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Don’t let your expectations for Minnesota Hockey result in bad “Fire Lucia” arguments

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There is a case to be made for moving on from Don. I just wish more people were trying to make it.

Don Lucia

Sometimes I feel like a really odd part of the Minnesota Golden Gophers fanbase when it comes to hockey. Hockey in Minnesota has a strong and passionate community around it, so the fact that my path to Pride On Ice fandom took place outside that community means I’m often acutely aware that my perspective is different than a lot of the Minnesota fanbase.

Why do I go mention this? Because I think a lot of Minnesota fans are acting crazy and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s easier to think that if your history with this program is a little different.

I’ve mainlined enough Gopher puck since 2010-2011 to understand why people want the most for this program. I think it’s fair to say that the current program is the “best case” for Lucia moving forward (I don’t expect future teams to suddenly get a lot better in other words). As a result, I think 2011-2017 is a fair standard by which to judge him and you’ll see me use numbers to from that period below.

Minnesota by the numbers since 2011

Don Lucia is probably lucky he was still coaching in 2011-2012 given the slump his teams went into. But since the Gophers emerged from their frustrating late 2000’s slump as a program, Lucia’s teams have performed near or at “Top 5” program level. In the last 6 seasons:

  • They’ve won 6 straight conference titles, which is best in the NCAA (and an all time record).
  • They’ve been to 5 NCAA tournaments, a number only two teams (Denver and UND with 6) can top and that only one other (Boston College) can match.
  • They’ve been to 2 Frozen Fours, bested only by BC and UND (3 each) and matched only by Denver, Quinnipiac, and Union.
  • They’re tied for the most finals appearances (1) as BC, Providence, Quinnipiac, UND, and Union.

Looking at this list, who jumps out as you as the other top teams in college hockey? Boston College, UND, Denver are clearly the top dogs with Q and Union being up there. When you compare those 5 programs + Minnesota by winning % over the last 6 years, here’s what you get:

  • Boston College (.635)
  • UND (.625)
  • Quinnipiac (.625)
  • Denver (.581)
  • Minnesota (.580)
  • Union (.577)

What’s the last thing to separate 3 of these schools from Minnesota? National titles. Since the 2011-2012 season Boston College, Union, and UND each have 1 title.

What this tells us is that Minnesota has been probably been somewhere between the 4th and 6th NCAA program over the last 6 years. But by the arguments many Minnesota fans are making you wouldn’t know it.

“The post-season is what matters”

The most common complaint I hear from Minnesota fans is that Minnesota has failed in the post-season far too often. The thing is, as noted above the numbers don’t back this up. Minnesota is clearly a Top 5 team in terms of the NCAA Tournament success since 2011. The only reason they aren’t Top 3 is the lack of a National Title.

“But Natty’s are what matter most!” some will say. The only problem with this is that the last decade since Denver repeated as National Champion suggests it’s going to keep getting harder to win a national title. Only Boston College has repeat titles (2008, 2010, 2012) and of the other 8 champs, 4 were winning their first title with the other 4 winning their first title in over 15 years. Shrink the window to the last 6 years and 4 of the 6 national champions were first time winners. It is harder to win National Titles now, which makes a baseline expectation of a Natty downright ridiculous.

“How Minnesota has lost matters”

I think the true problem is that when Minnesota hasn’t succeeded in the NCAA Tournament over the past six seasons it has happened in a way that is very off-putting to many Minnesota fans. There is a clear differentiation between Minnesota’s performance as a high seed in the first round and that of BC, UND, Denver, and others and it has to do with early round losses, particularly as a #1 seed.

Minnesota has lost in the first round 3 times since 2011-2012. In the 2013 tournament they lost as a #1 seed to #4 seed Yale. In 2015 they lost as a #3 seed to #2 seed Minnesota-Duluth. And this year they lost as a #1 seed to #4 seeded Notre Dame. Looks pretty bad right? Two upsets by a #4 team? As with everything though, the devil is in the details:

  • Yale won the National Title in 2013. I’m sorry, but given the quirks of a single elimination tourney losing to the eventual National Champion just isn’t something to get super indignant about.
  • In 2015 they lost a game they were expected to lose. Yes, I know it was to UMD and we all hate Duluth but of the “top programs” listed above Boston College, UND, and Denver have all gotten bounced early as a lower seed (Denver 3 times in fact). It happens.
  • This year’s loss is to a Notre Dame team who is now in the Frozen Four. They aren’t trash in other words.

Also, as the overall post-season numbers make clear top teams like UND, Denver, etc teams have had their share of second round defeats. Should that really so much more palatable?

Beware Underpants Gnomes thinking

My problem isn’t just that many commonly heard arguments for firing him are trash. It’s that I’m not sure many fans who want Don gone have any idea about what should come next. At the very least, I hear a lot more talk about “not meeting expectations” than “this means X, Y, or Z would be good hires.”

Minnesota is not anointed to be great at hockey by some puck loving deity. The program has many advantages, but as the recent national title winners show the parity in college puck is increasing. An Underpants Gnome plan for firing Don is a good way for Minnesota to give up it’s perch in the Top 5-ish of college hockey and take a Michigan-like fall.

This is not the football team with Claeys or the basketball team with Tubby where we’re mediocre to good and have lots of room to go up. This is a situation where we’re good to great and have a lot of room to fall. Lots of room to fall plus unreasonable expectations is a bad combo unless you have a good plan.

There is a case for saying goodbye to Lucia

Here’s the rub. I just spent over 1000 words explaining why I think many Minnesota fans are making bad arguments for firing Lucia. You know what I don’t wholeheartedly oppose? Firing Don Lucia. The overall numbers aren’t bad, but the team does have weaknesses that don’t seem to improve. Recruiting has had it’s holes (goalie recruiting is a good example). Minnesota has lost a frustrating number of games to in state and border rivals in recent years (this isn’t cause on it’s own IMO but lord knows I understand how this ups a fan’s frustration levels). And if I'm right that what we've seen in the last six seasons is the best Lucia will bring, the combination of those sorts of things means I'm open to the idea of trying someone new so long as folks admit things could get worse if we move on.

Heck, even if The Don gets canned for bad reasons I’m not going to take to the pages of The Daily Gopher to rant and rave. I’d thank Don for all he’s done, celebrate his success, and move on. I don’t think I’m alone. I think there are plenty of Gopher fans who push back on arguments for firing Lucia who could support a change if they were presented arguments supported by facts instead of emotions.

Please, share those better arguments. I for one would love to hear them.