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Enough with the watch lists; here’s an effort at picking who’ll be among the 10 Hobey finalists

Which 10 players will be finalists for the 2014 Hobey Baker Award? We’ll find out Thursday (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Well, folks, the time has come.

In a matter of hours (10 a.m. EDT on Thursday), we will know the 10 finalists for this year’s Hobey Baker Award, which means that it’s time for me to take my best shot at predicting the field.

This is probably the hardest part of my job as your Hobey pundit, as evidenced by that I’ve never gotten all 10 right, and I’ve gotten nine just once.

I tried to make it easier on myself this year by using a “watch list” and paring it down, but as we get down to the nitty gritty, I find myself adding back in players whom I’d previously ruled out or had never really considered in the first place.

We’ll see if that comes back to haunt me, but in the meantime, here are my picks for your top 10 Hobey finalists:

Johnny Gaudreau, junior forward, Boston College

If you’re just dying to find a scenario where Gaudreau doesn’t win the Hobey, here it is: BC goes out in the first round of the NCAA tournament with Gaudreau held off the score sheet (as he was in the deciding game against Notre Dame last Sunday).

All of a sudden, you have a narrative of “Johnny Hockey” disappearing in his team’s biggest games, combined with the possible “system” bias against BC’s diminutive forwards, and maybe, just maybe, the Hobey goes to Connor Hellebuyck.

Even then, though, I think that Gaudreau’s performance to this point has already won him the Hobey.

Kevin Hayes, senior forward, Boston College

Still the No. 2 scorer in the nation, still a lock for the Hobey top 10. Can’t say much more than that.

Greg Carey, senior forward, St. Lawrence

Carey’s college career is over, but the St. Lawrence senior went down swinging, figuring in on three of the Saints’ four goals in their ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series loss to Colgate.

He’s a returning finalist from a year ago who adjusted his game and found a way to thrive. Can’t argue with that.

Adam Wilcox, sophomore goaltender, Minnesota

Well, what do you know? The Gophers goalie wound up finishing the regular season with better numbers than his Big Ten rival Joel Rumpel, and the Gophers are the first Big Ten regular season champions.

Add in that the Gophers have been there all season as an elite team, and he has a very good chance of winding up in the Hobey Hat Trick if things go well from here.

Connor Hellebuyck, sophomore goaltender, Massachusetts-Lowell

Hellebuyck heads to Boston as the national save percentage leader and a key player for an NCAA-bound Lowell team and a prime candidate to join Gaudreau in the Hobey Hat Trick.

And while thoughts of him winning this year are a bit farfetched, he should be an early favorite for next year as long as the Winnipeg Jets are content with him continuing his development at Tsongas Arena.

Joel Rumpel, junior goaltender, Wisconsin

Top 10 in both GAA and save percentage for a team that’s NCAA-bound. I had trouble seeing him out of the top 10 last week, and I still have trouble with it. He’s in.

Cody Kunyk, junior forward, Alaska

I was asked last week why Kunyk wasn’t on my “watch list,” a question that seemed quite timely given that he was named the WCHA player of the year.

My instinct was that the WCHA candidate would be a player whose team was in the tournament hunt, and I still wouldn’t be surprised if Ferris State goaltender CJ Motte wound up getting a nod here.

That having been said, Kunyk’s award from the conference’s coaches gives me some sense of which way the wind is blowing here.

Sam Brittain, senior goaltender, Denver

Remember how I said that Josh Archibald was the NCHC’s guy, but a Denver win over UNO could tilt the scales back in his favor? Well, guess what happened?

Brittain’s save percentage is second only to Hellebuyck’s, and he just might be able to backstop the Pioneers to the first NCHC title. Seniority is also likely to help his cause.

Austin Czarnik, junior forward, Miami

I had written Czarnik off my watch list due to Miami’s struggles, but the RedHawks knocked off NCHC regular season champ St. Cloud State, with Czarnik assisting on one game-tying goal and scoring another.

He also happens to have a top-10 scoring average, and he was a Hobey finalist a year ago as the CCHA player of the year.

Combine that with the fact that votes from Atlantic Hockey coaches could be split between Bentley’s Brett Gensler and Mercyhurst’s Matthew Zay, and I’m going out on a limb with Czarnik as a Hobey finalist.

Shayne Gostisbehere, junior defenseman, Union

I’m very tempted to sub in Kevin Goumas of New Hampshire here, but I’m sticking with Gostisbehere, partly out of respect for Union’s season and his role in it, but also partly because I have a little trouble seeing ECAC Hockey with only one finalist and Hockey East with four.

Gostisbehere is also the only defenseman on my list, and I’d be surprised to see a list made up only of forwards and goalies. The main point, however, is that Gostisbehere’s game commands respect for a Dutchmen team that continues to impress.

There you have it, folks. Ten players, and I feel very confident in six. As for the other four, well, we’ll find out.

What do you think will happen? Leave your thoughts below.

The locks, the near-locks and those playing for spots among the Hobey finalists

Northeastern’s Clay Witt is among those who could move into a Hobey Baker Award finalist spot with a strong weekend (photo: Melissa Wade).

Hello once again, and welcome back to the USCHO Hobey Watch.

It’s getting down to crunch time, as this weekend’s games will be the last ones played before the nation’s coaches vote to determine the 10 finalists for the most prestigious individual honor in college hockey.

And while all the relevant parties are undoubtedly more concerned with the games themselves — as they should be — it’s the last opportunity for Hobey Baker Award finalist hopefuls to make an impression.

With that in mind, I think that this is a good time to revisit the “watch list” I put together last month to determine where things stand heading into the home stretch.

Now, I put 25 names on my list and added Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel later on, giving us 26 names. This week, I have cut that list down to 18.

Of these, I consider five players to be locks for the top 10, and I’ve also identified five more whom I would expect to complete the top 10 were it announced today.

The remaining eight still have a chance, but they need a strong performance this weekend (and perhaps a not-so-strong performance by someone else). Let’s begin, shall we?

The locks

Johnny Gaudreau, junior forward, Boston College: There’s a lot that can be written about the man they call “Johnny Hockey,” and I did a bunch of that writing last week.

His case for the award is clear, and I’ll be stunned if it goes to anyone else. However, I’ll leave you with one more tidbit about Gaudreau’s remarkable campaign: The New Jersey native stands to be the first player to make back-to-back “Hobey Hat Tricks” since the Hobey committee began breaking out a top three in 2004.

Greg Carey, senior forward, St. Lawrence: The returning finalist raised his scoring average from his Hobey finalist season of a year ago, and did so while shifting to a distributor role after lighting the lamp 28 times as a junior.

His Saints have a tough task ahead of them this weekend against Colgate, but win or lose, we see Carey back in the top 10.

Kevin Hayes, senior forward, Boston College: You can make an argument that Hayes isn’t really a lock, given that he plays on a line with the Hobey favorite, which probably has a lot to do with him being the nation’s No. 2 scorer.

