Hey Abbott! Maine forward enters picture as team’s fortunes improve

As I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s always nice to see a lively debate in the comments section after a blog post. It makes me feel like I’m doing my job, and having seen it happen after last week’s blog post, I’m very pleased. It also doesn’t hurt that the comments have helped focus my writing for this week’s entry, which should start with Spencer Abbott of Maine.

You may have noticed that I haven’t had that much to say about Abbott so far this season. It didn’t help that when I started this season’s Hobey Watch, Abbott and the Black Bears were on the outside looking into the NCAA tournament picture. Since then, of course, the Black Bears have come on strong, finished fourth in Hockey East, and host Merrimack this weekend in a vital quarterfinal series that may be the key to returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Meanwhile, Abbott is the national scoring leader with 56 points (19-37–56), and is certainly a strong candidate for the Hobey Baker Award.

One important thing that’s happened is that Abbott has established himself as the Hobey candidate on the Black Bears, which is important when you play on a line that includes two other forwards among the nation’s top 15 scorers in Brian Flynn (11th, 17-28–45) and Joey Diamond (12th, 22-19–41). Of course, it stands to reason that any high-scoring forward will have an impact on his linemates’ statistics, and it rarely hurts to have great linemates in the Hobey race. Consider, for example, that 2005 Hobey winner Marty Sertich had one of his linemates, Brett Sterling, in the Hobey Hat Trick with him. On the other hand, the 2010 Miami team that advanced to the Frozen Four had four forwards with 40 points or more: Jarod Palmer, Andy Miele, Carter Camper and Tommy Wingels, all of whom have played in the NHL this season. However, the RedHawks player honored with a spot in the Hobey top 10 was goalie Cody Reichard, who split time in net with Connor Knapp. Not being able to distinguish yourself from other talented teammates can be a liability in the Hobey race (although it helps to be surrounded by that kind of talent if you’re chasing an NCAA title, which as always is a far more important concern).

And, for what it’s worth, while Jack Connolly may not play on a line with Travis Oleksuk and J.T. Brown at Minnesota-Duluth, either Brown or Oleksuk has figured in the scoring for 31 of his 55 points. I wouldn’t rush to give him credit for his success despite not playing on a line with Duluth’s other high-scoring forwards. He may or may not have a lead on Abbott in the Hobey race, but that’s not the reason.

In reality, I don’t know why I haven’t given Abbott as much virtual “ink” as Connolly in writing the blog this season. Maybe I’ve been self-conscious about East Coast bias. Maybe I got too caught up in how cool it would be for Connolly to become the fifth Hobey winner from Minnesota-Duluth at the Frozen Four in Tampa, where UMD’s first Hobey Winner is the assistant general manager of the local NHL team (particularly if the Bulldogs are in the Frozen Four). But one thing I was thinking about this morning does seem like a possible reason I haven’t been taking Abbott as seriously as I should:

Since 2000, only three Hobey winners have not played in the Frozen Four that season.

Those players, for the record, are Peter Sejna of Colorado College in 2003, Matt Carle of Denver in 2006 and Andy Miele of Miami last year. It would have been pretty hard to deny Sejna after he put up a point total (82, on 36 goals and 46 assists) that hasn’t even been sniffed since. Carle, as we’ve discussed in the past, had the benefit of winning NCAA championships in the previous two seasons, which I feel kept him from being docked for Denver’s lack of tournament success (or participation) that year. Plus, he had an outstanding season for the Pioneers that year, possibly the best season performance by a defenseman in recent memory. And as for Andy Miele, I really don’t want to revisit last season’s Hobey debate, because it was nasty and ugly and pretty much the antithesis of what I tend to enjoy about college hockey and college hockey fans. So, let’s just acknowledge that it happened, keep in mind that Miele was the leading scorer in the nation by a wide margin with the most points in a season since Sejna’s 82, and move on, OK?

Coming back to this year, the national scoring race is tight between Abbott, Colgate’s Austin Smith and Connolly. However, in terms of team success, Minnesota-Duluth has been established as a top national contender for much of the season. The Black Bears, on the other hand, have had to claw their way up (pun intended), and have three other teams ahead of them in Hockey East: Boston College, Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston University. That likely will help Abbott in the evaluation, as it shows the strength of the opposition that he’s playing against.

Not that I agree with the characterization of ECAC Hockey as any kind of pushover conference, by the way. Obviously, the conference has struggled to produce a Frozen Four team since Cornell went in 2003, but ECAC teams have been a tough out. Duluth’s run to the 2011 NCAA championship went through two ECAC Hockey schools, and the UMD people I spoke to after those games weren’t buying into any of the “EZAC” talk. As for commenter “bosch,” who pointed out that seven ECAC Hockey teams failed to reach 10 conference wins, compared to just two in the WCHA, keep in mind that ECAC Hockey has a 22-game conference schedule, compared to 28 in the WCHA. Nine of the 12 ECAC teams had higher conference win percentages than Wisconsin, the 10th-place team in the WCHA. I will not argue that ECAC Hockey has the top-to-bottom strength of Hockey East or the WCHA, but I wouldn’t discount it nearly as much as some observers seem to when evaluating Smith. But we discussed Smith last week.

Coming back to Abbott (and Connolly), we all know that anything can happen at tournament time — and really, what hasn’t happened in recent years? — but I think it’s fair to say that there would be a lot more surprised observers this spring if Maine advanced to Tampa than if Duluth were to advance to the Frozen Four.

Bear in mind, I’m not saying that either team will or won’t advance … I’ll save that for the USCHO staff picks contest at tournament time (which I’ve won a couple of times). However, that’s definitely something to keep an eye on as things move forward. In the meantime, Spencer Abbott is very much in the Hobey race, and pretty likely for the Hobey Hat Trick. As with all the candidates in the Hobey race, the coming weeks will tell the story.

Austin’s powers depend in part on his team, his competition

The calendar has turned to March, and we’re heading into the home stretch in the race for the Hobey Baker Award. Of course, the fight for conference championships and NCAA tournament berths does tend to take priority — as well it should — but it is worth remembering that the 10 finalists and three “Hobey Hat Trick” members will be announced this month, and that while the 2012 Hobey Baker Award winner won’t be announced until April 6, the vote will take place this month.

