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The good and the bad of Hockey East’s 2021 tournament format

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Hockey East announced its seeding procedure and schedule for this year’s conference tournament. What’s good, what’s not so good?

COLLEGE HOCKEY: MAR 23 Hockey East Championship - Boston College v Northeastern Photo by Michael Tureski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After months of uncertainty, Hockey East announced its seeding procedure and tournament format for the 2021 Hockey East tournament on Wednesday.

The men’s and women’s tournaments will be single-elimination, played entirely on the campus site of the higher-seeded team in each matchup.

The men’s Hockey East regular season will conclude on Sunday, March 7. The “octofinals” between teams 6-11 will take place on Wednesday, March 10, with the winners advancing to the quarterfinal round on Sunday, March 14.

The Hockey East semifinals will take place at the site of the two highest remaining seeds on Wednesday, March 17, with the champion being crowned on Saturday, March 20 - one day before “Selection Sunday” for the NCAA hockey tournament (whose own format is still TBD).

The women will run a similar format, with their season concluding with the semifinals on Wednesday, March 3 and the final on Saturday, March 6.

Let’s take a look at the good and the bad from Hockey East’s announcement:

  • Good: Using an objective formula to seed teams

Hockey East will use the “Hockey East Power Index” to seed teams for the tournament, which weighs results and strength of schedule to seed the field. Hockey East has spoken of needing to come up with its own formula rather than using KRACH or RPI to weigh things like OT and shootout results and the dramatic imbalance in games played between teams.

We don’t really know exactly how they came to their rankings (more on this later), but it’s good that they’re not going by points or points percentage given the wildly imbalanced schedule.

And the ratings make intuitive sense right now: BC and BU are close together as the 1 & 2 seeds, with UMass in 3rd - the top 3 that pretty much any objective observer (in some order) would pick. On the women’s side, BC is 2nd behind Northeastern - which, again, tracks with common sense.

Ultimately, using an RPI-esque formula is the right way to set the field this year.

  • Bad: Not telling us how they calculate the rankings

Unlike the RPI and the Pairwise rankings, which list their factors online and can be calculated by anyone with the time and interest to plug everything into an Excel spreadsheet (so, basically, only Grant Salzano and nobody else on the planet), Hockey East to this point has chosen not to share their rankings formula, other than to say that it is based on both results and strength of schedule, as well as home/away split.

There are two concerns with this.

One, most importantly, is that transparency is obviously good.

The second is less important, but not insignificant - when we get into the final weeks of the season, the fact that anyone can calculate how different games will impact the Pairwise makes it clear what the implications of each game will be. That is, IMO, 1) fun for fans, and 2) helpful for teams to know, in order to have appropriate strategy and expectations in the final weeks.

Let’s hope Hockey East shows their work in the next couple of weeks.

  • Good: This format makes it likeliest that we successfully finish the season

You don’t need me to rehash all the challenges teams and leagues have had with issues and postponements pertaining to COVID-19. As much as single-elimination hockey is a coinflip that in normal times should be mitigated with early-round series, plowing through the tournament on a single-elimination basis - with days baked in for rescheduled games if needed - makes it most likely that we finish the tournament without anyone needing to withdraw.

  • Bad: ... Well, you know, everything about the current situation

In a strange year with empty rinks, it would have been nice for the players and coaches to be able to finish their season with a little bit of grandeur and normalcy by playing for a trophy at TD Garden, with or without fans.

The confirmation that for the second straight year, the season won’t finish on that big stage is obviously a bit of a bummer.

  • Good: Home ice advantage slightly balances out the downside of single-elimination

Hockey is a funny game, and it’s pretty likely that one of the top teams in Hockey East will play a team who had a mediocre season in the quarterfinals, outshoot them 37-12, and lose 2-1 when the opposing goalie stands on his head - possibly costing them a shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament. C’est la vie.

At least having home ice advantage throughout the tournament is a tangible benefit for higher-seeded teams, slightly offsetting the shift to single-elimination quarterfinals.

  • Bad: All of these overtimes have kind of been for nothing, huh?

Some of the most exciting moments of this Hockey East season have come in the new 3-on-3 overtime.

We knew going into the season that for national RPI rankings purposes, an OT win/loss in the 3-on-3 format only counted as 55% of a win and 45% of a loss, respectively — but 2 points instead of 1 in league play is a big enough deal to add some more juice into OT.

While we don’t know exactly how OT factors in to the calculations here (see above), it sure seems like they are using the 55/45 national split, given how much the HEPI rankings seem skewed toward regulation wins. For instance, Maine (2-7-1) is ranked ahead of New Hampshire (5-10-2) — in part probably due to the fact that 3 of UNH’s 5 wins are OT wins, and 2 of their losses are OT losses, so their record probably reads out from the computer as being more like having ~5 ties.

Again, this is more of a fan thing than a competition thing - players will play hard and play to win always, because that’s what they do - but it does take some of the fun out of overtime when it seems to mean so little in how the rankings are calculated. At that point, why not just end the game?

  • Good: the spacing of the games

Despite some slight differences, the tournament will roughly maintain its usual cadence, without a huge bye week for the octofinals and without the tournament ending too soon before Selection Sunday. This means that Hockey East’s NCAA tournament teams will pretty seamlessly continue to play 1-2 games a week right up until a week before the NCAAs, which should keep them with the right amount of rest and not too much of a layoff.

  • Bad: Awarding a regular season champion on the basis of a proprietary formula

OK, this one might only bother me, but it seems odd to me that Hockey East is not only going to award a #1 seed to the top team in their power rankings - they are also going to record that team as the regular season league champion and award the trophy.

I know it doesn’t really matter in any meaningful sense, but no team should be referred to as this year’s ‘regular season champion,’ just as nobody won last year’s tournament championship.

The point of that honor is to reward consistent excellence over a whole season against a roughly balanced schedule.

There is a very real possibility that the season ends with one team having the most points, a second team having the highest points percentage, and a third team having the highest “Hockey East Power Index” ranking. It’s also theoretically possible that a whole separate fourth team could be the highest-rated in the polls.

Under those circumstances, it doesn’t make much sense to say any one team gets to be the ‘regular season champion,’ which while largely not valued much by fans, is an important recognition for a very specific accomplishment (consistency over the course of the regular season).

It’s also a little weird to me that we’re going to go in to the final day of games and have to wait for Hockey East to hit refresh on their tables and publish it before we know who wins the regular season title.

But of course, this whole season is weird - so the most important thing is seeing it out to its conclusion, and for that, I am grateful that we have a format that should allow us to do that.