Monday, December 28, 2009

The Twelve Year Itch?

With a 8-9-1 mark heading into this weekend's Dodge Holiday Hockey Clunker (sorry, but when none of the four participating teams are ranked in the top twenty, you simply cannot refer to the event as "Classic"), the Gopher hockey team is once again falling short of expectations. This is the third year in a row that the Gophers have struggled and it's sparked conversation within hockey circles about how the team recruits and why they've been coming up short of late. One thing that hasn't been much discussed--at least not that I've heard--is whether a change at the top may be in order. I'm not necessarily proposing that it's time for Don Lucia to move on after nearly eleven years as Gopher coach, but when you look at the numbers you have to wonder whether his best days are behind him.

For instance, when you consider winning percentage over the years you can see that Lucia is definitely tailing off. You can argue that there's more to college hockey success than winning percentage (regular season finishes, playoff record, Frozen Four appearances, etc.), but it's a handy tool for statistical purposes. This chart shows Lucia's winning percentage by year coached compared with Doug Woog, the coach he replaced at Minnesota. (click to enlarge)
In his first ten seasons, Woog's lowest winning percentage was .625 and he had a higher winning percentage than Lucia for six of the first ten seasons when you compare them head to head. Woog's drop off was dramatic as his teams finished below .500 in each of his last two seasons. So far Lucia hasn't fallen that far, but the trend seems to be going in that direction

Okay, now for the qualifiers. The biggest argument in Lucia's favor is that, unlike Woog, he has won two national championships (2001-02, 2002-03) during his tenure. Those rings carry a lot of weight with Gopher fans, especially after the long drought years from 1980-2001. So while Lucia's Gophers haven't done much lately, the two titles in pocket make it likely that fans will be more patient with him than Woog. And it's still possible that Lucia could turn this year around. While the Gophers are unlikely to be serious contenders for a national championship, they do have talent and if they could just get more consistent play from their better players they could end up having a decent year.

Or maybe the numbers do indicate that we're seeing the beginning of the end for Lucia. In his first six seasons as coach of the Gophers, Woog had a cumulative winning percentage of .703. In his last six he was .556. Lucia was .623 in his first six seasons and through almost four-and-a-half years on the back end, he's .551. If I were in Lucia's place, I'd find those numbers to be a little too close for comfort.


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