And so, this week in the Hobey Watch, it’s time to address a candidate who hasn’t really been given a full discussion in this space yet: Colgate senior forward Austin Smith.

Smith, as you probably know, is the national leader in goals with 34, averaging a goal per game for the regular season. That is one hell of an accomplishment when you think about it, and it should go without saying that he’ll be one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey when those names are announced in a couple of weeks. The question, however, is how much further he’ll go.

When battling for the right to be called college hockey’s top player — although Smith probably isn’t thinking about battling for any more than the ECAC Hockey title — it doesn’t hurt to be the nation’s leading goal-scorer. On the other hand, it also doesn’t help quite as much as you’d expect. Consider this: Part of the speculation surrounding Smith is that he could be the first player in nearly 20 years to score 40 goals in a season, depending on how Colgate’s run in the ECAC Hockey playoffs goes. The last player to eclipse that mark was Dean Fedorchuk, who scored 42 for Alaska (then known as Alaska-Fairbanks) in the 1993-94 season.

There’s a strong possibility that you’re currently asking yourself who Dean Fedorchuk is, and part of the reason that his name isn’t more familiar (besides that he played most of his pro career in Germany) is that he didn’t win the Hobey. That season’s award went to Chris Marinucci. In fact, in the last 13 seasons (that’s how far back national statistics go here on USCHO), only three Hobey winners have finished the season as the national leader in goals: New Hampshire’s Jason Krog in 1999, Colorado College’s Peter Sejna in 2003 and Minnesota-Duluth’s Junior Lessard in 2004.

Of course, looking at historical statistics for these sorts of things can be a bit tricky, since we’re looking at different statistics than the Hobey voters did. For example, former Boston College forward Cam Atkinson finished the 2009-10 season as college hockey’s leading goal-scorer with 30, but six of those came in BC’s four NCAA tournament games. Another Eagles forward, Nathan Gerbe, finished the 2008 season as the national goal-scoring leader, but five of those came during the Eagles’ two wins at the Frozen Four, meaning that when the Hobey voting took place, eventual winner Kevin Porter still led the nation in goals.

There are other factors to consider, as well: 2006-07 goals leader Ted Cook didn’t even crack the top 10 after scoring 32 goals for Niagara, but the Purple Eagles played in the CHA, and only 10 of Cook’s goals game against opponents from the “Big Four” conferences (It also didn’t help that he had a pair of high-scoring linemates in Les Reaney and Sean Bentivoglio, who could have also been considered for a finalist berth). Conference concerns might also explain how 2009 goals leader Jacques Lamoureux of Air Force didn’t make it to the Hobey Hat Trick. On the other hand, having not yet been introduced to college hockey in 2000, I have no recollection of why North Dakota’s Lee Goren didn’t get a finalist nod that year after leading the nation in goals.

The only thing I do know with regards to Goren is that his North Dakota teammate, Jeff Panzer, was a Hobey finalist that year, which is a good reminder of Elliot’s Rule of the Hobey No. 1: No Hobey candidate exists in a vacuum.

Who else is in the field ALWAYS matters. Just look at the 2006 Hobey Hat Trick. I was running the Hobey Watch panel at CSTV back then, and our voters predicted a Hobey Hat Trick that included Denver defenseman Matt Carle, Wisconsin goalie Brian Elliott and Minnesota forward Ryan Potulny. Potulny’s 38 goals that year are the most in recent memory, but when the actual Hat Trick was announced, it was Chris Collins, not Potulny, who joined Carle and Elliott in the Hat Trick.

What happened there? Well, one pattern I’ve noticed is that since there’s been a Hobey Hat Trick, there’s always been a player from an Eastern conference in the mix. The closest thing we’ve had to an all-Western Hobey Hat Trick is 2007, when Air Force’s Eric Ehn (playing in Atlantic Hockey, mind you) joined Ryan Duncan of North Dakota and David Brown of Notre Dame at the presentation ceremony in St. Louis. So, Collins was in, but who would be out? The defenseman with monster numbers who’d won back-to-back NCAA titles in the two previous seasons? The goalie who backstopped Wisconsin to its eventual NCAA title? Or the national leader in goals, who’d just been on the wrong end of one of the biggest upsets in NCAA hockey history?

If there hadn’t been a Carle or an Elliott that season, Potulny might have been in the Hobey Hat Trick. But there they both were, so there he wasn’t.

So, where does all of this leave Austin Smith? Much of that will depend on what he does in the next couple of weeks. At this point, having averaged a goal per game in the regular season, it’s safe to say that he’s earned his spot as a Hobey finalist. After that, it gets tricky, and it makes Colgate’s playoff run extremely important.

Smith has 34 goals. My educated guess is that in order for him to have a real shot at winning the Hobey, at least one of two things needs to happen:

1. Smith needs to reach the 40-goal plateau
2. Colgate needs to reach the NCAA tournament, which probably means winning the ECAC Hockey playoff title.

If both of those things happen, I’d say that Smith has an excellent shot at winning the Hobey. If neither happens, I think it’s “Thanks For Playing” after the finalist round. If one or the other happens, well …

Once again, we come back to Rule No. 1: No candidate exists in a vacuum. I think it’s fair to say that at this point, Jack Connolly of Minnesota-Duluth will be in the Hobey Hat Trick. The other two spots will be filled by a mix of candidates that includes Smith, Maine forward Spencer Abbott, Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz and others (Bjugstad, Hunwick, Grosenick, etc.). There are arguments for everyone being considered. Some of those arguments will get stronger or weaker over the course of this month. What happens to which arguments remains to be seen.

What do you think the most likely outcome is for Austin Smith? Do you think Colgate can win ECAC Hockey? Do you agree that the Raiders need to make the NCAA tournament for Smith to have a shot at the Hobey? Let me know what you think below … I’ll be watching.

A feeling I get when I look to the West

It’s always nice to see when a blog post gets people talking, and last week’s Hobey Watch post about goalies certainly did that. Of course, given that some of the chatter consisted of suggestions of “East Coast bias” and questions about the absence of Minnesota netminder Kent Patterson from my list, I was left with a bit more thinking to do as I posted this week.