That said, he is the nation’s No. 2 scorer, on a team that’s poised for a deep and successful postseason run. Two things we know to be valued with Hobey voters are seniority and goals, and as a senior who’s tied for fifth nationally in goals, Hayes qualifies.

Adam Wilcox, sophomore goaltender, Minnesota: Wilcox has real competition in the Big Ten from Wisconsin netminder Joel Rumpel (who we’ll get to in a moment), and given that Rumpel has the better numbers and is also a class above Wilcox in terms of seniority, there’s a good argument that he should be here and not the Gophers goalie.

However, there are two factors in Wilcox’s favor that can’t be discounted. First, he’s the key player for the No. 1 team in the country. And second, the Gophers have gone wire-to-wire as a top team, which raises the degree of difficulty for Wilcox. I think Rumpel gets a nod as well, but if I have to pick one whom I’m more sure about, it’s Wilcox.

Connor Hellebuyck, sophomore goaltender, Massachusetts-Lowell: First, Hellebuyck took over full-time netminding duties for the River Hawks, and then he took over the national save percentage lead.

While the latter is somewhat fickle — and he’s just percentage points ahead of the competition — Hellebuyck has successfully fought off the sophomore slump, proved that his freshman success was no fluke, and put himself in position as an early frontrunner for the 2015 Hobey, provided he returns to Lowell. In the meantime, I say he’s a lock.

The likely finalists

Joel Rumpel, junior goaltender, Wisconsin: Rumpel is actually more than a “likely” finalist. I’d have to say he’s more of a “near lock.”

His numbers are better than those of Wilcox, his Badgers have rocketed up to the upper echelon of the national picture, and he’s an upperclassman. I suppose there’s some scenario where he doesn’t get a nod, but I’m struggling to find it.

Josh Archibald, junior forward, Nebraska-Omaha: I feel pretty certain that Archibald has supplanted Denver’s Sam Brittain as the NCHC’s leading Hobey candidate, largely on the strength of having more goals this season than any college player not named Johnny Gaudreau.

Still, if Archibald is quiet this weekend and the Mavericks lose the series to Denver, his grip on a finalist spot could slip.

CJ Motte, junior goaltender, Ferris State: Motte is the key player for his conference’s most successful team, and while his numbers aren’t superlative (like those of the other goalies on this list), I think the breakdown of the votes will favor him, given the Bulldogs’ success both nationally and within the WCHA.

However, if Bemidji State stuns the Bulldogs this weekend, the door may well open for another WCHA player (see below).

Brett Gensler, senior forward, Bentley: The Falcons were runners-up to Mercyhurst in the Atlantic Hockey standings, but I still think Gensler is the guy in terms of a finalist from the Atlantic.

He’s the No. 4 scorer in the country, has more goals than the other top candidate from Atlantic Hockey (Mercyhurst’s Matthew Zay), and is a senior who also made his share of noise a year ago. This year, I think he gets the nod.

Shayne Gostisbehere, junior defenseman, Union: Gostisbehere is a top-10 scoring defenseman and a returning All-American who is the most significant player for a Dutchmen team that is among the nation’s best. I feel pretty good about penciling him in for a Hobey finalist spot.

Playing for a spot

Clay Witt, junior goaltender, Northeastern: I already assigned Hockey East three locks in Gaudreau, Hayes and Hellebuyck. I think a fourth finalist is a possibility, but both Witt and Northeastern have faded a bit lately.

If Witt backstops the Huskies past New Hampshire on the road this weekend, he could be a finalist, but in this mix, I currently see him on the outside looking in.

Sam Brittain, senior goaltender, Denver: That top-10 save percentage is nice, but the competition at goaltender is fierce, the Pioneers are depending on an NCHC title to get them to the NCAAs, and he has strong competition in conference in the form of Archibald. Stopping him and the Mavericks could get him back in the finalist mix.

Austin Czarnik, junior forward, Miami: As a returning finalist who’s one of the top five scorers in the country, Czarnik has a great individual case for the award. The RedHawks’ team success — or lack thereof — is the main factor working against him.

If he leads Miami to an upset of St. Cloud this weekend, Czarnik will have a shot at a second straight finalist berth.

Jean-Paul LaFontaine, junior forward, Minnesota State: For now, I still think Motte is the WCHA’s Hobey finalist, but if the Bulldogs falter and the Mavericks go to the WCHA Final Five as the favorites, I could see LaFontaine snatching the finalist berth.

Matthew Zay, junior forward, Mercyhurst: There’s a fair argument that Zay could be Atlantic Hockey’s finalist. He’s a top-10 scorer, playing for the conference’s regular season champ. I still think Gensler is the guy, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if it were Zay.

Kellen Jones, senior forward, Quinnipiac: Jones’ case is similar to that of Gostisbehere. He’s an upperclassman — a senior, in fact — playing for a leading team in the conference, a team that’s NCAA-bound, and a leading contributor to his team’s success, albeit without tip-top numbers.

He’s also a forward with a clearer role in the Bobcats’ success than Gostisbehere in Union’s. I see a competition for one spot between the two players, and I think Gostisbehere gets it, but I could be wrong.

Chris McCarthy, senior forward, Vermont: McCarthy has a VERY slim chance at a top 10 spot, but if he leads the Catamounts to an upset this weekend at Massachusetts-Lowell, then maybe — just maybe — he gets a finalist spot.

Ben Hutton, junior defenseman, Maine: Hutton intrigues me, in large part because of his gaudy goal total from the blue line, but I really don’t see him getting a finalist spot.

Still, if the Black Bears upend Providence this weekend … never say never.

So that’s where we stand: five guys in, five right behind and eight more looking for an opening.

I’ll be back on Wednesday to give a final prediction for the top 10, and then we’ll see how it all shakes out. Enjoy the playoffs!

Some historical perspective in the Hobey case for Gaudreau

Welcome back to the USCHO Hobey Watch, ladies and gentlemen. This week, I think it’s time for me to give some more serious consideration to the man who, in all likelihood, will win the Hobey Baker Award: Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau.

That Gaudreau is the Hobey front-runner by a country mile is hardly a surprise. The New Jersey native is leading the nation in scoring average for the second consecutive season, and doing so by a wide margin, as his 64 points (30g, 34a) in 34 games give him 1.88 points per game, almost a third of a point ahead of his closest competitor, Greg Carey of St. Lawrence. I’ve made an effort to find different topics each week to avoid turning this blog into the Gaudreau Show, but it’s time to focus on the high-flying Eagles forward and put his performance this season into context.

Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau has 64 points in 34 games (photo: Melissa Wade).

