In March of 2011, the NCAA announced the creation of a new Division I collegiate hockey conference -- the Big Ten. The reason provided for this shift was to further develop college play by expanding it to areas where it previously hadn't been and to continue to improve the development of the college game for both players and fans alike. The obvious, if unstated plan, of the NCAA was to improve revenue for struggling schools like Ohio State by tying their fates to traditional powerhouses like Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The response from the college hockey community around this time was fairly uniform and negative, and the arguments were clear; Big Ten hockey would deprive weak programs from the opportunity to develop on their own, good programs of the competition they deserve, and the broader viewing base would receive a diluted version of the game and misrepresent it to newcomers.
All told, these early views seemed pretty accurate. For quite a while, observers of NCAA hockey have claimed that the conference stunts the growth of the best prospects by pitting them against lesser opponents and allowing to skate through their competition without forcing them to develop in a better way. I have shared these sentiments, too, and claimed time and time again that Big Ten hockey has done too often served the revenue purpose behind the conference at the cost of the player development purpose.
But as the arguments against the Big Ten conference have piled up over the years, the same can't be said for evidence to support those claims. At the very least, the number of lengthy diatribes against the NCAA for ripping Minnesota and Wisconsin away from the WCHA certainly outnumber the articles based on cold hard facts regarding the performance and development of prospects in that new conference.
I can't say that I'll end that trend today, but I'll try to open the conversation. So, is the Big Ten really that bad for college hockey? To get at this question, I'll start with the simple hypothesis and common complaint of the Big Ten's critics -- namely, the Big Ten has turned premier programs from prospect powerhouses into wastes of time that the best prospects would do well to avoid.
The evidence I'm using to evaluate this hypothesis comes from data on the top 100 scorers in the NCAA in the 2012-2013 season (the last season in which Wisconsin and Minnesota played in the WCHA) and in 2015-2016 (the last complete season, in which Wisconsin and Minnesota played in the Big Ten). Below, I plot both the class of the player and their p/gp rates (which necessarily standardizes our measure of performance to avoid any issues caused by seasons of differing lengths).
If the claim were true that the Big Ten has allowed its players to fall from the graces of elite status, then we might expect that it would be visible in a few ways. First, we might expect that these players, who supposedly were among the best of the best before, are now the worst of the best, or something to that effect. Essentially, this claim requires the blue dots above to be sitting atop all the others in the 2012-2013 season and struggling to separate in the 2015-2016 season.
That claim simply isn't true. If anything, the best Big Ten players of the past season look more like the rest of the NCAA elite than those in 2012-2013.
The other notable claim might be that there are simply fewer Big Ten players among the NCAA elite now than there were before. However, in 2012-2013, 16 of the top 100 scorers in the NCAA came from schools currently in the Big Ten. Today, that number is 19.
It should be noted, of course, that these comparisons aren't true, statistical comparisons of the before-and-after of the Big Ten. Rather, they're snapshots in time, descriptive of only the players, their performance, and their conferences. They don't necessarily hint at a true improvement in the quality of play among Big Ten players, but they do suggest that maybe there's not as much fire as we expected around the creation of the Big Ten conference. Throughout the season, I plan to follow through on the Big Ten and college hockey with more data points, more analyses, and more evidence.
Sometimes we see trends because they exist, but sometimes we see them because we're predisposed to believing that change is bad. And when those dispositions are colored by nostalgia for old rivalries, it's hard to shake the feeling that what we had then is better than what we have now.
So with that, I want to hear from you. What do you think? Is the Big Ten secretly much worse than the performance of its players suggests? Am I missing key data or insights? Let me know below.