As far as Patterson is concerned, I actually wrote a feature on him for NCAA.com early in the season, so he’s definitely been on my radar. There’s no question that he’s been a very steady presence for the Gophers this season, and a key factor in what seems to be a likely return to the NCAA tournament. He leads the nation in shutouts and is among the nation’s top 10 goaltenders in goals against average. I think the reason I didn’t include Patterson had something to do with his save percentage, where he ranks 29th in the nation. Given that only two goaltenders have won the Hobey in the last 31 years, I don’t think someone who’s outside the top 10 in either save percentage or GAA has a real shot at the Hobey. Of course, that would knock out Kieran Millan of Boston University, but since it was the BU promotional material about Millan that inspired last week’s blog post, it’d be kind of hard to write the post without him.

That having been said, most of last week’s post did concern Eastern players, which makes it only fair that I go in the other direction this week. So, this week, we’ll focus on the Hobey candidates in the West.

About a month ago, I was fairly certain that Jack Connolly of Minnesota-Duluth was the clear front-runner for the Hobey. He was leading the nation in scoring, the Bulldogs held the top national ranking, and the other top forwards played for teams that were not on track to earn an NCAA tournament berth. Things have changed a fair bit in the last month, although it’s not like Connolly has slowed down all that much. He’s still one of the top scorers in the country with 50 points in 32 games (1.56 PPG), but he’s now second to Spencer Abbott of Maine, whose Black Bears are solidly in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are in a hard-fought battle to a top NCAA tournament seed, and are ranked fourth in the country this week rather than first. All of that having been said, the fact remains that Connolly is the biggest reason why the Bulldogs have a serious chance at repeating as NCAA champions despite heavy offseason losses. Minnesota-Duluth has two other players among the national scoring leaders in J.T. Brown and Travis Oleksuk, but as Hobey candidates from the West go, Connolly still belongs atop the list.

Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz will almost certainly suffer as a Hobey candidate because of the Badgers’ struggles this season, but he’s having a fantastic year and is a very likely Hobey finalist. Not only does Schultz lead all defensemen with 40 points (12-28–40) in 30 games, but he’s also plus-10 on a Wisconsin team that has a negative goal differential this year. Schultz hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since his freshman season, when the Badgers advanced to the NCAA title game against Boston College, and that may hurt his cause slightly, but it’s hard to imagine Schultz not making the top 10.

Denver has a couple of possible Hobey candidates at forward in Jason Zucker and Drew Shore, both of whom are among the national top 10 in scoring average. The question, however, is what separates one from the other as a Hobey candidate. Don’t be surprised if at least one of the two gets a finalist nod.

Another part of the reason that I didn’t give Patterson more of a look as a Hobey candidate last week is because I had it in mind that Nick Bjugstad is the Gophers’ best Hobey candidate. Bjugstad is third in the nation in goals (22), and is the leading scorer on a Minnesota team that’s primed to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

I’m not really seeing much in terms of Hobey candidates from the CCHA, save the goalies we discussed last week, like Jared Coreau of Northern Michigan and Shawn Hunwick from Michigan. If there’s there’s one skater I like to contend for a Hobey finalist spot out of the CCHA, it’d probably have to be Miami’s Reilly Smith, who’s second only to Colgate’s Austin Smith when it comes to goals. However, when you add Smith and Bjugstad along with the players we’ve already mentioned, that’s a strong group of candidates with a shot at the Hobey.

So, whom do you like as the top Hobey contender out of the West? How do you think this group stacks up against the Hobey candidates from the East?

The case for the goalies

There are so many things I like about my annual trip up to Boston for the Beanpot. I enjoy seeing so many friends from the Boston media in the press room before the games, from Brion O’Connor of ESPN Boston to John Connolly of the Boston Herald to Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of the Boston Globe to the USCHO contingent of Dave Hendrickson, Jimmy Connelly and Scott Weighart (and I know I’m leaving people out … trust me, I like seeing you, too!). In addition, TD Garden serves one of the best press meals in the country, although I ruined my appetite this year by eating too big a lunch at Uburger. Most of all, though, I know that the Beanpot is going to deliver great hockey, as it did this past Monday with Boston College’s overtime victory over Boston University.

(Note to the “Beanpot is overrated” crowd: Regardless of how good the teams may be in any given year, there’s no arguing that the grand stage brings out the best in the participants.)

In addition, I love knowing that whenever I go to the Beanpot, I’m going to come away with something to write about. This year’s tournament was no exception, although my inspiration for this week’s post came from an odd source: the info table in the press room.

A quick explanation: the Will McDonough Press Room at TD Garden is broken up into two parts: the dining room and the work room. In the middle of the work room is a table that, on the days of the Beanpot, contains media guides, line charts, press releases and other informational forms. Among these on Monday afternoon was a flier from the BU athletic communications department promoting goaltender Kieran Millan as a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award.

This, of course, is pretty standard stuff. I’ve seen plenty of promotional materials for various Hobey candidates over the years, in addition to fliers for All-American candidates. What made this jump out at me was that last week, in this space, I wrote this: “keep an eye on Adam Clendening of Boston University as a representative of a Terriers squad that has been excellent this year, despite midseason turmoil and that, like the rival Eagles, there’s no superstar forward to speak of.”

Apparently, the feeling at BU is that the appropriate representative is Millan, and after watching the Terriers on Monday, it’s hard to dispute that.

Not that Clendening played badly, mind you. His assist on Garrett Noonan’s second goal on Monday was a beautiful play, as Clendening controlled the puck while skating backward before threading his pass through traffic to Noonan for the goal. It’s just that Millan turned in an outstanding (albeit unsuccessful) effort, right up until Bill Arnold’s shot won it for the Eagles in the waning seconds of what otherwise would have been just the first overtime. Jerry York, by the way, later remarked on the difficulty of beating Millan on his glove side, which gives some indication of how much respect Millan has earned with his play this year.

Now, the reason I hadn’t given Millan much consideration before has to do with his statistical performance this season. It’s not even really a case of “Ryan Miller numbers” being the issue so much as it is his place in the national statistical rankings. With Monday’s 44-save performance in the books, Millan is 15-10-1 with a 2.41 goals against-average and a .926 save percentage. That ranks him 21st in the country in win percentage, 29th in GAA and 13th in save percentage. It’s not hard to see how a statistical look at Millan didn’t exactly scream “Hobey Baker” at me.