By the way, Carey has topped his point total from last season in four fewer games and raised his points-per-game average by 0.22 (1.56 this year, compared to 1.34 a year ago). He’s also shifted roles from primary goal-scorer to distributor, with 15 goals and 38 assists this year, compared to totals of 28 goals and 23 assists in 2012-13. However, Gaudreau’s improved productivity has left Carey in the dust … along with everyone else.

Consider this: Gaudreau was the front-runner for last year’s Hobey most of the season, and despite a late-season scoring slump that coincided with BC’s early departure from the NCAA tournament, he still was part of the Hobey Hat Trick when all was said and done. His totals after 35 games last year were 21 goals and 30 assists, for an average of 1.46 PPG.

This year, meanwhile, he’s eclipsed his totals in both categories after 34 games, finishing the regular season with 30 goals and 34 assists for an average of 1.88 points per game. If you go back to my column from last March, which focused on the BC forwards who have been named Hobey Baker finalists during the Jerry York era, you’ll see that Gaudreau has carved out some truly rarified air for himself.

Of the 10 Hobey finalist seasons posted by Eagles forwards during the York era (including three by Brian Gionta), the only player who finished his season with more points than Gaudreau’s 64 is Nathan Gerbe, who ended the year as the NCAA scoring leader with 68 points. Of course, it took him 43 games to get there, and as I noted last year, he wasn’t the nation’s top scorer when the Hobey voting was done (that would be the eventual Hobey winner, Michigan’s Kevin Porter).

So I think it’s safe to say that Gaudreau has made a stronger case for the Hobey thus far than any BC forward who has come before him during York’s 20-year tenure at the Heights.

Now, here’s the fun part. To find a player who finished the season with a higher scoring average than Gaudreau’s current 1.88, you’d have to go back to 2003 and one Peter Sejna. That’s right, the biggest scoring milestone left in front of Gaudreau is the 36 goals and 46 assists that Sejna posted in 42 games.

That Sejna season is particularly noteworthy, in my opinion, because of two players whom Sejna beat out to win that year’s Hobey. One was Cornell goaltender David LeNeveu, who went 28-3-1 with a 1.20 GAA and .940 save percentage for a Big Red team that went to the Frozen Four. If there hadn’t been a scoring performance like Sejna’s that year, we might be talking about who could be the first goalie since LeNeveu to win the Hobey, and not Ryan Miller.

Of course, there wasn’t just one superlative scoring performance that year, but two. Who finished second to Sejna in the national scoring race that year? Chris Kunitz, whose 35 goals and 44 assists that season left him with a scoring average of … wait for it … 1.88 PPG, the same average currently being posted by Gaudreau. How about that, huh?

Of course, unlike Kunitz, Gaudreau won’t have Sejna — or LeNeveu — to compete with.

On Wisconsin’s Rumpel and this year’s crop of crease candidates

Welcome back to the USCHO Hobey Watch, ladies and gentlemen. This week, we’re back in familiar territory for the Watch, partly inspired by a question I was asked last week on USCHO Live!, and partly by a comment on last week’s Hobey Watch.

The comment pointed out that I had omitted Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel from my two-part Hobey Baker Award “Watch List.” It was an excellent point, because as a top-10 goalie in both save percentage (.936, fifth in the nation) and GAA (1.83, third) for a team that’s in the thick of the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth, Rumpel is certainly deserving of consideration for a spot in the Top 10, quite possibly more so than his Badgers teammate, senior forward Michael Mersch.

Wisconsin’s Joel Rumpel is in the top 10 nationally in GAA and save percentage (photo: Dan Sanger).

However, it begs an interesting question: Just how many goalies could we see among this year’s Hobey finalists?

We’ve focused on goalies quite a bit this season in the Hobey Watch, particularly when you consider that the current Hobey frontrunner is a forward (yes, Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau is still looking like the most likely winner … but you probably knew that). And, in a past column, we identified a handful of goalies deserving of consideration: Minnesota’s Adam Wilcox, Ferris State’s CJ Motte, Denver’s Sam Brittain, Northeastern’s Clay Witt and Massachusetts-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck. That’s five right there, and when you add in Rumpel, you get six.

No more than four goaltenders have ever been named Hobey Baker finalists in the same year, and the last time it happened was 2005 (Cornell’s David McKee, Harvard’s Dov Grumet-Morris, Northern Michigan’s Tuomas Tarkki and Bowling Green’s Jordan Sigalet).

Is it possible that we could see as many as five netminders among the Hobey top 10? Yes, but given the crop of talented skaters who are also in contention for the award, I wouldn’t expect it. That, then, begs the question of who’s in and who’s out.

Motte is, perhaps, the most likely finalist of the bunch, given that he’s the only viable Hobey candidate on his team and probably in the WCHA (with the possible exception of Minnesota State’s Jean-Paul LaFontaine).

For a time, Brittain appeared to have a similar leg up on his competition, but with Denver fading in the NCAA hunt, it’s harder to see him having an edge over an NCHC rival like Josh Archibald of Nebraska-Omaha, who could easily be the conference’s leading Hobey candidate on the strength of his 26 goals in 30 games, the second-highest total in the country.

Witt has the best save percentage in the country, with Hellebuyck just .002 behind him. So, among those four, figure Motte as a near-lock, and Witt and Hellebuyck highly likely. That leaves the two Big Ten netminders vying for what is most likely just one spot.

As our commenter pointed out last week, Rumpel has the statistical edge. Wilcox, meanwhile, has been the key player for the most dominant team in the West. The Hobey is an individual award, but it’s also fairly rare to see a team that’s been as strong as the Gophers have been strike out on Hobey finalists.

Who’s in? Who’s out? There isn’t an easy answer.

Of course, no matter how many goalies there are among the Hobey top 10, we’re still looking, in all likelihood, at a Hobey race that will be won by Gaudreau, which leads me to the question I was asked last week, and certainly one that’s been a theme through six seasons of the Hobey Watch: Can a goalie win it, or did Ryan Miller ruin it in 2001?

I certainly think it’s possible for a goalie to win, and I also think it’s possible that David LeNeveu could have won for Cornell in 2003 had it not been for Peter Sejna and his 82 points. After all, no Hobey candidate exists in a vacuum. There are always external factors, and while it would certainly make for a more interesting race if one of this season’s goalies had Ryan Miller numbers, I think it’s fair to say that Gaudreau would still be the clubhouse leader.

That’s why I’m glad that college hockey now has the Mike Richter Award, recognizing the nation’s top goalie. We’ve had so many talented goalies come through college hockey over the years, and given how rare it’s been for a goalie to win the Hobey, I think it’s great that there is a trophy to recognize the nation’s top netminder.

Of course, given the field that we’re looking at, the voters for that award probably have their work cut out for them, too.

A watch list for Hobey finalist spots from the East

Mercyhurst’s Matthew Zay has 16 goals in 32 games (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Welcome back once again to the USCHO Hobey Watch, everyone. It was a blast being on USCHO Live! this week with my friends Jimmy Connelly and Ed Trefzger, and now, as promised last week, it’s time to complete our two-part look at the potential Hobey Baker Award finalists.

