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College Hockey:
North Dakota’s Corban Knight, and the benefits of a one-player ticket

I have a bit of a confession to make.

At the end of last week’s Hobey Watch, my closing lines were intended as a bit of a dig at a certain segment of the college hockey universe.

The joke, in case you forgot …

My favorite thing about conference realignment?

No more whining about how Miami doesn’t play anyone.

Yes, I will admit that my comments were directed at fans of Miami’s future NCHC rivals from North Dakota. I’ve certainly drawn my share of ire from the UND crowd over the years, particularly during Matt Frattin’s run at the Hobey Baker AWard two years ago*, and while I genuinely do try to “put on my big boy pants” and not actively try to tweak them — the fans I’ve dealt with personally are good folks, as are all the players, coaches and sports info officials I’ve worked with — there are times when I just can’t help myself. So naturally, I’ve poked my head into a certain well-known North Dakota fan forum to see if my comment had raised any ire.

It didn’t. I guess I’m not that important to you guys …

* — In all seriousness, I’m very glad to see Frattin doing as well as he is with the Maple Leafs this season, and I think he’s a wonderful example of someone who messed up, changed the direction of his life and is a stronger person for it today. Let no one tell you different.

Anyway, while I was browsing around the forum, I noticed an interesting discussion of why Corban Knight is North Dakota’s lone representative on the “Vote For Hobey” section of the HobeyBakerAward.com website, even as teammate Danny Kristo is having a standout season in his own right.

As UND sports information director Jayson Hajdu noted via Twitter, the nominations for the Hobey are done at the school level, with each school having the opportunity to submit up to three candidates. Knight was the choice of the UND coaching staff, according to Hajdu, who also noted that it can sometimes be counterproductive to nominate multiple players because it can split the vote.

In the context of the online fan vote, UND’s choice to put all of its eggs in the Corban Knight basket has certainly worked, as Knight has a sizable lead over Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau (nearly 6,000 votes as of Thursday evening). Of course, as we know, the online fan vote is a minuscule part of the selection process, so it’s worth diving a bit deeper into the decision.

When I think about teammates in the Hobey race, my first thought goes to Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling of Colorado College, who were both part of the Hobey Hat Trick in 2005. Given that Sertich won the award, I think it’s fair to say that having Sterling in the race didn’t hurt him any. Ditto for Matt Gilroy, who won the award in 2009 at Boston University and was joined in the Hobey Hat Trick by teammate Colin Wilson. For good measure, I’ll also add that Blake Geoffrion had a Wisconsin teammate join him in the top 10 the following year, that being defenseman Brendan Smith (who had been my pick to win the award for most of the year, which shows just how wrong I can have it sometimes). So, I wouldn’t assume that having Kristo in the race would have hurt Knight.

That having been said, in 2009, the signals coming out of BU were quite clear when it came to who the preferred Hobey candidate was. The narrative about Gilroy, including his decision to return for his senior year in the face of more than 20 NHL contract offers and Jack Parker’s statement that Gilroy’s return would have been worth it for his leadership qualities were ringing endorsements (entirely deserved, it should be added). As outstanding as Wilson was, nothing he did was going to help him overtake Gilroy (and given the fact that they won the most important prize together, I doubt that Wilson particularly minds).

All of these things having been said, I think that this year is a different animal than 2005 or 2009. Looking back now, I don’t think there was a player other than the Colorado College duo who could have been viewed as a real threat. There were four goaltenders among the Hobey finalists that year (including Hobey Hat Trick member David McKee of Cornell), and we know that goalies have a tough time getting the Hobey. The other skaters that year were Pat Eaves of Boston College, Reid Cashman of Quinnipiac, T.J. Hensick of Michigan (then a sophomore) and Colin Murphy of Michigan Tech. With the exception of Eaves, there was no player in that group that I would have been worried — from a CC perspective — of splitting the vote against, based on what we know about how the Hobey race generally works.

In 2009, the third member of the Hobey Hat Trick was Northeastern goaltender Brad Thiessen, one of three goaltenders in the mix along with Alaska’s Chad Johnson and Princeton’s Zane Kalemba. The other skaters were Vermont’s Viktor Stalberg, Air Force’s Jacques Lamoureux, Michigan’s Louie Caporusso, Wisconsin’s Jamie McBain and Colgate’s David McIntyre. Stalberg certainly had an excellent year, and I really liked Lamoureux as a potential Hobey Hat Trick finalist along the lines of Eric Ehn, but again, I wouldn’t have worried about splitting the vote in that field. Besides, Wilson had such an outstanding year that season, and probably had the more traditional profile for a Hobey candidate, that it would have been very unfair to him not to put him out there as a candidate.

2013 is a very different year, if only because we know exactly who else is out there. His name is Johnny Gaudreau, and he’s been in the Hobey conversation since the puck dropped in October. With Gaudreau still leading the nation in points per game and BC being one of the top teams in the nation again, I think it’s fair to say that if I were a North Dakota coach or sports information official, I would like my chances better with one Hobey candidate instead of two.

So where does he stack up? Well, at the moment, the numbers game favors Gaudreau, in terms of points per game, goals and plus-minus, and the team success factor favors Gaudreau as well. That having been said, that’s just how it stands now, and it’s certainly close enough so that Knight is very much in the conversation. If Dave Hakstol’s team puts together one of those big second-half runs the program is known for and Knight is central to it, then I could certainly see him as a viable Hobey candidate.

One final thought, in response to a concern I picked up on while lurking on that certain UND fan forum: I wouldn’t worry all that much about the one-game suspension that Knight received at the beginning of the year for a team party. Yes, there’s a character component to the Hobey and it may have affected Frattin two years ago, but there’s a difference between Knight’s suspension and the other “character” concerns that have popped up over the years.

Without piling on Frattin too much, because I really am happy for him and I wouldn’t hold what happened against him in any situation other than the Hobey voting, his past transgressions were significant enough that he lost his spot on the team at North Dakota. Along similar lines, the character discussion that came up when Nathan Gerbe had a run at the Hobey in 2008 — and to be clear: I think Kevin Porter had that award won based on his play and leadership that year — came up in the context of a pattern of “inappropriate behavior,” to quote Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. There’s no pattern here with Knight, and there’s nothing nearly as serious as the Frattin situation. My sense is that if it comes down to Knight and Gaudreau in the end — or Knight and Nebraska-Omaha’s Ryan Walters, or Knight and anybody else, for that matter — it’ll be decided by play on the ice.

We’ll just have to see if he gets there.

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