On the other hand, watching Millan as he came up with big save after big save against the Eagles drove home the point of how valuable he’s been this season to BU, a team that is tied for third in the PairWise Rankings, when the Terriers could easily have fallen apart after the midseason double-whammy of losing Corey Trivino and Charlie Coyle. Clendening is certainly an important piece of the Terriers’ puzzle, but it’s become clear that as things stand, Millan is the cornerstone, doing what needs to be done to win far more often than not. Pull him off the Terriers, think about where they’d be, and you get a good sense of why he’s the Hobey candidate on that team.

That got me thinking about the other goalies who could be considered for the award this season, who have similar roles in their team’s success this season (albeit without the midseason drama). Should their status as Hobey contenders be called into doubt simply because of the lack of “Ryan Miller numbers?” Ryan Miller didn’t think so when I spoke with him last year.

Several commenters have mentioned Shawn Hunwick of Michigan, and he certainly has a strong case. He’s got a record of 18-9-3 with a 2.08 goals against average and a .931 save percentage, which ranks him 11th, 10th and seventh in the country in those categories. Michigan doesn’t have a single big scorer — points leader Chris Brown is 62nd in the nation in points per game — so Hunwick is the most likely Hobey candidate on a team that’s in contention for a top regional seed in the NCAA tournament. Throw in the unlikely story of a walk-on who went to Michigan at the last minute and has succeeded despite being undersized for his position, and it’s very easy to see Hunwick as a Hobey finalist and possibly more.

Ferris State has certainly thrived on goaltending this season — the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the polls and the PairWise this week despite being in the middle of the pack nationally in scoring offense. But with senior Taylor Nelson and freshman C.J. Motte dividing up the netminding duties, it’s hard to see either making a serious run at the award, if for no other reason than because it simply hasn’t happened that way in the past. Nelson may get a finalist nod, as Miami’s Cody Reichard did in 2010, but don’t expect it to go much further than that.

Of course, Ferris isn’t the only school enjoying a historically rare year as a powerhouse, and Massachusetts-Lowell’s Doug Carr should be getting some serious attention. At 18-5-0 with a 1.81 goals against average and a .935 save percentage, Carr is the nation’s leader in win percentage while ranking third in save percentage and fourth in GAA. With Lowell leading Hockey East and contending for a top regional seed, I’d certainly keep an eye on Carr for some big honors.

Finally, there’s Troy Grosenick of Union. It would have been easy to see the Dutchmen dropping off big time after Nate Leaman left to take over at Providence and Keith Kinkaid decided to start his pro career, but Grosenick has stepped up admirably to backstop a Union team that leads ECAC Hockey. With a 1.58 goals against average and a .940 save percentage, Grosenick is leading the nation in both of the main goaltending statistics, which should start some serious Hobey conversation there. One thing that does work against him is that he’s been out of the lineup lately due to a “lower-body injury,” and Colin Stevens has performed well in his absence, as the Dutchmen are on a five-game unbeaten streak. It shouldn’t hurt your cause if the backup performs well in your absence, but given how rarely goalies win the Hobey in the first place, who knows?

You could certainly go on down the line with the likes of Merrimack’s Joe Cannata and Northern Michigan’s Jared Coreau, both of whom have their teams in position for NCAA tournament berths on the strength of outstanding numbers. However, there’s a limit to how many of these players can actually be considered for the Hobey, and if history is any indication, that limit is four. In 2005, Dov Grumet-Morris of Harvard, David McKee of Cornell, Jordan Sigalet of Bowling Green and Tuomas Tarrki of Northern Michigan were all named finalists for the Hobey, tying the record for goalies in the Hobey top 10. With a number of talented skaters having outstanding seasons as well, it’s hard to see this year’s group of goalies breaking that record. But then again, I could be wrong, and you’re more than entitled to say so below.

Other things to consider: If there can be four goalies in the Hobey top 10 this year, which ones should they be? Do you think the Hobey voters will look past the numbers to see the impact these players have had on their teams? Could one of these goalies possibly top the likes of Connolly, Abbott and Smith to win the Hobey? Leave your thoughts below, and I’ll see you back here next week.

A Mottau of opinion

First of all, I had a chance to talk with my good friend Bernie Corbett this week for an interview on Hockey on Campus, so check that out on SiriusXM. And yes, I did slip in a plug for my book, “Robert’s Rules of Karaoke”, as well.

Anyhow, I talked in that segment about the players I see as the top candidates for the Hobey this season, but I’d like to take some time this week in the Hobey Watch to share a conversation I had last week. I was doing some work for New York Hockey Journal at a New York Islanders practice, and I had a chance to talk Hobey with 2000 winner Mike Mottau of Boston College.

For those of you who think defensemen are overlooked when it comes to the Hobey, consider this: Mottau is one of four blueliners to win the award in the last 12 years, along with Jordan Leopold in 2002, Matt Carle in 2006 and Matt Gilroy in 2009. However, when Mottau was selected, he was the first defenseman to win the Hobey in 16 years, since Tom Kurvers of Minnesota-Duluth in 1984. So, things have gotten much better for defensemen in this era.

One of the things I asked Mottau is if there’s any unifying characteristic he sees between himself, Leopold, Carle and Gilroy. I left out Kurvers and Tom Fusco of Harvard because they represent a different era, whereas Mottau, Leopold, Carle and Gilroy are all active NHL players.

Mottau said, “Each guy has good hockey intellect. Sometimes, it can go overlooked when you’re putting up points and stuff like that, but the way that those guys play the game and have been able to continue into the pro level, their hockey intellect and their decision making are the two things that jump out. You know, Matt Gilroy is an excellent skater, but he’s a very intelligent hockey player to be in those spots and get those chances.”

I also took the time to talk to Mottau about his alma mater, Boston College. If you’re a regular on the blog, you’ve seen me point out that Mottau is the only Hobey winner from BC since Jerry York returned there as head coach in 1994, despite that BC has had a number of very productive forwards in that time, including Ben Eaves, Patrick Eaves, Chris Collins, Tony Voce and Nathan Gerbe, and of course, Mottau’s former teammates Brian Gionta and Jeff Farkas. I’ve wondered aloud in this space if BC forwards don’t get as much consideration as they would in a different program because they’re seen as a product of the system, much like goalies at Cornell.