Last week, we took a look at the Big Ten, NCHC and WCHA, and we came up with 11 candidates. This week, we’ll add in the Hobey candidates from Atlantic Hockey, ECAC Hockey and Hockey East.

Atlantic Hockey

Atlantic Hockey has never had more than one Hobey finalist in a year, and that finalist tends to come from the conference leader at the end of the regular season. With that in mind, Mercyhurst junior forward Matthew Zay (16g, 24a in 32 games, 1.25 PPG) has to be in the conversation.

However, the Lakers are in a real battle with Bentley atop the conference standings, and the Falcons have two players worthy of consideration. One is senior forward Brett Gensler (17g, 23a in 30 games, 1.33 PPG), who was in the mix early on last season but slowed down toward the end.

The other Falcons player to watch is junior defenseman Steve Weinstein (1g, 33a in 30 games, 1.14 PPG), the nation’s leading scorer from the blue line.

The Atlantic representative on the list tends to be a forward, but not always — Quinnipiac defenseman Reid Cashman made the top 10 during the Bobcats’ last season in the AHA and Air Force defenseman Tim Kirby did so in 2012.

My sense is that Gensler is the most likely finalist out of these three but it may depend, at least in part, on what happens down the stretch.

Will team success help Union’s Daniel Carr get a finalist spot? (photo: Shelley M. Szwast)

ECAC Hockey

This is a tough conference to figure out in terms of Hobey candidates, in large part because the candidates with the most superlative statistics — St. Lawrence senior forward Greg Carey (15g, 33a in 28 games, 1.60 PPG) and Rensselaer junior forward Ryan Haggerty (23g, 14a in 28 games, 1.32 PPG) — play for teams that have struggled this year.

Players like Union senior forward Daniel Carr (13g, 17a in 27 games, 1.11 PPG) and Quinnipiac senior forward Kellen Jones (16g, 21a in 32 games, 1.16 PPG) have the team success but are significantly behind Carey in terms of numbers (Carr is also day-to-day with an injury after a check into the glass against Cornell last weekend).

The candidates I like best in this conference come from the blue line. Cornell junior defenseman Joakim Ryan (5g, 14a in 24 games, 0.79 PPG) is ninth in the nation in defenseman scoring. Union junior blueliner Shayne Gostisbehere (7g, 16a in 28 games 0.77 PPG) is 10th.

It’s also worth mentioning that Gostisbehere’s teammate Mat Bodie (4g, 21a in 28 games, 0.89 PPG) is fourth in the nation in blue line scoring, although Gostisbehere was the only candidate nominated by Union, which says something about the respect the second team All-American’s game commands.

My suspicion: Gostisbehere is Union’s guy, with a solid shot at making the top 10, while Carey (No. 3 in the nation in points per game) has a good chance at his second consecutive Hobey finalist nod. I think there’s room for only one Hobey candidate at most from a less-than-stellar ECAC team, which is bad news for Haggerty. Meanwhile, I’d also look at Ryan and Jones as potential finalists and keep a close watch on them down the stretch.

Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau is the prohibitive favorite for the Hobey Baker Award, but nine others will also get finalist spots (photo: Melissa Wade).

Hockey East

Well, there’s one name we already know here: Boston College junior forward Johnny Gaudreau (27g, 34a in 31 games, 1.97 PPG). The questions is whether he’ll be the only Eagles player in the top 10, as it’s pretty hard to ignore his senior linemates, Kevin Hayes (22g, 28a in 31 games, 1.61 PPG) and Bill Arnold (12g, 32a in 31 games, 1.42 PPG), whose scoring averages are second and fourth in the country, respectively, behind Gaudreau. I highly doubt all three make the top 10, but Hayes is certainly a contender for a top-10 spot.

Elsewhere in the conference, I remain fairly intrigued by Massachusetts-Lowell sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (12-5-2, 1.84 GAA, .940 save percentage). He’s started the River Hawks’ last five games, going 4-0-1, and if he continues to emerge as the full-time starter, I think he’s a solid candidate for a finalist berth.

The other goaltender to keep in mind is Northeastern’s Clay Witt (15-8-2, 2.07 GAA, .943 save percentage). He leads the nation in save percentage while seeing more rubber than anyone else in the top 10, and he’s the backbone of a Huskies team that appears NCAA-bound.

Outside of the goalies and the Eagles, Providence junior forward Ross Mauermann (18g, 15a in 30 games, 1.10 PPG) is the leading scorer for a contending Friars team, while New Hampshire junior Trevor van Riemsdyk (4g, 19a in 26 games, 0.88 PPG) and Maine sophomore Ben Hutton (11g, 12a, 0.82 PPG) are both putting up top-10 defenseman scoring numbers for teams that are in the mix for NCAA spots.

I’d also list Vermont senior forward Chris McCarthy (15g, 18a in 29 games, 1.14 PPG) as a dark horse potential finalist, with the Catamounts fighting for an NCAA berth.

Now, I’ve just named nine players from Hockey East, and I guarantee you won’t see nine finalists from one conference. The guys I see as real potential finalists — at least, at the moment — are Gaudreau, Hayes, Hellebuyck, Witt and Mauermann, but keep McCarthy and Hutton on your radar as well.

So, we can add 14 players from the East to last week’s 11 candidates from the West, and we now have 25 names to fill 10 spots. Here they are:

FORWARDS
Josh Archibald, junior, Nebraska-Omaha
Riley Barber, sophomore, Miami
Greg Carey, senior, St. Lawrence
Austin Czarnik, junior, Miami
Ryan Dzingel, junior, Ohio State
Johnny Gaudreau, junior, Boston College
Brett Gensler, senior, Bentley
Kevin Hayes, senior, Boston College
Kellen Jones, senior, Quinnipiac
Jean-Paul LaFontaine, junior, Minnesota State
Matt Leitner, junior, Minnesota State
Ross Mauermann, junior, Providence
Chris McCarthy, senior, Vermont
Michael Mersch, senior, Wisconsin
Sam Warning, junior, Minnesota
Matthew Zay, junior, Mercyhurst

DEFENSEMEN
Shayne Gostisbehere, junior, Union
Ben Hutton, junior, Maine
Joakim Ryan, junior, Cornell
Steve Weinstein, junior, Bentley

GOALTENDERS
Sam Brittain, senior, Denver
Connor Hellebuyck, sophomore, Massachusetts-Lowell
CJ Motte, junior, Ferris State
Clay Witt, junior, Northeastern
Adam Wilcox, sophomore, Minnesota

So, that’s our watch list. Keep on watching, and I’ll see you back here next week for another edition of the Hobey Watch.

Breaking down the Hobey candidates from Western conferences

The WCHA might get only one Hobey Baker Award finalist, and it could be Ferris State’s goaltender CJ Motte (photo: Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com).

