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Scenes from a Pandemic, Year 3

Empty Net Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

As soon as last season ended, the common refrain from people around the world of college hockey was “Let’s hope for a more normal season next year”. In many ways, it has been. Everyone is playing. Fans have returned to arenas. People are pretending a school nominating their own players for a meaningless fan vote makes them a “Hobey Baker candidate”.

And yet, the pandemic persists, casting its’ shadow over the season, and creating an ever-changing set of obstacles and challenges to deal with.

Here’s a look at three pandemic-related issues and my thoughts on them in the men’s college game as we head into the second half of the season.

Jack LaFontaine Leaves for the Pros

By now, I think we’re all used to the usual postponements or players missing games due to illness. But somehow, the virus continues to find new ways to throw curveballs in the season.

Jack LaFontaine’s mid-season departure to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes was a surprise, at least in the sense that it is not something that happens very often. But when you look at the circumstances of the situation, it’s easy to understand why it happened.

The Carolina Hurricanes, through a combination of injury and Covid issues, need someone to play goal for them for the next couple of weeks while they get those issues straightened out. Jack LaFontaine was the best option at their disposal.

That put LaFontaine in a unique and difficult position. I’ve heard people mention the money he got, though I think that was mostly irrelevant. After taxes and various career expenses, it ends up not being a ton of money(though LaFontaine graduated from school with a degree in English and Lit, so hopefully he invests whatever he made wisely), and anyway, that money would have been available to him last summer, and probably would have been available next summer as well.

What wouldn’t have been available, more than likely, was the opportunity to play in the NHL. LaFontaine turned 24 years old last week, and while there may have been a chance that he worked his way through the minors to earn his way to the NHL in future seasons, the odds of that happening were exceedingly small. It was Now or Never for LaFontaine.

As the old saying goes, step into any bar in Canada and you’ll find at least one person with a story about how they could have played in the NHL had it not been for an untimely injury, a vindictive coach, or an unfortunate turn of events. The group of people that can say they actually stepped on the ice in an NHL game is a small, special club, and LaFontaine will be able to say he is part of it, should he get into a game in the coming days, even if it meant having to give up the rest of his season at Minnesota. It’s a tough, but completely understandable trade-off.

The Olympics

The Olympics are coming and with the NHL pulling out because it was the right thing to do* of various issues related to Covid. As mentioned last week, that means a fair number of NCAA players will be missing the month of February. The US roster is expected to come out on Thursday. Which teams stands to be hurt the most by Olympic departures?

Michigan is usually the first name that pops into people’s minds, just based on sheer quantity. They’ll likely be down Owen Power and Kent Johnson to Canada. Matty Beniers is a lock, while Brendan Brisson has also been contacted. Those losses will sting. Michigan didn’t look the same team in their one game against Michigan Tech with most of those players missing to the World Juniors and infamously didn’t even play their second game that weekend. But Michigan has played themselves into a position where they can afford a few slip-ups with a depleted line-up and not have it seriously affect their tournament chances. As long as everyone is back and ready to go by March, it shouldn’t affect their season much.

North Dakota is definitely losing Jake Sanderson to the Olympics. A week ago, I would have put North Dakota in the same category as Michigan, safely in the tournament and ambivalent to whichever faraway regional they get shipped to. But after getting swept last weekend at home by Cornell and falling to 11th in the Pairwise, things are starting to look a little more dicey. Sanderson isn’t North Dakota’s whole team, they’ll have plenty of good players remaining. But losing the best all-around player in all of college hockey certainly can’t help their chances.

Same goes for Minnesota, who stands to lose Ben Meyers, Brock Faber, and possibly Matt Knies. Sunday morning, coming off a big sweep of Michigan State, I would have said they should have no trouble withstanding those departures. But after the aforementioned loss of starting goalie Jack LaFontaine, it at least opens up the possibility of things taking a dive south for the Gophers. LaFontaine had struggled numbers-wise throughout this season, so theoretically, the hole for back-up Justen Close isn’t as big to fill. But those are some big holes in Minnesota’s line-up with three of their best players leaving for the Olympics. They’ll need a goalie to step up, and I would have had more confidence in a goalie with LaFontaine’s track record and experience.

The most fascinating team to watch, at least from afar, is Northeastern. The Huskies currently sit firmly on the bubble at 12th in the Pairwise—and with nobody from Hockey East in the top-8, they’ll have fairly limited upward mobility as the season progresses. Carrying the team has been sophomore goalie Devon Levi with a 1.19/.958. He’s been spectacular and he’ll be a serious Hobey Baker candidate this year. His name has been thrown around as a potential candidate for Team Canada. Meanwhile, the team’s leading scorer Aidan McDonough has been mentioned as a fringe candidate for Team USA. McDonough leads Northeastern with 15 goals this season, while no one else has more than six. Losing one or both of those players would make it extremely difficult for Northeastern to keep their spot in the tournament.

*There were multiple, very legitimate reasons the United States opted for a diplomatic boycott over an athlete boycott for this year’s Winter Olympics. None of them applied to NHL players.

Postponements and Cancellations

Meanwhile, closer to home, games are still getting cancelled. If there is a silver lining to this latest round of set-backs, it’s the growing expectation that the current struggles may lead to a much more normal March. Cancellations in January are annoying but manageable. Having teams drop out of postseason tournaments like last season is not ideal.

The NCHC has been hit hard the past two weekends, and to no one’s surprise, the league was on top of things, juggling things around and coming up with a quick solution:

It’s impressive they were able to Tetris that all together. Of course, lord help them if there are any more postponements, which....

Meanwhile, other games are being postponed and most likely will not be made up, while some teams are struggling through games with shortened benches. Those challenges, and some of the residual rancor left by Michigan cancelling a game against Western Michigan under murky circumstances at best, has increasingly led to some coaches suggesting college hockey move away from a strict adherence to the Pairwise and allow for some committee interpretation to factor into tourney formation.

First off, any changes couldn’t happen this season, since the committee is bound by the rules on the books. But this summer is a rule change year, and I’m sure someone will bring it up. Even though the tournament committee got high marks for the tournament field they put together last season, I hope they stick with the straight math.

Sure, it would have been nice if Michigan had been able to play Western Michigan. Or Boston University hadn’t had to play a game with 15 skaters. It would have been nice if the Big Ten had never been created too. But ultimately, you play the schedule you get, not the schedule you want, and the results are the results. Adding interpretations and feelings into the mix is likely to do more harm than good.