You best start believing in ghost stories...you're in one!
Rather than explicate ad nauseam again exactly how far Cornell has fallen off its pace that gave it so much bravado headed into the second half or how it has beaten no quality opponents since December, this piece will take a different tone. No, it will not focus on the Red's reversion back to its dreadful offensive play of last season (remember when the Lynah Faithful were promised that would not return?) that has it averaging a whopping 1.70 goals per game (Michigan's Tyler Motte produces more than 80% of that total per contest). Those things are glaringly obvious to anyone who has suffered a contest in this half.
Instead, reader, consider that Cornell is one game against a team that is undefeated in conference play away from tying the winless skid that doomed the heavily talented 2012-13 edition of the carnelian and white. Yeah, there it is, remember how bad that slide felt from January 19, 2013 through February 9, 2013? If you joined the fray more recently than that, well evidently Schafer and his team felt you needed to be initiated. From January 15, 2016 through February 6, 2016 (hey, this team has flapped this writer's faith, it can prove him wrong), a nearly identical window on the calendar, Cornell has gone winless.
Is this writer being too negative? No. This outlook gives the performances of this team in the "second season" its due.
Man, this season disappoints consistently, doesn't it? Well, that made this contributor think, when was the last time that the prognosis for the Big Red seemed so bleak for so long? The go-to argument for well-seasoned Lynah Faithful, perhaps the cohort most deserving of the honorific "faithful," is that at least this is not the McCutcheon Era. Well, for Lynah Faithful who are neither old enough to have lived through that period nor fortunate enough to have been raised in Cornell hockey's fandom, exactly how does Mike Schafer's current trajectory compare to Brian McCutcheon's tenure?
Mere mention of McCutcheon's time behind the bench undeservedly induces quaking among some alumni. Firstly, one must dispel a myth. Cornell did have a winning record under McCutcheon. It was barely winning (0.506), but winning nonetheless. McCutcheon's stint as leader of the carnelian and white lasted eight seasons.
How do Schafer's last eight seasons including the current season compare to the eight seasons of McCutcheon?
Coach Schafer's winning percentage over the last eight seasons is greater than the Big Red's winning rate under the sophomore phenom of Cornell's most recent perfects. However, is winning just 15% more often than teams did during what is widely panned as Cornell hockey's worst era since the construction of Lynah Rink a real accomplishment? The winning percentage for Schafer's last eight teams is just 0.076 greater than that of McCutcheon's eight teams.
Considering this season is not complete, one must forecast how it may end to compare properly the performances of McCutcheon and Schafer-coached teams over seasons in question. McCutcheon had intermixed in an era regarded as underperforming 18- and 19-win seasons. Schafer has not hit that total in four seasons. McCutcheon's last season of that many wins was four seasons before his replacement. Grounds for such were found in those years. The four seasons of player's careers and this make comparing the last four seasons of McCutcheon and Schafer a reasonable comparative lens.
If Cornell continues its current losing ways, its four-season winning percentage will be 0.488. Schafer needs to motivate his charges to avoid this fate unless he wishes to find his winning percentage over the last four seasons to be depressed from that of Brian McCutcheon's career by approximately four percent. If current momentum dictates fate, this team of Coach Schafer is positioned to give Schafer a winning percentage of just 0.088 better than the last four seasons of McCutcheon.
The foregoing treats all wins as equal. As a program that cares far more about its 15 playoff championships than its 29 regular-season accolades, particular attention must be given to post-season success. Hardware matters.
This is the metric by which Schafer bests McCutcheon most decisively. Everyone knows that Brian McCutcheon never led the Big Red to a Whitelaw Cup as coach. Everyone knows that Mike Schafer has brought five Whitelaw Cups to East Hill. McCutcheon had less than half as long to deliver similar results. So, using the eight season-to-eight season comparison, how does Schafer's legacy compare to that of McCutcheon comparing twilight years and what may be twilight years?
Mike Schafer's fifth and latest Whitelaw Cup squeaks into the eight-year window. In just two seasons, it will not. Presently, Cornell's victory over Union at Albany still gives Coach Schafer one playoff tournament win in eight seasons. Brian McCutcheon won no tournaments. Well, there, in the undisputed most important metric, Schafer edges McCutcheon. But, by how much does the bench success of Ithaca's smooth-skating forward pale relative to East Hill's fiery defenseman?