Hello, and welcome back to the USCHO Hobey Watch. I hope everyone is staying as warm and dry as possible, and for those of you who are snowed in, I hope you’re enjoying the opportunity to watch some Olympic hockey.

This week, we’re about five weeks out from the naming of the 10 finalists for the 2014 Hobey Baker Award, so I thought it would be a good idea to assess the field and see just who’s in contention for those 10 spots.

It’s fairly rare to have real drama when it comes to guessing the eventual winner out of the Hobey Hat Trick, but picking all 10 finalists is a real challenge (and one I’ve never been successful at). More importantly, especially in a year where we have a good sense of who’s actually going to win, it’s good to remember that for some of these players, being a finalist or a member of the Hobey Hat Trick is a victory in its own right.

Now, in sizing up the field, I think it makes sense to organize the candidates by their conference affiliations. It’s worth remembering here that the vote to pick the 10 finalists occurs among the 59 Division I head coaches, with the results of the online fan voting serving as the 60th vote. This is why it’s rarely a good idea to count on any conference being shut out of the top 10 entirely.

It’s not that coaches in a given conference get together and ensure that their candidates get in. Rather, coaches spend so much time scouting and breaking down tape on opponents, and the players they see the most — the ones in their own conference — make a deeper impression. At least, that’s how I see it. So, with that in mind, let’s go through the conferences and see who makes up the Hobey field.

I’ll do this over two weeks. Next week, we’ll look at the candidates from the East, but this week, we’ll start out with the candidates in the West.

Big Ten

One of two new conferences is also the smallest in the country, which could be something of a factor because it leaves the Big Ten with the smallest “voting block,” if there is indeed such a thing.

That having been said, given the amount of time that Minnesota has spent this year as the No. 1 team in the country, it’s fair to expect that sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox (18-4-5, 1.97 GAA, .930 save percentage) will be among the contenders. There could also be some support for the Golden Gophers’ leading scorer, junior forward Sam Warning (10g, 17a in 28 games, 0.96 PPG), but I think that Wilcox is going to be the lone finalist from that team.

Meanwhile, Ohio State junior forward Ryan Dzingel (17g, 20a in 26 games, 1.42 PPG) is the conference’s leading scorer, and worth keeping an eye on as another potential finalist.

Finally, Wisconsin senior forward Michael Mersch (15g, 10a in 26 games, 0.96 PPG) — he of the highlight-reel goal against Michigan — has gotten some solid support in the online fan voting, and while that might not mean much, he is a senior and the leading scorer on a team that’s in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth. I wouldn’t write him off entirely, but I’d say he has an outside chance at best.

NCHC

The nation’s newest conference (since it was formed after the Big Ten) has a couple of candidates with great numbers on a struggling team in Miami’s dynamic duo of sophomore forward Riley Barber (17g, 19a in 26 games, 1.38 PPG) and junior forward (and returning finalist) Austin Czarnik (10g, 24a in 25 games, 1.36 PPG).

The conference leader, St. Cloud State, doesn’t exactly have an obvious candidate, with senior forward Nic Dowd (15g, 12a in 26 games, 1.04 PPG) and sophomore forward Jonny Brodzinski (14g, 13a in 26 games, 1.04 PPG) leading the team in scoring and tying for 38th nationally. Junior goaltender Ryan Faragher (13-5-4, 2.64 GAA, .906 save percentage) has a lot of support in fan balloting, but the numbers really aren’t there.

There are players in the conference with a better mix of individual and team success, most notably Denver senior goaltender Sam Brittain (13-8-6, 1.99 GAA, .934 save percentage) and Nebraska-Omaha junior forward Josh Archibald (21g, 11a in 26 games, 1.23 PPG), although both of those teams would probably have to win the NCHC tournament to advance to the NCAAs.

So, what to do here? It’s hard to write off the Miami players, who are two of the top 10 scorers in the country, while Archibald, as the country’s No. 3 goal-scorer, is also intriguing, and Brittain is a top-10 goalie in both GAA and save percentage. The one thing I will say is that St. Cloud State is highly unlikely to have a Hobey finalist.

WCHA

It’s not terribly surprising that the reconstituted WCHA appears to be a one-bid conference at tournament time, and the sense I get is that it will be a one-finalist conference when the Hobey top 10 is announced.

And, with Ferris State as the top team in the conference and a contender for a top regional seed in the NCAA tournament, Big Rapids seems like a great place to look for that finalist, namely junior goaltender CJ Motte (19-4-3, 2.25 GAA, .927 save percentage).

As the most notable player on the conference’s most formidable team, I think there’s a pretty good chance Motte winds up in the top 10. If it’s not Motte, it would be because Minnesota State makes a push over the remainder of the regular season and supplants the Bulldogs atop the conference standings, in which case I’d look to Mavericks junior forwards Jean-Paul LaFontaine (18g, 18a in 30 games, 1.20 PPG) and Matt Leitner (9g, 24a in 28 games, 1.18 PPG) as possible finalists.

So, with half the country’s conferences accounted for, we have 11 candidates to watch. Come back next week, when we size up Atlantic Hockey, ECAC Hockey and Hockey East.

Goalies with solid statistical resumes need to be added to the mix

Northeastern’s Clay Witt leads the country with a .945 save percentage and can make big gains in the Hobey race in Monday’s Beanpot final (photo: Melissa Wade).

Hello again, and welcome back to the USCHO Hobey Watch, and yes, Michael Mersch has my attention now.

Last week, when running down the leaders in the Hobey Baker Award online fan voting, I mentioned that Mersch, the senior forward from Wisconsin, was in the top 10, but I didn’t address his chances further. Well, he sure showed me, delivering the most impressive goal I’ve seen in college hockey since Kyle Okposo’s between-the-legs score against Minnesota State in 2006 (and it may even be better … I’m not sure).

So, what do I think of Mersch’s chances to earn a Hobey finalist berth? I think he has a reasonably good chance. Working in his favor: He’s a senior, he’s a goal-scorer (17th nationally and second in the Big Ten), and he’s on a team that’s on track for an NCAA tournament berth.

That having been said, there are at least two other strong candidates out of the Big Ten in Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox and Ohio State forward Ryan Dzingel, and it will be interesting to see how many of the 10 finalists come out of college hockey’s newest (and, by membership, smallest) conference. He’s certainly someone worth keeping an eye on, though. If nothing else, you just might see another highlight-reel goal!

Now, to the main business of the week: goaltending.

I’ve touched on goaltending a couple of times in the Hobey Watch this year. I came into the season wondering whether we might see a run at the Hobey from Jon Gillies of Providence or Connor Hellebuyck of Massachusetts-Lowell. While Hellebuyck has shown no signs of a sophomore slump — he leads the nation in GAA (1.76) and is second in save percentage (.942) — he’s also still splitting time with senior Doug Carr, who’s having a laudable season in his own right (second in GAA at 1.80, fifth in save percentage at .934).

