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NCAA Hockey 101: How new OT would punish programs

There are many ways in which college hockey differs from the AHL and NHL, and there's some debate as to whether that hurts college hockey's ability to attract high-end talent.

The thinking behind this is that there are fewer games (even the teams with the longest playoff runs play an absolute maximum in the low 40s each year), there's no fighting, hard hits are penalized more heavily, and so on. Basically, major junior is a lot more like pro hockey in most ways, so that might be a reason why elite players go north of the border to ply their trade before they go pro.

And to that end, it seems the NCAA Men's and Women's Ice Hockey Rules Committee has made a number of recommendations that would attempt to get the game more in line with how the pros do it.

Which is why college hockey will likely go to a five-minute 4-on-4 overtime for next season. Individual teams or leagues will also be able to use an experimental 3-on-3 overtime for an additional five minutes if the game is still tied. You'll note, by the way, that this is not in line with how the pros do it.

Other rules that came up: Potentially expanding the distance between the hashmarks in the offensive and defensive zones from four feet to five feet, seven inches (giving offensive players a little extra space to create scoring chances); making players and officials wear helmets on the ice at all times unless the national anthem is playing (safety measure); and adding a coach's challenge for all goal reviews outside of the last two minutes of regulation and overtime (getting more in line with the NHL).

How and whether these various proposals are adopted will be decided later in the summer. Right now, these are just recommendations by the rules committee.

And like the pros, some of these changes were made with a stated eye toward increasing offense in general.

“In our review of the game, it is clear that goal scoring is continuing to trend down,” said Tom Anastos, chair of the committee and head men’s coach at Michigan State University. “After a thorough discussion of the overtime process, and seeing the success experienced by the National Hockey League and others using 4-on-4, we believe this change will be a positive step for NCAA hockey. Our committee is charged with finding a balance in making changes that we believe will have a positive impact on the game, yet respect the traditions of the sport. We feel the changes we have adopted meet those objectives and will enhance our brand of hockey.”

Further, the rules committee has recommended that teams which lose in overtime get credit for it in the Ratings Percentage Index, which informs the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to determine seeding for the NCAA tournament. This is, in effect, a “loser point.” Whether individual leagues will also adopt an actual loser point for league standings remains to be seen.

It's worth noting that some conferences already use a 3-on-3 overtime and shootout to award league points, but that those go down in the RPI/PWR as a tie for both teams. It's still unclear how 3-on-3 overtimes wins and losses are counted in the Pairwise under the new rules, but given that they're considered “experimental” and optional, it's safe to assume that, for now, anything after 4-on-4 will still be a tie.

And here's the problem with the NCAA rule changes, beyond the fact that it will start giving teams those charming 12-10-3-2 records the NHL long ago wisely ditched: The teams they benefit tend to be the ones with the most skill, which means it'll likely be the teams with the most drafted players scoring at 4-on-4, which means the “rich” teams will likely regain their stranglehold on NCAA spots and the like.

This effectively helps to accomplish what the ill-fated and cynical rule about a freshman age limit could not.  Though the Big 10 crybabies and a handful of other coaches for powerhouse programs tried and failed to sneak through a rule that made it harder for non-Name Brand teams to stay competitive under cover of night, the principle here is the same.

Teams that rely on skilled, younger players who leave early for the pros are losing ground in some respects to programs like Quinnipiac, Yale, Union, UMass Lowell, St. Cloud, and so on. Those clubs use older, more physically mature players who tend to stick around all four years to level the playing field, and have done so to great effect. All have made the Frozen Four or won a first-round game in the NCAA tournament more than once in the past few years, and that's got the traditional powers nervous.

In much the same way that schools with a handful of draft picks or more can reliably carry higher shooting and save percentages, and win more faceoffs, through their skill level, so too are they going to be able to somewhat reliably win in a 4-on-4 overtime.

The older teams tend to win with strong systems play and the ability to counterpunch. It's harder to play a system at 4-on-4 against high-skill guys than it is at 5-on-5. First-round picks can carve up 23-year-old juniors with more open space. Overtimes will still be weighted coin flips to some extent, but this not-so-slightly weights it just a bit more in the favor of teams who can attract high-end talent.

The roster churn on the big-name clubs is not to be ignored as a big reason for the proposed change here. First there's the benefit these teams get on the front end, having the ability to win more games in overtime (and therefore earn better seeding in both conference and national tournaments, or get into the latter when they otherwise might not have). But second, if the idea that moving to more of a pro-style game attracts a larger number of more talented players to the college game proves true, those teams are the ones that stand to benefit most because they'll have more high-end options to replace their departing high-end guys. While teams only have a certain amount of scholarships to give out each year, it's not like draft-worthy talent is suddenly going to start choosing Vermont or Western Michigan over BU or North Dakota en masse.

Because here's the thing: If you want to move to a more pro-style game, just match the NHL's rules 1-for-1. Having 3-on-3 overtime and a shootout? You bet. Puck over the glass is a minor penalty? Let's go. Goalies can only handle the puck in the trapezoid? Sign me up. Uniform rink dimensions? Tough luck, UNH.

That would be preferable to taking outdated half-measures that clearly benefit the sport's Haves at the expense of schools that were, until recently, very much Have Nots.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here

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