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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.

The Competition Issue

One final point on my last post before we begin: I said no more blogging when I was sick, and that’s probably a good move. Of course, the truth is I don’t think that’s why I forgot in my last post that Cam Atkinson was the sixth member of the Mean Street Posse (apologies to those who didn’t get that joke, but the people who did are probably loving it).

I had completely forgotten that Cam had been arrested before his BC career started, and I assumed that if there were some sort of major disciplinary issue that affected his candidacy, I would have heard about it in the last few months. Of course, we all know what happens when one assumes: it makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Of course, I can only speak for myself, and certainly not the more rude among those who left the 47 comments, but I certainly did feel quite sheepish when that oversight was pointed out. I apologize.

But we’re getting away from the point. This has been a two-horse race between Miele and Frattin for a good little while now, and as I continue to compare them, I’m going to leave Atkinson out of it. If it turns out on Friday that I’m wrong to do so, I will willingly eat all the crow BC fans wish to feed me while I try to figure out how Atkinson won the Hobey where Nathan Gerbe, Patrick Eaves, and Brian Gionta (among others) did not.

So, moving along, we’re going to look at that whole debate that started after our pals over at Inside College Hockey crunched some numbers and determined that Frattin had done a lot of his damage this season against the bottom half of the WCHA, where Miele was much stronger than Frattin against the top half of their respective conferences. While Miele’s supporters point to this as evidence that Miele is more deserving of the award, Frattin’s supporters argue – not without a point, mind you – that the WCHA is a stronger conference top to bottom, with more Teams Under Consideration, and it’s not as if Frattin is beating up on bad teams.

Personally, I feel there’s be a limit on how much strength of schedule and conference strength should be considered when an individual award is on the line. It reminds me of one of the things I hate most about the BCS in football: the idea that scheduling decisions made years beforehand can wind up affecting how voters consider two players’ achievements. I believe that you play the hand you’re dealt, and you make the most of it. Now, does that mean Paul Zanette’s goals should be weighed equally against Matt Frattin? No. As much as I like Atlantic Hockey, I don’t think anyone will argue that the conference doesn’t have the top-to-bottom strength of other conferences in the country, even though the Atlantic Hockey champion has shown itself to be a darn good team, year in and year out, in the NCAA tournament. I think that if Miele played better in the toughest games on his schedule than Frattin did in the toughest games on his schedule, that’s worth considering.

Still, I did a little numbers work of my own, and came up with what I think is a fair means of comparing the two players: points against teams that competed in this year’s NCAA tournament. This cuts out any debate over whether the seventh, eighth or ninth place team in the WCHA is as good as a team in the top half of the CCHA and just gets to the teams that were selected for this year’s tournament.

During the course of the season, Andy Miele played three games against New Hampshire, five games against Western Michigan, five games against Notre Dame and two games against Michigan. In those games, Miele had eight goals and 17 assists, a total of 25 points in 15 games. Meanwhile, so far this season, Matt Frattin has played four games against Denver, three games against Minnesota Duluth, four games against Nebraska-Omaha, two games against Notre Dame, three games against Colorado College and a game against Rensselaer. In those games, he has nine goals and six assists, a total of 15 points in 17 games.

(And if you’re one of those people who thinks that the NCAA’s selection process s awful and you think KRACH should be the method for selecting the field, the only change that would have been made this year is Minnesota for RPI. Recalculate with no goals and an assist in two games against the Gophers instead of a goal and an assist in one game against RPI, and you get eight goals and six assists in 18 games.)

Personally, I think Frattin has had a tremendous season, and had a heck of a Hobey Baker Moment when he scored the game-winning goal against Denver in the WCHA title game. On the whole, though, if you’re talking about scoring against the best teams on the schedule, Miele does, in fact, have an edge.

Update, 9:20 a.m. After being called on the carpet by a commenter who had a point, I decided to include the stats against tournament teams for Cam Atkinson. This season, Atkinson played two games against Denver, one against Notre Dame,  four against Merrimack, three against New Hampshire and one against Colorado College. In those 11 games, Atkinson had 12 goals and seven assists, which makes for a favorable comparison with the other two players. I don’t think, however, that it’s enough to put him past the nation’s overall leading scorer or the nation’s top goal-scorer in the eyes of the Hobey voters. I suppose I could be wrong, however…it’s certainly happened enough.

The “character” issue, again

The last time I tried updating this blog when I was sick, I mixed up the names of Minnesota-Duluth’s “FCC” line and North Dakota’s “Pony Express” line, which opened me up to a fair bit of criticism from the North Dakota fans. That misstep notwithstanding, I’m going to try again anyway, and make a final assessment of the “character” issue as it pertains to this year’s Hobey Baker award.

In the past, when I’ve discussed this issue, it’s been mainly to assert that Matt Frattin should not be disqualified from consideration from the award on account of his run-ins with the law that got him kicked off the team. That point stands. If Frattin were truly lacking in character,  he would have signed with the Maple Leafs, started his pro career, and never given North Dakota another thought. The fact that he is still a college hockey player shows character, and he is certainly worthy of being considered.