Mottau said: “I don’t think it’s that. When you have good players, you’re going to be able to put up the numbers. I don’t know if there’s any slight against the guys just because of the system, but there are a lot of guys who have gone through there that have been deserving of being in Hobey consideration.

“For me, I was a product of the team. I didn’t do anything that much above and beyond some of the other candidates. Our team was really good, and to have the two other guys nominated, that shows the depth that we had and the quality of player.”

Of course, this conversation took place in a season where BC doesn’t really have a big-time Hobey candidate to speak of. Chris Kreider is the team’s leading scorer with 30 points in 28 games, but that leaves him just 39th in the nation in points per game. Given the team’s success — BC is third in Hockey East and sixth in the PairWise Rankings — it’s doubtful anyone at the Heights is too worried about the absence of a Hobey candidate. However, given the success that Johnny Gaudreau is having as a freshman, and that he fits into the physical mold of the quintessential BC forward, this is the sort of thing that’s worth keeping in mind as he matures.

As for defensemen, Justin Schultz of Wisconsin does seem to be the top name in the race this year, as he leads all blueliners with 1.36 points per game on 12 goals and 26 assists. However, the Badgers have really struggled this season, and that is probably something that will hurt him in terms of Hobey consideration. Still, don’t be surprised if he gets a finalist nod, and also keep an eye on Adam Clendening of Boston University as a representative of a Terriers squad that has been excellent this year, despite midseason turmoil and that, like the rival Eagles, there’s no superstar forward to speak of.

Any other defensemen that you think should be in the mix? Let me hear it.

Elliot’s Rules of the Hobey

This is a very exciting week for me, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m pleased to let you know that my first novel, “Robert’s Rules of Karaoke”, will be published as an e-book by TheWriteDeal starting this Sunday. While it’s certainly not a sports book, college hockey certainly has a role in the story, from a visit to Lynah Rink to a trip to the Beanpot. And lest you WCHA folks call “East Coast Bias” on me, I’m pleased to say that “In Heaven, There Is No Beer,” the Red Pepper, and Wisconsin’s 2006 NCAA championship all get shout-outs in the book as well.

Of course, that’s not why I’m here. After all, while I’m certainly not above a bit of shameless self-promotion, the real reason we come back here week after week is to discuss the Hobey Baker Award. And this week, in honor of the publication of “Robert’s Rules of Karaoke,” I’d like to present a little something I call “Elliot’s Rules of the Hobey.” You might want to listen to the Robert’s Rules playlist on Spotify or the Robert’s Rules Pandora station while you read … you know, for a little “mood music.”

If you’ve been reading the Hobey Watch for a while, a lot of this will probably seem familiar to you, since a number of themes seem to come up in the Hobey conversation year after year. However, I think it’s time we got these rules on the record without tying them to any current candidate.

Now, none of these rules are hard and fast. They’re just based on the patterns that I’ve noticed in covering college hockey and the Hobey for some nine seasons. I’ve already had one former member of the Hobey committee tell me that I’m trying to define things too much. Still, I figured I’d let you decide. So, without any further ado, here are the first five of “Elliot’s Rules of the Hobey:”

5. No player shall win the Hobey without participating in that season’s NCAA tournament or winning a championship in a previous NCAA tournament.

To borrow from another sport, and former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards, “You play to win the game.” So, no matter what a player is doing individually, if it doesn’t help his team win enough games to make it to the NCAA tournament, then Hobey probably will not be impressed. On the other hand, if you already have a pair of NCAA titles on your résumé, as Matt Carle did in 2006, then failing to make the tournament might not ruin your chances.

It does bear mentioning that there have been two exceptions to this rule: 1994 winner Chris Marinucci of Minnesota-Duluth and 1995 winner Brian Holzinger of Bowling Green. However, this was also the era of a 12-team NCAA tournament, and Holzinger’s Falcons likely would have made a 16-team tournament at 25-11-2. As for Marinucci, I don’t exactly understand that one, but with the Bulldogs winning the WCHA regular-season title the year before, he had certainly been part of a winner.

This is a rule worth keeping in mind if you’re following the Hobey candidacy of Colgate’s Austin Smith or Maine’s Spencer Abbott. Given that neither player has been to the NCAA tournament in his career, it’s imperative that the Raiders and Black Bears make it this year if they want their stars to have a chance at hoisting the Hobey. Besides, you know, that whole “make the tournament” thing. Anyway, moving on …

4. Forwards must have at least 15 goals to be considered for the Hobey.

When I write that “Hobey likes goals,” this is what I mean. If you go through the annals of Hobey history, you’ll find that the only forward to win the Hobey with fewer than 20 goals was the original Hobey winner, Minnesota’s Neal Broten in 1981. Broten also handed out 54 assists that season, of course, and there is certainly something to be said for a truly gifted setup man. That “something,” however, is generally not, “The winner of the Hobey Baker Award is …”

For those of you who think T.J. Hensick was robbed in 2007 — and we’ll get back to him shortly — it might be worth keeping in mind that Hensick’s 23 goals would have him on the low end of the scale for Hobey winners at forward. In the present, though, just remember that if you’re looking at a team with several big scorers, the guy scoring the goals is the guy you want to keep your eye on in the Hobey race.

3. Older players are favored.

In 31 years of Hobey winners, only one sophomore two sophomores and one freshman have won the Hobey. That’d be North Dakota forward Ryan Duncan in 2007 and Michigan State goalie Ryan Miller in 2001 as sophomores, and Maine forward Paul Kariya in 1993. With Kariya finishing the season with 100 points on a 42-1-2 Maine team, he’s a natural exception to the rule, as is Miller, who set the standard by which all other college goalies seem to be judged, fairly or not. As for Duncan, you can say all you want about him not being the best player on his own team, but his 31 goals were second only to Niagara’s Ted Cook among the nation’s top goal scorers Plus, he got some help from an unlikely source, which we’ll get to in a second. However, when sizing up Hobey candidates, figure that a well-qualified junior or senior will get the nod over a similarly qualified freshman or sophomore when it’s close.

2. A player’s indiscretions, on or off the ice, will not preclude him from Hobey consideration, but can make the difference in a close race.

