Preseason coaching polls yield few new insights
The NCHC coaches unanimously tabbed the national champion Denver Pioneers to retain control of their conference in 2017-18. The ECAC and Atlantic Hockey coaches selected defending champions Harvard and Air Force to keep ruling their respective leagues. The projected order of finish by the WCHA’s coaching fraternity matched its media counterpart.
To put it simply, the predictions in these college hockey preseason coaching polls are predictable. Much more so than the outcomes we tend to see five months later when the regular season concludes.
The full results of these preseason coaching polls are released as an aggregate ranking from the first-place team to the bottom-dweller. But the major caveat is that no coach can vote for his own team to finish first in the ranking.
A coach might genuinely believe he is leading the team to beat, and he may be spot-on. But voicing as much would obviously be a breach of etiquette and might risk instilling overconfidence to their players.
Naturally, keeping the team focused, self-assured and humble is more important than the “integrity” of a poll that is only meant to generate conversation among fans. But speaking of discussion, individual panelists tend to maintain a measure of anonymity by never elaborating on who they vote to finish where, let alone why.
With that in mind, do these polls contribute any value to the discussion of the top teams in college hockey?
If you look at other college sports, you often do not see coaches voting on the results of their specific conferences. Football offers a national preseason ranking of the top 25 teams vying for a spot in the coveted four-team playoff. Basketball follows a similar format, releasing an annual preseason top 25.
Of course, hockey has both USCHO and USA Today conducting national polls each week, including a preseason ranking. As the season progresses, a mixed panel of coaches and journalists contribute votes in the aftermath of the weekend slate.
But even those do not generate as much intrigue as the unique PairWise rankings. At least the PairWise standings offer a more telling indication of a team’s NCAA tournament qualification and seeding prospects.
With a weekly turnover based on the previous week’s results, releasing an aggregate preseason coaches poll does not contribute much value. Those polls essentially, and sometimes literally, mirror what non-participating, nonpartisan journalists already offer and break down in more depth.
Most notably, USCHO always releases season its own previews for each conference. For example, veteran correspondent Jim Connelly presents detailed reports on each team in Hockey East. He and his beat partner, Dave Hendrickson, tacked on their personal prediction of where each team will place in the final standings.
You never see that kind of candor from Jerry York or Dick Umile. It is understandable, given the nature of their job as coaches. By the same token, it reaffirms the question of why we ask the coaches to weigh in at all.
One may argue that preseason coaching polls provide insights that the media cannot see. The bench bosses are the true professors of the sport, and they constantly see their teams and opponents up close. When they do not, they are studying opposing programs and players like their jobs depend on it (because they do).
There is no denying the unique, insightful value of a coach’s expertise. But comparing the coaches poll to the media poll often reveals results with little or no variation.
Case in point: This year’s ECAC polls closely align with one another. Each panel’s top five teams are the same, although the media slotted Princeton ahead of Clarkson. In the bottom half, most of the rankings match up with one another, with only two ordering discrepancies.
The WCHA’s 2017-18 coaches poll and media poll match up exactly. The only difference was the points system and how many first-place votes a given team received. Minnesota State was a near-unanimous No. 1 among coaches, with Mike Hastings being the implicit exception who selected Bemidji State. All but two of 14 media voters picked MSU, with one choosing Michigan Tech and another Bowling Green.
While the results basically gave them away, the coaches were still predictably tight-lipped when breaking down the poll. As quoted by Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press, Ferris State’s Bob Daniels offered, “I have to say, though, it was one of the most difficult years in putting that down, in that I think the league is getting tighter and tighter.” In the same article, Northern Michigan’s Grant Potulny offered vague, rapid-fire stick-taps to the Mavericks and Beavers.
In the end, coaches may provide more insight into what players to watch for by continuing to select a preseason team. Some leagues, including the WCHA, already do this. They could even select a preseason all-rookie team to highlight potential breakout stars.
But fans should not expect preseason coaching polls to reveal anything they cannot discover by doing their own research. It is better to collect comments from the coaches as they come, then draw a projection based on how everything blends.