It’s not unheard of for a goalie who splits time in net to get a Hobey finalist bid (Miami’s Cody Reichard did it in 2010 while platooning with Connor Knapp), but if Hellebuyck is going to be the first goaltender to win the Hobey since Ryan Miller in 2001, it’s not going to be this year.

As for Gillies, he’s having a fine season, sitting 15th nationally in save percentage (.927) and 21st in GAA (.924), and he’s certainly a big part of Providence’s success. The question becomes whether that’s enough to snag a Hobey finalist berth, and I’m somewhat doubtful.

In that same post, I took note of Ferris State netminder CJ Motte, who has established himself as the most notable player for the strongest team in the new-look WCHA. With a top-20 save percentage (.924) for the conference leader, I think Motte has a solid chance of snagging a finalist berth, particularly with such limited competition for a spot within his own conference.

Minnesota State forward Matt Leitner is the only other WCHA player I could see getting a finalist berth, and if the Mavericks were to overtake the Bulldogs in the conference standings, his case could grow stronger.

After that start, we introduced two more goalie names into the mix last week, based in part off of their standing among the top 10 vote-getters in the Hobey online fan balloting: Minnesota’s Adam Wilcox and St. Cloud State’s Ryan Faragher.

As I noted last week, Faragher doesn’t look like an especially viable candidate (save percentage .904 — 54th nationally; GAA 2.68 — 47th), but Wilcox is looking more and more to be a likely Hobey finalist, posting a .930 save percentage (10th in the country) and a 1.97 GAA (11th) for a No. 1 team that took its first conference loss just Thursday.

Now, as we look at goaltending in earnest, there are two more names that we need to add into the mix: Denver’s Sam Brittain and Northeastern’s Clay Witt. Brittain is holding down the nation’s third-best save percentage (.936) and 10th-best GAA (1.96) for a Pioneers team that sits second in the NCHC. Witt leads the nation in save percentage (.945) for a Northeastern team that is in position for an NCAA tournament berth.

The thing that interests me about Brittain is this: Among NCHC candidates, he appears to have the best combination of team and individual success this season. Miami has a pair of outstanding players in Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik, but the RedHawks sit seventh in the eight-team NCHC.

On the other hand, conference-leading St. Cloud State has a somewhat intriguing candidate in sophomore forward Jonny Brodzinski, but his numbers (14-12–26, 1.08 points per game) aren’t superlative at the level of Brittain’s.

Nebraska-Omaha’s Josh Archibald is a stronger candidate than Brodzinski, particularly as the nation’s No. 3 goal-scorer, and is probably Brittain’s biggest competition within the conference, but I have a feeling that Brittain will probably be the guy that gets the most Hobey love when it comes time to pick the finalists.

As for Witt, the best save percentage in the country says it all — or at least, it says most of it. After all, that save percentage puts him in Ryan Miller’s neighborhood, and for better or worse, Miller remains the standard against which netminding Hobey contenders are judged.

The other thing that’s worth mentioning here is that Witt has had to make more saves than all but two other goalies in the country this year — his 745 saves rank third behind Holy Cross netminder Matt Ginn (788) and Bentley’s Branden Komm (775). All told, Witt sees 35.8 shots a game, and if he didn’t turn aside as many as he does, the Huskies likely wouldn’t be having the season they’re having, even with the top-10 offense that they boast.

Witt will have a prime opportunity to showcase his prowess between the pipes on Monday, when the Huskies face Boston College in the Beanpot final. If Witt puts on a show against Johnny Gaudreau and the Eagles en route to Northeastern’s first Beanpot title since 1988, it will be a major feather in his cap, and will seriously bolster his case for a finalist berth, a spot in the Hobey Hat Trick, and maybe, just maybe, the award itself (although I still feel like Gaudreau is the leader).

Finally, I know that a lot of what I write focuses in on statistics, which aren’t always the best way to judge a player’s value to a team. The reason is simple: More often than not, the Hobey is, in large part, a stat-driven award. That doesn’t always mean that the leading scorer in the nation gets the award; in fact, it often doesn’t mean that.

What it does mean, however, is that while it’s hard to win the Hobey at all, it’s even harder to win it without truly elite numbers. The obvious exception in recent memory was Matt Gilroy in 2009, but his win had such a strong narrative behind it — returning to BU after more than 20 offers to turn pro; Jack Parker’s comments about the value of Gilroy’s leadership; his journey from walk-on to All-American — that it was able to capture the attention of voters without elite-level numbers to back it up.

More often, however, it’s hard for Hobey voters to see enough of each candidate to have a really good read on them. The coaches, who vote for the finalists, spend most of their time focusing on their own opponents, while the media voters, likewise, give most of their attention to their own conferences. You can see highlights and catch some extra games from outside your region, but at the end of the day, a lot of it is still going to come down to stats, and that’s where we are.

That’s it for now. Enjoy your weekend of hockey, everyone!

Top fan vote-getters have varying degrees of legitimacy as finalists

Providence’s Ross Mauermann is an intriguing potential finalist for the Hobey Baker Award (photo: Melissa Wade).

Hello, all, and welcome back to another week of the USCHO Hobey Watch, where it might be fair to ask, just what are we watching, anyway?

Earlier this week, Brian Costello of The Hockey News pointed out the thought that we’re going to be dancing around for the foreseeable future: That, in Costello’s words, Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau is “too good not to win” the Hobey Baker Award.

We’ll spend our fair share of time discussing the young man they call “Johnny Hockey,” to be sure, and whether he will be the first BC forward in the Jerry York era to win the Hobey (David Emma was, of course, the first BC forward to capture the award, having done so in 1991, three years before York returned to his alma mater). What really caught my attention, though, was that Costello saved me the trouble of going through the voting tallies on the Hobey Baker fan voting site and organizing it into a top 10.

Of course, we know what the Hobey fan vote is at this point. Sure, it’s a feature of the award that carries limited validity and even less impact, but it’s fun for the fans — I’m still a fan of the 2006 “Danny King for Hobey” campaign, even though it would be impossible today — and it’s also a good way to see what players may merit a closer look.

So, let’s start by examining that top 10, current as of this past Tuesday.

1. Ryan Faragher, junior, G, St. Cloud State
2. Shayne Gostisbehere, junior, D, Union
3. Ben Hutton, sophomore, D, Maine
4. Johnny Gaudreau, junior, F, Boston College
5. Adam Wilcox, sophomore, G, Minnesota
6. Ross Mauermann, junior, F, Providence
7. Ryan Haggerty, junior, F, Rensselaer
8. Michael Mersch, senior, F, Wisconsin
9. Trevor van Riemsdyk, junior, D, New Hampshire
10. Dillon Simpson, senior, D, North Dakota

Gaudreau we know about, of course, and as long as his production continues at or near its current level, it’s hard to see anyone else leaving Philadelphia with the Hobey. We also discussed Gostisbehere last week, and it’s not much of a surprise that he should be here (except that Union fans have been more united behind Gostisbehere than Cornell’s celebrated Lynah Faithful have been behind an equally qualified contender in Joakim Ryan). Beyond that, though, there are a couple of interesting notes.