Looking back, this is the rule that has caused the most bitterness in the years that I’ve been following the Hobey race. From Hensick in 2007 to Nathan Gerbe in 2008 to Matt Frattin last year, debating the worthiness of players who have involved themselves in controversy tends to bring out the worst in us as college hockey fans.

For what it’s worth, I spoke with a friend who was on the voting committee for the 2007 Hobey, and he agreed that Hensick’s misconduct penalty in the third period of Michigan’s NCAA tournament game against North Dakota cost him a shot at the Hobey. I probably would have voted for him regardless if I had a vote that year, but given that Hensick removed himself from Michigan’s most important game of the season, I can see where Hobey voters would have downgraded Hensick.

As for Gerbe and Frattin, obviously, their issues were very different, but they have some things in common. While there was significant fan objection to either player even being considered for the Hobey, the coaches and media members who do the voting saw fit to vote both players into their respective “Hobey Hat Tricks.” However, both Kevin Porter in 2008 and Andy Miele last season had impressive qualifications of their own, without any incidents that raised questions about character, and as a result, those players won the Hobey.

But what if it hadn’t been that way? Well, that brings me to my most important rule to remember when sizing up the Hobey race …

1. No Hobey candidate exists in a vacuum.

One of the questions that comes up each year during the Hobey Watch is whether a goalie will ever win the award again. That question, in turn, begs another question: Did Ryan Miller ruin it for his fellow netminders when he posted a 1.32 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage?

I’ve gone back and forth on this one over the years, but the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think that he didn’t. Sure, Miller’s numbers that year were astonishing, and something we may never see again. However, it’s worth remembering that when Cornell’s David LeNeveu backstopped Cornell to the 2003 Frozen Four, he had a great case for the Hobey with a 1.20 GAA and a .940 save percentage. However, the award went to Peter Sejna of Colorado College, who posted an astonishing 82 points that season on 36 goals and 46 assists. In the absence of those totals, it’s worth wondering whether LeNeveu might have been the Hobey winner. I think it’s quite possible.

By the same token, in the absence of Kevin Porter, Nathan Gerbe might well have been your 2008 Hobey winner, and Matt Frattin might have won it last April in a college hockey world that didn’t include Andy Miele. The lesson is that you have to keep the rest of the field in mind whenever you evaluate a player’s candidacy for the Hobey. Last week, I wrote that Jack Connolly was looking like a prohibitive favorite for the Hobey, but in the end, it’s going to come down to how he stacks up against the other top players in the country. That’s how it’s going to work every year, and as we evaluate candidates from week to week, that’s something we need to keep in mind.

So, those are the first few of my rules. Do you agree? Disagree? What rules am I missing? Leave your thoughts below, and we’ll see how the rules apply as the season goes along. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy “Robert’s Rules of Karaoke”, and also check out the book’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. Have a great week!

Do we know Jack yet?

I realized something the other day while I was talking with Jim Connelly and Ed Trefzger on USCHO Live! If my blog were just about predicting the winner of the Hobey Baker Award, it would be boring as hell this year.

Not that I think something as torturous as hell would necessarily be boring, but that’s a theological conversation for another time. No, it’s because from where we sit right now in late January, the award all but belongs to Jack Connolly of Minnesota-Duluth.

Of course, this isn’t to say that things can’t change in the next couple of months, and in fact, if someone else were to come from behind and leapfrog Connolly as the front-runner, it would be a heck of a story. However, even if Connolly coasts to victory, it would still make quite the story, and right now, it’s the story that I’m reading.

Naturally, there are some obvious elements to this story, like the fact that Connolly is the nation’s points-per-game leader with 15 goals and 25 assists in 24 contests (1.65 PPG). There’s also the fact that the Bulldogs are the top-ranked team in the nation, and are coming off of last season’s thrilling NCAA championship victory, a title run that Connolly was a huge part of. Add in the fact that Connolly is thriving despite the departure of his “FCC” linemates, Mike (no relation) Connolly and Justin Fontaine, and that he’s a senior who has a shot to finish his collegiate career with more than 200 points, and it’s quite obvious that he has a rock-solid case to win the award, particularly since no one else among the nation’s top teams has elite numbers. Not that it necessarily takes eye-popping numbers to win the Hobey, but under most circumstances, it’s usually a factor.

Actually, let’s take a moment to look at that and see how important scoring numbers are. Here’s a look at where the last 10 non-goalie Hobey winners have stood in national scoring rankings. I’ll use points per game rather than total points, and defensemen are in italics.

2011 — Andy Miele, Miami, 1st (1.82 PPG)
2010 — Blake Geoffrion, Wisconsin, 13th (1.25 PPG)
2009 — Matt Gilroy, Boston University, 11th among defenseman (0.82 PPG)
2008 — Kevin Porter, Michigan, 2nd (1.47 PPG)
2007 — Ryan Duncan, North Dakota, 8th (1.33 PPG)
2006 — Matt Carle, Denver, 1st among defensemen, 10th nationally (1.36 PPG)
2005 — Marty Sertich, Colorado College, 1st (1.49 PPG)
2004 — Junior Lessard, Minnesota Dultuh, 4th (1.40 PPG)
2003 — Peter Sejna, Colorado College, 1st (1.95 PPG)
2002 — Jordan Leopold, Minnesota, 1st among defensemen, 28th nationally (1.09 PPG)

OK, so where forwards are concerned, you pretty much have to be a top 15 scorer in the nation to be considered. That means that our current candidates, in late January, are as follows:

Connolly and UMD teammate J.T. Brown
Maine’s Spencer Abbott, Joey Diamond and Brian Flynn
Colgate’s Austin Smith and Chris Wagner
Wisconsin’s Mark Zengerle and defenseman Justin Schultz
Denver’s Drew Shore and Jason Zucker
Colorado College’s Jaden Schwartz
Notre Dame’s T.J. Tynan
Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad
Harvard’s Alex Killorn

All of these guys are having very nice years, obviously, but a lack of team success (either this year or in the recent past) is a problem for several of the guys on the list, namely the Maine guys, the Colgate duo, the Wisconsin contingent and Killorn. That leaves Connolly, Brown, Shore, Zucker, Schwartz, Tynana and Bjugstad, and while they’re all deserving of praise — particularly Bjugstad, whose 0.80 goals per game rank him second only to Austin Smith — it’s hard to see them competing with the leading scorer on the No. 1 team in the nation and defending NCAA champion, particularly when you add the fact that he’s a four-year player and could reach the elusive 200-point plateau before he’s done. That’s quite the storyline, and it’s not hard to see.