A birthright was Cornell's earning a berth to ECAC Hockey's championship weekend. It was true during the Harkness and Bertrand Eras. Coach Schafer made it true throughout most of the 2000s. It is not so now. Brian McCutcheon's loathed stint saw the Big Red reach the East's most important weekend four times. Cornell positioned itself to play for its seventh Whitelaw Cup but once in the eight seasons of McCutcheon. Cornell fell to St. Lawrence in the 1992 ECAC Hockey Final.
Half of the time, McCutcheon-led teams reached championship weekend. Schafer's teams have earned just one more bid to ECAC Hockey semifinal contests over the same time. This includes the assumption that Cornell does not make Lake Placid this season. An assumption that seems more shored in reality with each passing weekend in which the Red seeds seeding. Schafer is decidedly better than McCutcheon in one regard. Cornell advanced to play for the Whitelaw Cup 60% of the time that it played in a semifinal contest in the last eight seasons. McCutcheon's teams advanced only 25% of the time.
Okay, Coach Schafer has been better in one facet. This was assumed. Admittedly, one more appearance in championship weekend is a frail achievement on which to stake one's career. However, a Whitelaw Cup, more than Brown, Dartmouth, or Quinnipiac have and the same number that Colgate has, in the last eight years is not an achievement to discount entirely.
Now, it is time to destroy Schafer's most ridiculous defense of why it is "harder" to win now than it once was. Readers, this writer bets that many of you think that comparing 1987-95 ECAC Hockey to 2008-16 ECAC Hockey is to compare apples to oranges. Schafer says it. The conference is just too hard to win in the way that the Lynah Faithful expect.
Well, knowing that this will not be the last time that this contributor brings this up, Coach Schafer's argument is...a lie.
Brian McCutcheon took the helm of Cornell hockey in the Fall of 1987. The season before, Harvard had completed a repeat appearance in the Frozen Four. The year before that, coinciding with the 1985 Frozen Four, RPI took home the sport's top prize. Yeah, but, those were the 1980s when ECAC Hockey was good. McCutcheon coached in the 1990s when ECAC Hockey was rebranded as "EZAC," right?
Harvard won its modern national title in 1989. Colgate and St. Lawrence played for the national championship. Clarkson and Harvard enjoyed other runs to the Frozen Four. Brian McCutcheon coached in a league that during his eight years produced five Frozen Four appearances and three title-game appearances. ECAC Hockey's current run is not as dominant no matter how much Mike Schafer may distort it as such.
ECAC Hockey over the compared eight seasons has earned one less berth to the Frozen Four and put the same number of programs in the national-tile game. McCutcheon's task was made more difficult by the fact that four, not just three, programs carried themselves into the Frozen Four during his eight seasons broadening the élite cohort of programs that he needed to defeat for points in seeding and playoff glory. If the competition being "too good" was no life preserver for McCutcheon, should it be for the more celebrated Schafer?
In the last eight seasons, Schafer once brought a Whitelaw Cup to East Hill in 2010. However, after six years and what will be three graduating classes who graduate without winning a playoff title, what's the difference? If one normalizes the winning percentages of Schafer's last eight seasons (using Cornell's current winning percentage, a figure that likely will fall) to a 29-game regular season and does the same for McCutcheon's winning percentage over his eight seasons, how many wins does Schafer net per season? Two wins. Yes, two wins. Times are not as different as people want to believe.
The conclusion is bifurcated: either the McCutcheon Era was not as bad as remembered or Cornell is in another dark age.
One stubborn fact endures. An entire senior class is on the brink of ending its career with a record below 0.500 in carnelian-and-white sweaters. The Classes of 2014, 2015, and 2016 will have ended their careers without living up to the expectations that generations of Lynah Faithful have had for their program: winning an Eastern title. Find this premature?
Trust me, the contributors at Where Angels Fear to Tread as always will not "go back into the woodwork." However, the lack of leadership on this team, whether one places the blame at the office facing Campus Road or the senior class, has the Lynah Faithful visibly shrugging and audibly saying, "well, maybe next year." Coach Schafer's removal of both road letter-wearing captains from the line-up last Saturday may tab the deficiency to the senior class.
The hopes for the weekend say it all. Quinnipiac has not lost an in-conference game. The Lynah Faithful hope that their team blemishes that record as a modicum of revenge, not because they think it will mark a return to winning. That is to what the great Cornell hockey program has been reduced: the status of spoiler.