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Checking In on the Big Ten

Big Ten 2015 logo (Nathan Wells)

Two-and-a-half weeks into the season, the Big Ten has emerged as one of the victors in this strange season. Whether it has been the league’s rigorous testing protocol or just dumb luck, the league has now managed to play 12 games without a cancellation; a remarkable achievement given the cancellation rate for the rest of college hockey is hovering above 50% at the moment and those Big Ten games have been played in states where case numbers have surpassed the CDC’s previous worst possible rating of “A steaming bowl of Covid chowder”, forcing them to create new designation just called “AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!”

Since we’re basically living in hell anyway, what was once a nightmarish possibility of the Big Ten scheduling oddly-timed midweek games for the sake of television has largely been a comfort. 11 of the league’s 12 games have made it onto real TV, with just one of the Michigan-Arizona State games relegated to the Big Ten Network Total Landscaping online feed so far.

The story for the conference this year, beside the obvious, has been the return of the league’s three traditional powers in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. All three bottomed out in recent seasons, but now a few years into a coaching transition, seem to be operating at full power once again.

Here are some of my early impressions on how each of the Big Ten’s seven(plus one) teams looks so far this season.

Michigan

I get that there is a natural skepticism and pure laziness baked into preseason rankings, but based on what they had coming back, and more importantly, what they had coming in, Michigan really should have started the season ranked in the top-five nationally. Not that it really matters because after obliterating a bad Arizona State team and then taking five of six points on the road at Wisconsin, they quickly moved up to where they belong.

The freshmen have lived up to the hype. Thomas Bordeleau, Kent Johnson, and Matty Beniers are the team’s top three scorers. Brendan Brisson and Owen Power are just a notch behind with “only” four points through their first four games. I’ve probably liked Bordeleau the most out of the bunch because I love the energy he plays with on both sides of the puck. Johnson has been putting up points, but overall, I think his transition might be the slowest as he adjusts to the speed of the NCAA coming from the BCHL. There are still times where he feels like he’s still trying to figure out what he can get away with at this level. But once he starts to figure out, he will be an electric scoring threat.

But what is really going to separate Michigan from some of the other teams in recent history that had a lot of high NHL draft picks is the help that those young superstars have. That starts in goal with Strauss Mann, who is an all-American caliber goalie. But I really think their third line, anchorage by older veterans Nolan Moyle and Garrett Van Wyhe are real difference makers that give Michigan’s lineup a different, heavier element to it.

Minnesota

Minnesota did get the benefit of the doubt in preseason rankings, at least from the Big Ten coaches, ranking first in the league’s preseason poll, and they’ve lived up to the hype with four wins over six days, sweeping both Penn State and Ohio State, two teams that have given the Gophers significant trouble in recent seasons.

Two things have stood out watching Minnesota’s first four games. First off, Bob Motzko’s plan to become more mobile on the blue line is really starting to take shape, led by Ryan Johnson, who has looked Hughes-ish at times this season. It’s still a young group,so we’ll have to see how they hold against a team that can put a little more pressure on them offensively, but so far, they’ve been able to control games in a way Minnesota hasn’t been able to do in some time.

But the second, probably most important, thing that has stood out to me is that players seem be developing inside the program in a way they weren’t when Minnesota was struggling. Guys like Brannon McManus, Scott Reedy, and Jaxon Nelson that drew a lot of hype when they committed as 14-year-olds and kind of fell back to the pack as everyone else caught up, and have no reinvented themselves into pretty solid college hockey players, rather than just continuing to fade away, which I think happened to some players in the late-Lucia era.

I’m not sure who I’d favor in a match-up between Michigan and Minnesota right now, but I think it’s going to be a really fun series to watch.

Wisconsin

With the caveat that save percentage is often as much a team stat as it is an individual stat, it’s hard to understate what an impact grad transfer goalie Robbie Beydoun, with his .931, has made for Wisconsin this year. If you take Wisconsin’s .883 save percentage from last and apply it to this year’s Badger team, they would have given up 25 goals rather than the 16 goals they’ve given up. The Badgers are basically 1.5 goals per game better so far this year with Beydoun in net than they were last year. In a sport where teams average about 2.5 goals against per game, that is a huge difference.