Let’s start with the two goaltenders, Faragher and Wilcox. Both play for top-five teams in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, and neither has a real superstar forward up front who’s attracting much Hobey attention, although I could see the Huskies’ Jonny Brodzinski making his case.

If you figure that someone from a team performing as well as Minnesota or St. Cloud State is going to get a nod, it makes sense to look to a goaltender, and Wilcox, who ranks 12th in the nation in both GAA (2.05) and save percentage (.929), certainly has a solid case.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t say the same for Faragher, with his 2.45 GAA (36th in the nation) or his .909 save percentage (52nd), but you never know. As tough as it has been for a goalie to win the Hobey, not all of the netminders who have earned finalist nods have had eye-popping numbers.

Meanwhile, among the defensemen, van Riemsdyk and Hutton are both posting outstanding numbers, ranking fifth and sixth in the nation, respectively, in blueliner scoring. The problem, however, comes from the fact that both New Hampshire and Maine are on the outside looking in where the NCAA tournament is concerned, which could give a leg up to fellow rearguards Ryan and Gostisbehere, not to mention the fact that they play in the same conference as the presumed Hobey frontrunner Gaudreau.

Simpson, meanwhile, suffers from two problems. First, there’s the matter of numbers, as 2009 Hobey winner Matt Gilroy seems to be the exception to the rule when it comes to defensemen winning the Hobey without eye-popping numbers. Then, there’s the question of where North Dakota winds up within the NCHC and in terms of the NCAA tournament. Dave Hakstol has traditionally had a second-half team in Grand Forks, so if UND comes on strong again and Simpson plays a major role, then I’d look at him as a potential finalist.

Finally, we turn to the forwards. Mauermann is an intriguing potential finalist as the leading scorer for No. 7 Providence, and certainly someone to keep an eye on.

Haggerty is having a heck of a season for RPI, but with the Engineers having a mediocre season, I doubt there’s much room for him to go beyond the finalist level, and I see something of an “either-or” situation developing with Haggerty and conference foe Greg Carey of St. Lawrence. That may not be fair, but knowing who else is out there, I just don’t see more than one player from a non-contending ECAC Hockey team making it into the top 10.

It’s an interesting point in the Hobey race … or at least, the Hobey finalist race. While Gaudreau may be leading the field by a wide margin — and I remain convinced that he is — the question of who fits into those top 10 spots becomes more and more interesting. We’ll look at it from another angle next week in the Hobey Watch. Until then, enjoy your weekend — and Beanpot Monday — hockey, everyone!

A look at ECAC Hockey’s top Hobey candidates, and why some fall short

Cornell defenseman Joakim Ryan is one of the ECAC Hockey players to watch in the race for a Hobey Baker Award finalist spot (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Hello again, and welcome back to another week of the Hobey Watch!

Last week, I started by looking at a few story lines that I had my eye on at the close of last season: the effects of conference realignment on Hobey Baker Award candidates (and Hobey finalist candidates), the play of two of last season’s most promising goaltenders (Jon Gillies of Providence and Connor Hellebuyck of Massachusetts-Lowell), and the red-hot play of Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau and whether he might be the first of the Jerry York-era small Eagles forwards to capture college hockey’s top individual honor. Among the responses was one that asked if I’ve ever heard of ECAC Hockey. Well then.

Yes, I’ve heard of the conference, as it was my introduction to this wonderful world of college hockey back in my undergraduate days at Dartmouth. Moreover, I had the chance to see two of the conference’s teams in action at Madison Square Garden a couple of weeks ago in the “Rivalry on Ice” game between Harvard and Yale. It was a great event, and having done some work with the Leverage Agency to help put things together, it was rewarding to see it unfold on the ice. And, during a pregame reception at the Refinery Hotel, I had the chance to chat briefly with the conference commissioner, Steve Hagwell.

We talked briefly about the season, the continued strong performances of Union, Quinnipiac and Yale, and of course about the Hobey race and my commentary on it. We didn’t talk much about this year’s candidates, but we did discuss some of the top Hobey contenders to come out of the conference in recent years. And looking at the conference’s top Hobey candidates this year, I think they face the same problem that past ECAC Hockey stars have faced in recent years … and they’re not the only ones.

Take, for example, Greg Carey, the senior forward for St. Lawrence. Carey was the No. 4 scorer in the country last season, averaging 1.34 points per game on totals of 28 goals and 23 assists in 38 games, and he’s come back even stronger in his senior campaign. Through last weekend’s games, Carey was second in the country in points per game at 1.82, with 14 goals and 26 assists in 22 games. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that his Saints are struggling mightily this season, sitting in 11th place at 2-6-2. While it’s not impossible for a player to win the Hobey on a less-than-successful team, it’s rare. The only two such Hobey winners who come to mind, in fact, are Chris Marinucci at Minnesota-Duluth in 1994 (team record: 14-21-3) and Matt Carle at Denver in 2006 (which went 21-15-3 but missed the NCAA tournament).

This was the main thing that Austin Smith was missing two years ago, when he had 36 goals and 21 assists in 39 games on a Colgate team that went 19-17-3. While I certainly see Carey as a Hobey finalist on the strength of his individual performance this season, I don’t see him faring much better in the final voting than Smith did.

On the other hand, the most successful teams in the conference — the five projected to make the NCAA tournament as of this week’s Bracketology blog — don’t have Hobey contenders with top-flight individual stats. Quinnipiac has a pair of intriguing forwards in freshman Sam Anas and senior Kellen Jones, but neither is a top-20 scorer. While that wouldn’t preclude Jones from a finalist nod (leaving Anas aside since freshmen rarely get Hobey recognition), it’s hard to see him as someone who could claim the Hobey. That’s not a knock on Jones as a player — far from it — just a recognition of how these things generally go and where Jones fits into the picture.

Union, meanwhile, has a top-20 scorer in senior forward Daniel Carr and a highly regarded junior defenseman in Shayne Gostisbehere. Carr has been on the score sheet in all but four games for the Dutchmen this season, while Gostisbehere is a top-20 scorer among defensemen with six goals and 10 assists, coming off of a sophomore season that saw him capture All-America honors. Both have strong cases for inclusion among Hobey contenders, but neither statistical profile rises to the level of a potential Hobey winner.

Cornell may have the most intriguing Hobey candidate of the conference’s top teams in Joakim Ryan. The junior blueliner is second in the nation in defenseman scoring, and his numbers likely will carry more weight than the rearguard ahead of him, Bentley’s Steve Weinstein, due to tougher conference opposition.

