Arizona State took the ice for the first time as a Division I hockey program last weekend with a 8-1 walloping of rival Arizona at the Gila River Arena(that's the Coyotes' one in Glendale if you can't keep up with the carousel of Phoenix arena naming rights) in front of a reported crowd of 5385. Now that Division I hockey is a reality for the Sun Devils, there's been some curiosity about what we might see from Arizona State this year.
Last Saturday's blowout likely doesn't tell us much. Arizona isn't a top club program and while I'm far from the be-all end-all, I follow junior hockey close enough that the fact that I didn't recognize any names on their roster is not a good sign. Winning is definitely better than losing, but otherwise, there's not a lot to be drawn from last weekend.
We'll get our first good indication of how competitive the Sun Devils will be this weekend when they travel to Alaska. They start Division I play off with a game against Alaska-Anchorage on Friday night, followed by a game with Alaska-Fairbanks on Saturday night. Playing two teams most predicted to finish towards the bottom of the WCHA will be a good measuring stick of how far the Sun Devils have to go. Though it should be noted that the Alaska schools traditionally perform slightly better than season expectations in these early season tournaments because they're allowed to start practice a little earlier than other schools.
Regardless, I think we'll start to see a trend emerge throughout this season for Arizona State where they're good enough to beat the various D-3/ACHA/Misc. teams on their schedule, but not quite good enough to win many of their games against NCAA opponents, with variance accounting for a few exceptions for and against. Penn State won seven D-1 games in their first season, but mixed in four non D-1 losses, including one to Arizona State. I don't think Arizona State is starting with as firm a foundation as Penn State did though. Penn State gave themselves an extra year to acquire talent including some D-1 transfers that played a big role initially.
In the long-term we'll likely see the Sun Devils settle into an equilibrium like Penn State has as a respectable team, but not necessarily thought of as one of the top programs in the country. They'll improve as they add more D-I-caliber players to their roster and their current recruits mature at the college level. But it's hard to see them making the jump to an elite program any time in the foreseeable future. Many have pointed out the school's nice weather as their path to pulling in elite recruits which is silly, and frankly a little insulting. If location mattered, North Dakota would be the worst team in college hockey every year. Being able to develop players for the next level of hockey and building their own facility are the only two factors that are going to appeal to the type of recruits that receive multiple offers, and it remains to be seen if Arizona State will be capable of doing either one of those.
Will decent results be enough to maintain enough interest in the hockey program at Arizona State to make them viable and successful in the long run? One would hope so. Arizona State will likely be the guinea pig for other western schools thinking about jumping to Division I hockey, so the more successful they are both on the ice and financially, the better it is for the sport. And with an expanding US talent base and growth of the US junior leagues, there's definitely room for more college hockey programs in Division I. No matter what happens, the college hockey world will be paying very close attention to what happens in the desert this season.