Then, there’s the less obvious storyline. You probably know that this year’s award will be presented at the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla. You may also know that Minnesota-Duluth has had more Hobey winners than any other program. You might even know that the first of those winners was Tom Kurvers. But do you know where Mr. Kurvers is these days? In Tampa, working as the assistant general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, the Lightning will be closing out the regular season at Winnipeg on the weekend of the Frozen Four, but can’t you just see Kurvers staying home to congratulate the latest Bulldogs player to win college hockey’s highest individual honor?

Still, if the rest of the Bulldogs aren’t in Tampa with Connolly to compete for a second straight NCAA title, the celebratory atmosphere may well be muted. And, naturally, there is a lot of hockey to be played between now and April 6, and Connolly’s status as prohibitive front-runner may yet be challenged. For the time being, however, the script appears to have been written, and any twists or turns have yet to appear.

Fortunately, as we wait to see whether those twists and turns exist, I’m certain that there will be plenty of side plots to keep us busy.

And who knows? In the end, where things stand in late January might not mean Jack.

And away we go …

Yes folks, that’s right … the USCHO Hobey Watch is back. This is the point in the season where the race for the most prestigious individual honor in college hockey really starts to heat up, and I will be with you folks all the way to the big finale on April 6 in Tampa, Fla. Last year’s Hobey race was … interesting, to say the least, and there were definitely some harsh words tossed around on several sides of the debate. I’m hoping things will be a little quieter this year, although not too much, since the back-and-forth between fans and pundits is part of the fun. So, let’s dive right in, huh?

As it happens, we’re getting started in the same week as the new season of “American Idol,” which is actually a good place for me to start. It’s not that there’s any great connection between “Idol” and college hockey, although I’m fairly certain that former “Idol” contestant Ayla Brown has sung the national anthem before a Boston College hockey game or two. No, this actually has something to do with a conversation I had last week with a fellow writer.

This writer, a former Hobey voter who covers an ECAC Hockey team, was wondering aloud about the wisdom of having fan voting contribute to the selections for the Hobey, asking if such a prestigious award should be treated like “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” My initial reaction was to point out how little the voting figures into the actual voting process, as the fan vote counts as much as a single head coach’s vote when determining the top 10, or 1/59th of the total vote (1/60th next year when Penn State starts varsity play and Guy Gadowsky gets a vote). However, that’s still a reasonably big piece of the puzzle, so let’s explore this a bit.

While the Hobey Watch does conclude with one player winning the award, we do spend a fair amount of time focusing on the top 10 finalists, since there are a number of players for whom finalist status or even a spot in the Hobey Hat Trick amounts to a win (Eric Ehn’s spot in the 2007 Hat Trick being a great example). And, as my colleague in ECAC country pointed out, it’s entirely possible that the fan vote can make the difference between two players for that last spot in the Top 10. Would we want that kind of honor to be possibly handed out based on nothing more than pure homerism and ballot-box stuffing? That’s a question that’s worth answering.

It does bear mentioning that fan voting for the Hobey hasn’t always been taken seriously. In 2006, Denver third-string goalie Danny King, who had yet to see a second of ice time in his Pioneers career, was the subject of a huge voting push among Denver fans. At one point, he had received more votes than Phil Kessel, Brian Boyle, Cory Schneider or Drew Stafford. While it’s hard to begrudge King the recognition (go back and read my 2007 CSTV.com story on him if you’re so inclined; it has definite smile-inducing properties), it’s also hard to say he was really worthy of that level of support.

These days, however, the Hobey voting field is much narrower than it used to be. Sports information directors submit candidates — I had one SID ask me about his choices a couple of years ago — and there is a certain seriousness to the proceedings these days, even if there may be a bit of homerism involved. A look at the voting right now has the Top 10 like so:

Spencer Abbott, Maine — 13 percent
Jack Connolly, Minnesota-Duluth — 13 percent
Austin Smith, Colgate — 13 percent
Greg Miller, Cornell — 4 percent
Kyle Flanagan, St. Lawrence — 4 percent
Brian Flynn, Maine — 3 percent
Paul Karpowich, Clarkson — 3 percent
Tim Kirby, Air Force — 3 percent
(Five players tied with 2 percent)

It’s safe to say that this is not what any coach’s Hobey ballot is going to look like at the end of the season, except for the fact that the top three vote-getters — Abbott, Connolly and Smith — are also the top three in the nation in points per game. In fact, while Mercyhurst freshman Nardo Nagtzaam is having a nice freshman campaign for the Lakers, it’s probably not too far off the mark to suggest that part of his 2 percent comes from having such an undeniably awesome name.

So what?

At this point, it’s fair to conclude that the fan vote will only really affect the top 10 if the coaches’ votes are split right down the middle when it comes to the last man in the top 10, and as far as I’m concerned that’s as good a way to decide in that situation.

In that situation, could having a more mobilized fan base make a bigger difference than actual hockey abilities? Sure. but to be considered for one of the top 10 spots, you already have to be one hell of a hockey player, so it’s not like there will ever be an undeserving top 10 finalist because of fan voting.

So rest easy, my friends, and vote away. Now excuse me, I want to see if I can find an MP3 of Phillip Phillips singing “Thriller.”

Or not…

The call, and a deal

Good morning from the media work room at the Xcel Energy Center, everyone. It was a great day of hockey yesterday, as four outstanding teams played two fantastic college hockey games in the best hockey arena I’ve ever been in. It should be a great game tomorrow. Tonight, however, it’s about the Hobey (and the Hockey Humanitarian, the All-American Teams, and those legends of college hockey that are participating in the open skate…again, this thing is a tremendously well-run event).

Anyway, I’ve been following the race all season, and the truth is, any one of the three players who might hear his name called tonight is legitimately worthy of the award. However, one has been judged by the committee to be more worthy of it than the others, and we’ll find out who tonight.

I am predicting that that one player will be Andy Miele.

As much as the numbers seem to favor the Miami senior, it’s not the easiest call in the world to make. After all, the last time the Hobey winner didn’t compete at the Frozen Four, it was Matt Carle in 2006, and before that, Peter Sejna in 2003. If you don’t get your team to the Frozen Four, you need to do something exceptional to win.

