The NCAA hockey season will now to switching to the postseason, so I thought I’d do a quick write up explaining how it all works. It took me a while to understand, because there are three phases. Because Toronto will have one high profile prospect and a few other lower profile guys with chances to win the ultimate championship, I thought I’d do a quick explainer.
So, in short there are three steps to the NCAA post season for men’s ice hockey.
1) Conference tournaments
2a) NCAA Tournament
2b) NCAA Frozen Four
Here’s how each of the phases works. Note: this all concerns men’s Division I programs only.
NCAA Conference Tournaments
There are six Conferences among Division I schools for men’s ice hockey. The link above includes not just all of the Division I teams, but also the conferences in them. The conferences generally are formed around regional, or geographic reasoning. That’s probably cost and travel related, to make things easier on the teams to play their schedules. So Boston area schools will play each other more in the same conference, as an example. That’s also why the “independent” programs not in any conference are usually teams like Alaska Anchorage or Arizona State that aren’t really near other Division I teams.
What teams are in each conference changes over time, not unlike how they do across other major NCAA sports if you follow football, basketball, etc. The teams that are “Division I” (the top tier of teams) also changes over time. Arizona State, for example, became a Division I team as of the 2015/16 season. Here’s a good story talking about how they built the program from scratch so you can get an idea for what’s involved in the process. Hint: it’s not a relegation system based on the school’s records in lower divisions.
At the end of the regular season, each conference holds a playoff-style tournament to decide their own champion. The seeding is determined by the records of each team in the regular season within the conference. This tournament has each matchup as a best of three, with maybe some single elimination games or byes depending on the number of teams in each respective conference.
The Conference Tournaments will begin this coming weekend (March 3rd to 5th), and are scheduled to conclude in mid-March. The Big 10’s tournament, for example, has the final scheduled on March 18th.
How each team finishes in the Conference tournaments will be important for the next phase.
NCAA Tournament, Regionals
Of the 64 Division I teams, only 16 will qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Each of the six winners of the Conference Tournaments automatically qualify. The other ten spots are picked from the remaining teams according to the NCAA’s internal team ranking system. That is, the 10 highest ranked teams remaining are given the other spots.
So Minnesota, the team of Matthew Knies and Mike Koster, are basically guaranteed a spot as the highest ranked team in the NCAA. Other schools that have Toronto prospects like UConn (Ryan Tverberg), Harvard (Joe Miller), and St. Cloud (Veeti Miettinen) are all less secure, but still have good chances of making the cut — especially if they do well in the Conference Tournaments.
The tournament is broken up into two distinct phases: the Regionals, and the Frozen Four. The Regionals are scheduled to begin Thursday March 23rd, and will finish Sunday March 26th. It is single game elimination, in the classic NCAA March Madness style. By the end of the Regionals, there will be four teams remaining.
NCAA Frozen Four
The NCAA Frozen Four is the continuation of the NCAA Tournament, it’s basically just the semi-finals but gets the extra branding and attention. It is held at a different location every year, which arenas can bid on — usually it’s done in larger, maybe even NHL-caliber arenas for the added attention and attendance. This year it will be held in Tampa, Florida from April 6th through the 8th.
The games are broadcast on ESPN2 in the USA, and occasionally there may be a Canadian broadcaster that airs them as well. There are always streaming options you can pay for as well.
What Does This All Mean?
Well, the real reason why I’m sure most Leafs fans will be interested in how all this works and the dates of the postseason tournaments is because of Matthew Knies. When his season is over, he’ll in theory be ready to sign his ELC with Toronto soon after. Minnesota is currently the top ranked team in the NCAA, and are considered a strong favourite to win it all.
Last year, Minnesota did make it to the Frozen Four but lost to rivals Minnesota State. They are considered to have a stronger team this year, so while there are no guarantees, there is a strong possibility that they make it that far again. So we can expect that if Knies does sign, it won’t come until after the tournament is over. If Minnesota is upset in the Regionals from March 23rd to March 26th, there is a chance (but not a certainty) that he could sign earlier.
That would be nice because he’d have more time to practice with the Leafs and adjust to the NHL. But given how deep their forwards are right now... I think it’s increasingly unlikely that he plays much in the NHL this year, especially in the playoffs.