I’d keep a close eye on Ryan as a potential Hobey finalist, with the potential to do more depending on his performance down the stretch. His current points-per-game average (1.06) may not rise to the level of Matt Carle’s 1.35 PPG in his Hobey-winning 2005-06 season, but it compares quite favorably with Jordan Leopold’s 1.09 PPG in 2001-02 and Mike Mottau’s 1.05 PPG in 1999-2000, especially when you consider that Cornell’s style of play — the Big Red is 30th in the nation in scoring offense and seventh in scoring defense — doesn’t have the reputation of Minnesota or BC for lending itself to big offensive numbers.

Clarkson is a team without an obvious Hobey contender. The Golden Knights do not have a top-100 scorer in terms of points per game, and a goaltending tandem of sophomore Greg Lewis and freshman Steve Perry. Bottom line: Don’t stop believin’ in the Golden Knights as a team, but don’t expect to hear much about them in the Hobey race.

Finally, there’s Yale. The Bulldogs have had a consistently strong offense under Keith Allain, but the scoring is often spread out, and that’s the case again this year. Seniors Kenny Agostino and Jesse Root lead the way with 15 and 13 points, respectively.

The team’s freshman goaltenders, Alex Lyon and Patrick Spano, have performed admirably, with Lyon doing the lion’s share of the work. But, again, this looks like a strong team without a real Hobey contender.

The real takeaway that I have from looking at all of this is that ECAC Hockey is having another impressive season, and after Yale brought home the conference’s first NCAA title in more than 20 years, we could (or at the very least, should), see the conference’s reputation start to come closer in line with reality as the “EZAC” chants fade.

The question, however, is where that leaves this year’s Hobey contenders from the conference. The bottom line is that good numbers on a strong team or great numbers on a struggling team may get you a Hobey finalist nod, but they probably won’t get you much further.

The best candidates tend to be those who combine strong individual and team performance, and on that score, I’d pay the most attention to Ryan, keep an eye on Gostisbehere, and be here next week for another edition of the Hobey Watch.

A first look at the Hobey landscape for 2014

Austin Czarnik is one of two Hobey Baker Award candidates from Miami (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Welcome back to the Hobey Watch, everyone! It’s been quite a first half of the season, and as we turn over the calendar into 2014, it’s time to start sizing up the candidates for college hockey’s top individual honor.

When we called it a year last April after Drew LeBlanc of St. Cloud State hoisted the Hobey Baker Award in Pittsburgh, there were three major story lines I was looking ahead to for the Hobey in 2014. In this first Hobey Watch of 2014, I want to revisit the big questions and get a sense of where we stand at the midway point of the season.

Conference calls

When sizing up Hobey candidates — and particularly when attempting to pick the top 10 finalists — conference affiliations are useful for keeping things organized. It’s pretty rare when a major conference doesn’t have a Hobey finalist, so with the CCHA gone and the NCHC and Big Ten now part of the mix along with a vastly different WCHA, it’s worth looking at how the national picture has changed.

The most notable development on that front seems to have come from Oxford, Ohio, where Miami has a pair of intriguing candidates in sophomore Riley Barber and returning Hobey finalist Austin Czarnik. If there was ever a concern about the quality of Miami’s opposition, it should be gone, given that Miami now plays in the NCHC, but the problem is that the RedHawks currently reside in the NCHC basement.

Still, that wouldn’t preclude either player from getting a Hobey finalist nod, given their individual performance. Barber is the stronger goal scorer of the two, with 14 tallies in 20 games, but the whole “Hobey loves goals” argument lost some steam last year with Drew LeBlanc’s win, so it remains to be seen how these guys will be evaluated.

Meanwhile, in the WCHA, Ferris State is looking strong, and with CJ Motte posting a 17-1-3 record in the Bulldogs’ net, he’s looking like a likely Hobey finalist. His GAA (2.07, 16th in the country) and save percentage (.932, 11th) aren’t at the top level where he could be considered a true Hobey contender, but as the most notable player for a notable team, he’s on track for at least a finalist nod, with the opportunity to do more if Ferris State does big things in the postseason.

Speaking of netminders …

The goalie question

The lack of a Hobey winner in goal since Ryan Miller in 2001 is one of the most familiar tropes in Hobey conversation, but last year introduced us to a pair of netminders with the potential to become just the third goalie to capture college hockey’s top individual honor. As we open the Hobey Watch for another year, it’s a good time to look back in on Connor Hellebuyck of Massachusetts-Lowell and Jon Gillies of Providence.

The good news for Hellebuyck is that he leads the nation in save percentage (.945) and is second in GAA (1.75), with that save percentage awfully close to the magical .950 that Ryan Miller posted in his Hobey campaign. The bad news is that he’s splitting time with Doug Carr, and it’s hard to see a part-timer capturing the Hobey. The real takeaway here for Hellebuyck is that he’s shown no signs of a sophomore slump, and if he gets a solo run in the River Hawks’ net next year after Carr graduates, he’ll enter 2014-15 as a top contender for the Hobey.

As for Gillies, the Friars sophomore is two slots behind Hellebuyck in the save percentage department at .937, and while he’s a bit farther down in the GAA department (1.88, ninth in the nation), the Friars are ranked seventh in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and Gillies deserves a great deal of the credit. He’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Johnny be back

When we started up the 2013 edition of this blog, it was looking as if the Hobey might finally go to the “little guy from BC.”

Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau was among the nation’s top scorers, coming off of a high-profile performance as part of a gold-medal effort for the U.S. at the World Junior Championship and looking every bit the part of a Hobey winner. As it turned out, however, Gaudreau’s statistical performance tailed off toward the end of the season, and when BC stalled out in the postseason, failing to capture a Hockey East title or a Frozen Four berth, Gaudreau came up short of the Hobey. Still, with little brother Matthew on his way to the Heights, the expectation was that “Johnny Hockey” would stick around for another run.

Indeed, the elder Gaudreau is back in Chestnut Hill, and once again, he’s flying high for the Eagles, leading the nation in points per game and goals per game. While there are certainly other qualified candidates — including returning Hobey finalist Greg Carey of St. Lawrence, who’s right on Gaudreau’s tail in the points department — Gaudreau is once again in a strong position to capture the Hobey.

Given that BC’s team performance in even-numbered years has been far stronger than odd years in recent memory (you have to go back to 2002 to find the last even-numbered Frozen Four that BC wasn’t a part of), the pieces seem to be in place for Gaudreau. Whether he and the Eagles can keep them together — and whether the other candidates will have their say — remains to be seen.

By no means is this post meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the candidates. There are certainly more players worth discussing than Barber, Czarnik, Hellebuyck, Gillies, Gaudreau and Carey, and we’ll discuss them in the weeks to come. For now, though, this should be a good start.

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