Offensively, I’ve loved the way Wisconsin’s top line has played. Cole Caufield gets the most attention, but Linus Weissbach may be one of the best players in college hockey this season. The depth is okay. It doesn’t help that Dylan Holloway left to go sit in a hotel room in Canada for four weeks, but when they get him back, this could be a really good team.

Ohio State

There’s little to go off of with the Buckeyes only having played two games, both losses against at a very tough Minnesota squad. But what we did see mostly confirmed some of my preseason thoughts about the Buckeyes. This is still a really good defensive team. Despite having to replace three regulars on the blue line, it’s still a strong group. They play a fairly conservative system that puts them in a position for success defensively. NHL draft picks Ryan O’Connell and Layton Ahac are starting to emerge into playing a bigger role.

The problem is that I just don’t know where the offense is going to come from. The Buckeyes had a top-10 nationally ranked offense in ‘17-’18, the year they went to the Frozen Four led by Mason Jobst, Matthew Weis, and Tanner Laczynski. But as those guys have graduated in each subsequent year, the Buckeyes haven’t been able to find anyone capable of picking up their slack, and have seen their offensive output decline each season.

Gustaf Westlund has potential as a top line guy, and indeed, he scored Ohio State’s only goal of the season so far. But their limited offensive capabilities likely puts the Buckeyes’ ceiling this season as an average team. They’ll be able to play close with anyone on any given night, but they won’t be able to match the teams with the offensive skill to put up goals against a conservative, defensive-minded team.

Notre Dame

Two games probably isn’t enough to judge this Notre Dame team, and a weekend series against a very tough Michigan team isn’t likely to provide any more answers. It took Notre Dame almost 100 minutes to score their first goal of the season. They’ve got some talented players that have the potential to become decent scorers, but they’re all young players, and it’s probably going to take some time.

The other issue that is a little concerning is on the blueline, they’ve got a lot of smaller, offensive-minded puck-movers, but they don’t have some of the talented, big, strong two-way defensemen that they’ve had in recent years. Looking back at their Frozen Four team in ‘17-’18, yes, Jordan Gross played a big role, but guys like Andrew Peeke, Dennis Gilbert, and Justin Wade were playing a lot of heavy minutes, and Notre Dame just doesn’t have those types of guys this year, which might make it difficult for them to play the style of hockey that they want to play.

Michigan State

I didn’t watch much of their season-opening series against Arizona State that saw a combined four goals in two games, because we have a finite amount of time on this Earth.

As ugly as that opening series was, this could be a team that surprises some people. They probably don’t have the firepower to compete with the top three teams in the league, but they’ve got a lot of veterans in key spots and they should be able to grind out a lot of close, low-scoring games. I think the shortened season gives them an advantage with their experience. Last season, they were around .500 most of the year until their lack of depth eventually caught up with them late in the year, and that might not happen this year.

Penn State

Graduated goalie Peyton Jones has emerged as an early candidate for the Garrett Raboin Award—which I hand out to players that never seem to get the credit they deserve until their team completely falls apart the year after they graduate. Penn State has found success in recent years playing a high-scoring, wide open style of hockey. The problem is that this year, they don’t have the scorers, and they certainly don’t have the goaltending to play that way successfully.

Granted, the only two data points we have are road series against Minnesota and Wisconsin, which should be two of the tougher match-ups Penn State has this season, but the Nittany Lions did not look good. Halfway through their opening eight games of the season, they have a team save percentage of .804. The biggest upside here may be that if you’re going to have a crappy year, this is definitely the one you’d pick.

Arizona State

Lots of talk about Arizona State potentially joining a conference some day, and this being a sort of extended tryout with the Big Ten. But I don’t know. Sticking to midseason non-conference games that the opposition is barely engaged in seems like it may be the way to go for the Sun Devils to continue the success they’ve had in recent years.

On the plus side, the school recently announced that they are just two years away from completing a permanent home rink for the Sun Devil program, for the sixth consecutive year.