With the most points since Sejna, a solid number of goals in that point total, and a leadership role on a team that won the CCHA Championship and was among the top teams in the nation in scoring defense despite the mediocre save percentages of goaltenders Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard, I think Miele has done plenty to distinguish himself.

Frattin, for his part, has certainly done plenty to distinguish himself as well. He’s the national leader in goals, has earned that distinction playing in the deepest conference in the country, top to bottom, made admirable changes in his life when he needed to, and had a great “Hobey Baker moment” when he scored in double overtime to give the Fighting Sioux their second straight WCHA title (I regret my original typo). However, the truth is that the comparison between Frattin and Miele is very close, and given how close it is, I can’t help but think that the character factor will push Miele over the top.

It’s a strange thing, incorporating character into an award like this. If I were interviewing Matt Frattin for a job, I would look at the changes he made in his life and not give his past arrests a second thought when I was deciding whether or not to hire him. Here, though, where you’re comparing one player to another, I don’t think the voters would call it even.

But that’s the voters. It’s not the players. That’s where the second part of this post’s title comes in.

I expect that a number of the North Dakota fans who did such a tremendous job cheering on their team last night will be attending tonight’s ceremony to support Frattin, as they did for Ryan Duncan in 2007. It all seemed so much simpler then, and less contentious, and I think that if David Brown or Eric Ehn had won that award, that the fans would have applauded politely and not detracted from the winner’s moment.

With the way things have gone this year, however, I confess I’m a little bit worried. This race has gotten heated, with a lot of passionate opinions across the spectrum, and I don’t know how that will affect the ceremony. The other day, I started to envision an unfortunate scenario of Andy Miele winning, and being booed by North Dakota fans who feel that Frattin was robbed.

It reminded me a little bit of a situation I’ve encountered in one of my other freelance gigs, writing about mixed martial arts for UltimateFighter.com (and, on occasion, UFC.com). On occasion, when a fight goes the full three rounds, and is decided by the judges’ scorecards, the judges turn out to have seen the fight differently than the fans in the arena, and the fans boo loudly as Joe Rogan is trying to interview the announced winner of the fight. Often, Rogan will put his arm around the fighter and tell the crowd, “This man is not a judge,” emphasizing that the fighter fought hard for 15 minutes.

By the same token, no matter what happens tonight, neither Matt Frattin nor Andy Miele had a vote in this year’s Hobey Baker Award voting, and all they did was give their best in every game on the schedule (ditto Cam Atkinson). I hope that fans remember that, and I’m willing to make a deal to try and help that happen.

If Andy Miele is announced as the winner tonight, and if he is treated with the due respect by the fans, I will make myself available for half an hour in section 119 of the Xcel Energy center, starting at 7:30 local time, for fans to say whatever they darn well please to. I’ll be wearing my official Frozen Four media badge, and my Dartmouth jersey. If you want to yell at someone, I’ll let you yell at me. If there are boos, the deal is off.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. We’ll find out what the rest of the story is tonight.

Update, 6:37 p.m. CDT: Congratulations to Andy Miele. Well done, Sioux fans. I’ll be in Section 119 at 7:30.

Goals and assists

A quick thought or two from the press box at the Xcel Energy Center (where the wireless is working much better for me on account of it being less crowded than it is down in the media workroom).

I’ve said on many occasions that “Hobey Likes Goals” or “Hobey Loves Goals,” borrowing a turn of phrase from the folks who cover the Academy Awards.

(Speaking of which, a side note for those debating the role of events from a season ago or more: I think we should all be glad that this isn’t more like the Oscars, where Jim Carrey – not to be confused with former Wisconsin goalie Jim Carey – wasn’t even nominated for “The Truman Show,” “Man on the Moon,” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” snubs often blamed on him “talking” through his butt in the Ace Ventura movies. “Butt” I digress… )

Anyway, having established that “Hobey Likes Goals,” it’s worth considering how the statistical contributions of the Hobey Baker finalists influenced the voters.

With the final vote taken, we know that the Hobey Baker Award will go to one of three young men.

Cam Atkinson, JR, F, Boston College: 31 goals, 21 assists, 39 games played (1.33 PPG)
Matt Frattin, SR, F, North Dakota: 36 goals, 24 assists, 43 games played (1.40 PPG)
Andy Miele, SR, F, Miami: 24 goals, 47 assists, 39 games played (1.82 PPG)

As I noted the other day, the statistics against NCAA tournament teams show Atkinson to be the strongest against the best competition, with 12 goals and seven assists in 11 games against Denver, Notre Dame, Merrimack, New Hampshire and Colorado College. Miele had eight goals and 17 assists in 15 games against New Hampshire, Western Michigan, Notre Dame and Michigan, while Frattin had nine goals and six assists in 17 games against Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame, Colorado College and Rensselaer. I have a feeling, though, that with Frattin as the overall national leader in goals and Miele as the overall national leader in assists and total points, Atkinson was hard pressed to top both of them in the final voting. Maybe one, maybe the other, but not both. This is why I’ve been reluctant to include Atkinson alongside Miele and Frattin when doing my final analyses.

So, how do you compare the leader in goals and the leader in assists/total points? Is it a simple matter of saying “Hobey loves goals” and handing the award to Frattin? No. And I’m not talking about the character issue, because I think I might be as sick of discussing it as you are of reading my thoughts on the subject, believe it or not.

The thing that should be considered here is that Andy Miele, in addition to being the national leader in assists and total points, is also 13th in the nation in goals per game. That’s pretty darn good if you ask me. And, if you’re “pretty darn good” in one major offensive statistical area while being the best in the country in the other, then that makes for a pretty impressive overall package.

(Frattin, by the way, averages .56 assists per game, good for 88th in the country, in case anyone is wondering.)

Of course, statistics aren’t everything, and the contributions in other phases of the game were considered, I’m sure, but several readers posted comments debating the issue of goals vs. assists, and I wanted to address that in this space. My gut feeling is that the nod in the stats department would go to Miele.

That’s it out of me for now. If Frattin lights up Michigan tomorrow night, you might get a bit more tomorrow, but other than that, check back on Friday for my final analysis and pick.

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