after all this time and his age there is going to be a sudden epiphany in coaching technique that will forever turn this program around in a sustainable manner. My expectations seem reasonable. Come in 5th place. Most years one of the big 4 falters( New Hampshire this year). Be in position to steal 4th place. Get a opening round home ice advantage. Go to Boston 2 out of 3 years and make the ncaa tournament once out of every 3 or 4 years. That should not be too much to ask. Next year there will probably be a few more wins and people will argue for Toot’s continuity. DON’T be fooled. Look outside the organization for a proven winner. Let’s “roll the dice” at least if they are too lazy to do the homework to find an established winner and try an aspiring young upstart.

    Thanks for your efforts. Have a great summer.

    Like

    • You bet your ass I’m a cheerleader of the UMass hockey program. Why would I have started this blog otherwise? I have no problem going out of my way to celebrate the victories of the program and highlight its virtues. As someone with two degrees from the University of Massachusetts I have a vested interest in it. That’s why win or lose I’m travelling to watch the team and spending time writing about them. If I just wanted to follow a winner I’d jump on the BC bandwagon, but I have no connection to that school. So yes, I’m happy to be a cheerleader for the program (in addition to fan and financial supporter).

      However I take issue with your suggestion that I’m a cheerleader for Coach Cahoon and somehow turn a blind eye to the fact that this team has regularly underachieved for the last five years of his tenure. As I said, I support the hockey program. I supported it before Cahoon came on board and I’ll continue to support it after he’s gone. I don’t think I’ve been reluctant to criticize him when it has been deserved throughout the time I’ve been writing this blog. If I remember correctly one of my first posts on the blog was talking about him being on the hot seat. I have been reluctant to constantly write negative things though. I could’ve come on here and vent my frustration with each loss and put the losses the the feet of the coaching staff. I haven’t enjoyed the last five years of frustration. But would people really have wanted to read constant calls for a new coach with every post? Is that enjoyable? Does that help fans follow what’s going on with their hockey team? Besides, I’ve said all along that Toot would be back next year and I was right. So what good would the constant negativity be?

      I think I’ve always been open and even supportive of fans’ argument that a coaching change is desired, as you comment lays out. No one wants this team to get back to its winning ways more than me. Today was another Selection Sunday spent seeing 16 other fanbases rewarded with their team in the tournament. I don’t enjoy that. But I also don’t want this blog to turn into http://www.firetoot.com either. It’s a place I want fans to come to keep up with what’s going on with the team. I think I’ve consistently done that over the last three seasons.

      Like

      • TBG

         /  March 19, 2012

        A spirited defense. Outstanding !! You’ve certainly earned that right and your vested interest and energy in covering the team certainly exceeds mine. I support and appreciate your efforts. Thank you.

        However I’ve moved on from ranting about Toot. He is what he is and should be replaced. But you did not address my other theme of why the administration tolerates this for so long. Does the program just not generate enough revenue to warrant the attention and Toot is just the easy tenure?
        Our “ambassador” . Even with a winning program maybe there will not be enough revenue differential to spend the energy to try and fix it.

        Like

        • McCutcheon has never been a “firing” guy, especially when faced with a potential buyout. He made that deal with Lappas to avoid firing him even though hoops was in the dumps. He never pulled the trigger on Dacko, just letting her contract run out eventually. The only reason Morris got the axe is that so much money is invested in the football upgrade that he couldn’t take the financial risk. Plus, 99% of the fanbase were demanding change.

          I would say a majority of the fanbase wants a change in hockey but not to that level. Plus, thanks to Morris, the school can’t afford a buyout of anyone else anyway. Also, the big money boosters, as far as I can tell, are still supportive of Toot.

          As to why Cahoon got the extension in the first place, let’s rewind two years. That 09-10 team was sunk by one or two personalities on the team but they still finished .500. Despite losing guys early there were still high hopes given the recruiting class that was assembled. The admin and boosters wanted Toot to have the chance to rebuild with that class (Pereira, Sheary, etc). He’ll have that through the end of next season at least.

          Again, I’m not saying this was good or bad or whatever. In hindsight its been less than ideal. Just giving the facts as I see them.

          Like

  14. TBG

     /  March 19, 2012

    An informative exchange. More thoughts tomorrow if you have the interest.

    Also beer could certainly be a common denominator. Not sure how often you are in the ABC ??

    Like

    • I agree. A good exchange. I didn’t mean to dismiss your original post, I just felt the need to defend the premise that I was a cheerleader for the coaches. I do try to walk a tightrope with how I word things so I can be informative more than opinionated, but at the same time I feel like I do my best to tell it like it is.

      Certainly if you have more thoughts feel free to share. Good time to do it. Nothing else going on.

      Sadly my trips to ABC will be scarce. Beyond the Reverse Raffle, a random lacrosse game, and the spring game I won’t be out there much.

      Like

      • Anonymous

         /  March 19, 2012

        Can someone please tell me why there is a sign in there is still a sign in the Mullins Center titled, “Cahoonaville”? I cannot wait for the day when that sign is taken down and replaced with a new one that reads, “The Home of UMass Hockey”. Enough is enough already… this program has been about “Toot” for “toot” long. He’s a losing coach, enough said.

        I really hope we can get a new coach (a year from now) that will be entirely focused on building a true program with a real culture. A program that can survive when its players leave for the pros and over-achieve when the roster is full of young guys. We all know this program has all the tools to be more than great, and it’s time to get back on the path we were on at one point not so long ago… when we felt that the sky was the limit, and we had realistic hope of cheering on a team that was a regular contender.

        Like

      • TBG

         /  March 20, 2012

        A few follow-up thoughts this morning.

        Despite some initial shots accross the bow (ie. a coaching change which I feel is essential). I understand your explanation and motivation for your blog.
        I agree that your promotion and growing objective opinion is becoming a great source of information to the fan base and Umass hockey.You go to great effort to provide it.
        We both have a passion for the success of Umass hockey. My passion steers me to a personal protest. I cannot attend and support this staff and the administration’s tolerence of it. Next year, as this team matures, there will probably be more wins than last year. But the overwhelming log of history has convinced me it will not last. An old house can look good with a new coat of paint for a short time. I hope I’m wrong and the program continues to develope in a sustainable way.
        Last year one of the highlights was the Fenway game. Do you know if there is any plans to continue the Umass,UNH,VT and Maine tournament series?Back in ’07 during the Ncaa playoffs in Rochester my colleague ( H. Ahlskog ) and I were at the pregame party sponsored by the Pond Club. We approached McCutcheon about starting this series as an answer to the Bean Pot. We called it the UNECUP ( Universities of New England Cup ) to be played one weekend during the season in Manchester N.H. It would be centrally located and draw well when UNH is involved. McCutheon politely dismissed us as a couple of guys with a few too many pints in them ( probably correct ). Your thoughts about a UNECUP series??

        Like

        • A tournament featuring Vermont, UNH, Maine, and UMass has certainly been something that has been discussed quite a bit by the fans of those schools but I’ve never heard of it being seriously considered. I like the idea a lot, but at the same time I’ve never been a big fan of league teams playing non-conference games against each other during the season. In fact it drives me crazy. Maybe if Hockey East goes to 12 teams and the league schedule is reduced to just 22 games a year then sparing a couple non-conference games for such a tournament would make more sense. But with the current format I’d hate to see a potential game against a CCHA or WCHA team replace by another game against Maine and UNH. It would be cool to see with the tournament rotated among semi-neutral sites; Manchester, Portland, Springfield, and well I guess there’s nothing else like that near Vermont. Montreal?

          Like

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