As a Denver fan who once made a living in the college game and has been a Denver fan for 40 years, I watched UND pretty closely this year as I do every year. Your team is a very good skating team that plays fundamentally sound, your compete level is higher than most, and your offensive and defensive systems are NHL standard. Your team is solid and essentially the same as everyone else's team in the NCHC with the big exception being the consistent drop in goal scoring in both 5 on 5 and PP that your fans have well pointed out. But you are not alone, as I think UND is emblematic of some larger trends right now, and I would encourage all of you to see the larger forces that are affecting college hockey. Blue bloods like North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin are all golfing now, and BC and BU must now win conference tourneys just to get to the dance? Why is this? Why is the traditional dominance eroding?
I think it boils down to five reasons:
1) Follow The Money. In the past, the Blue Bloods traditionally outspent the other schools to get their dominance and build on on their traditions, and now many other D-I programs have since invested in better facilities just to keep up. All of the NCHC schools, for example, have made multi-million dollar commitments to the sport in better facilities and good coaches. At the same time, the decline of cable TV audiences/coverage around the nation and the growth of streaming games have mitigated some of the media advantages one enjoyed by the blue bloods that was once a major selling point to recruits. The resulting flattening of college hockey investment and access, in turn, makes recruiting more competitive, and forces top programs to keep recruiting younger players, raising the risk that some of top-end young talent may not pan out. When you combine that with the grind of the NCHC schedule, you can see how scoring and winning becomes so much tougher.
2) Player Pool Leakage: The game of hockey has grown tremendously in terms of registered players and junior teams and development programs, while the number of scholarships available/slots to play college hockey has not grown very much. There are now really good players are available all over North America and from Europe who are flowing into the game and that talent is not just flowing to blue bloods, but flowing to other programs, too, creating more parity. Additionally, having recruiting pipeline advantages in "owning" certain recruiting areas is less important now than it once was. Good players can come from anywhere, and when top college coaches could rely on and became overly loyal to certain geographic areas or to specific junior programs, good players can get missed...
3) Offense is dropping, while defensive systems, scouting and specialized goalie coaching grows. Many programs have realized that if they can't find enough offensive production, the best way to stay competitive is to develop the defensive side of the game with the players they can get. Defensive systems emanating from the NHL have had a big effect on college coaches and have made gap control is as good as it has ever been, making offensive time and space pretty scarce, especially in the NCHC. You need quick and accurate releases and better net front presence for second chance shots, but most defenses now can keep even good shooters on the perimeter. Good goalies are everywhere now, and a .920 saves percentage is becoming the norm. Goalies who are positionally sound can now make good saves look very easy and that builds defensive confidence and deflates shooters. Getting 35-40 shots per game is no guarantee of scoring 3-4 goals anymore, and that makes it possible for many more teams to compete. Those teams who excel at shot blocking can often offset high end offenses, but the fact is we just aren't seeing game-breaking offensive players as much, and I think this affects the blue bloods more than anyone else.
4) Chemistry is more elusive: Team chemistry on top programs is more elusive now than it used to be. No one disputes that better players are critical to national success. That said, many teams still over-recruit high-end talent and under-recruit character. The blue bloods have always had greater access to the best players, so its easier to get caught up in stockpiling them, because many of them do leave early for NHL contracts. Other programs build their rosters on character guys who stay longer and help to mitigate the early talent losses. But beyond that, the character in the locker rooms evolves differently for each team, each year. You need the right balance and buy in, and that doesn't happen every year. There are a lot of pressures on student athletes today, and social media can make anyone's mistake global in seconds. As result, I think players are wound tighter and that can really be exacerbated in high-end programs where the pressure to perform individually can take its toll on team chemistry.
5) Entitlement mindset: The high end drafted player now often comes on campus with high expectations from NHL organizations, agents and their families. They are often coming in under this pressure and demanding top-six forward status or top-4 d-man status, power play time and preferential treatment that can really erode team chemistry from the non-drafted guys who have had to earn it. This often makes for difficult locker rooms and strained coaching relationships that we don't see. Having too many stars is not always a good thing, either. Every team needs good grinders, too. Schools who don't land as many of those high end guys try compensate by making team culture a strength, resulting in greater loyalty, more experience and larger senior classes (teams that win NCAA titles tend to have more seniors).
As I look at these trends, I see it getting much tougher to maintain traditional dominance for any program, even blue bloods, and we are going to see more down cycles (which for Blue Bloods, means stretches of mediocrity will become normal. We all have to adapt...