However, there’s a big difference between the question of whether Frattin’s past misdeeds should disqualify him from consideration and whether a player who hasn’t had disciplinary problems should get a leg up on Frattin when voting for the award.

I think it’s a very good thing that Frattin put in the work to regain his spot with the Fighting Sioux. At a time when college hockey is criticized for its short season (particularly in comparison with major junior), anytime a player chooses to remain in school despite losing his opportunity to play for an extended period due to disciplinary issues, it shows character, particularly when that player is a pro prospect like Frattin. There’s an important lesson in what Frattin did: when you do something wrong, you don’t run away from the consequences. You stick it out, learn your lesson, and try to do better. I would have no problem using Matt Frattin’s actions since being kicked off the team as an example for others to follow.

None of this, however, has a thing to do with Andy Miele or Cam Atkinson, the other two of the three top vote-getters in the Hobey Hat Trick. That’s the problem. It’s all well and good to commend Matt Frattin in general for showing character, but when you’re comparing him to other players, it’s hard to credit him for his decision.

Neither Cam Atkinson or Andy Miele has ever had a disciplinary issue during three or more years of college hockey. If we’re comparing these players to one another in terms of how they fit into the various Hobey criteria, then I have to say that both Atkinson and Miele have a leg up on Frattin in the character department. It’s all well and good to learn from your mistakes, but that doesn’t put you on equal footing with people who never made those mistakes in the first place.

It’s worth taking a moment to remind everyone that the final voting has already taken place, and there will be no vote among the “Hobey Hat Trick” to determine the final winner. The final vote has already happened, and these guys are the top three.

Four years ago, on the eve of the Frozen Four, I was interviewed on Hockey on Campus along with then-ESPNU commentator Bob Norton. This was in the wake of the whole T.J. Hensick controversy, and Bob made an interesting statement: character should be used to build a Hobey candidate up, but not to tear him down. I can see his point, especially when it comes to hearsay and controversy, as in the case of Hensick and his ill-timed penalty in Michigan’s NCAA tournament game with North Dakota (oddly enough, the first NCAA tournament game for Frattin’s teammate, Chay Genoway). However, there’s no hearsay involved here. What happened with Matt Frattin, good and bad, is a matter of record, and it’s a part of his profile as it pertains to the Hobey.

But just a part. We’ll deal with other aspects between now and next Friday.

Updated, 9:54 p.m.: OK, that’s it. No more blogging when sick. Period.

I did, in fact, forget about Cam Atkinson’s arrest in the summer of 2008 with his father and brother for beating up some cyclists in his hometown of Greenwich, Conn. It happened before he was at BC, there hasn’t been any sort of issue with him since that I’m aware of, and let’s face it, this is a two-horse race between Miele and Frattin. Still, I was incorrect at first, and for that, I apologize.

However, as for Miele’s supposed “academic issues,” I do remember with some clarity what happened there. Miele arrived at Miami in time to start the second semester in the 2007-08 season, and after giving some thought to the possibility of starting his college hockey career the following fall, he did begin playing for the RedHawks in the second semester. That’s not the same thing as being suspended for academics like Mike Carman at Minnesota.

Hopefully, that clears things up a bit.

Should Have Seen It Coming

I know the rules. I go over them all the time: Hobey Likes Goals, there’s always an candidate from the East, all that stuff.

And I spit in the face of all the rules.

Sure enough, it came back to bite me. Cam Atkinson, not Jack Connolly, is the third member of the Hobey Hat Trick, along with the two easy choices, North Dakota’s Matt Frattin and Miami’s Andy Miele.

What was I thinking? Well, I was impressed by the Bulldogs’  ”FCC” line at the East Regional last weekend, and I thought that a trip to the Frozen Four would push Connolly, a gifted setup man, past the eastern candiadates like Atkisnon, Paul Thompson and Chase Polacek.

In the cases of Thompson and Polacek, I may have been right, but clearly, I had it wrong with Atkinson.

Atkinson, of course, has a lot to recommend him. He’s a big-time goal-scorer with a National Championship and two Hockey East titles on his résumé. He comes from a long line of BC forwards who have been finalists under Jerry York.  Of course, no one in that line – Ben Eaves, Patrick Eaves, Chris Collins, Nathan Gerbe and some guy you might have heard of named Brian Gionta – has ever actually WON the Hobey, so I think we can forget that right now, which will come as a relief to the people questioning whether Atkinson belongs on the list, given the fact that he is now a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

An aside on that subject: I totally understand the concern about honoring a player who leaves early for the pros, and that academic achievement is an important element of the Hobey criteria. That said, however, I don’t have a problem with a player making the right decision for himself and his career, especially when he’s already won a national championship at the college level.  See also: Matt Carle at Denver in 2006, who won the darn thing and was given a leave of absence by the San Jose Sharks to go and collect it. He’d already won two NCAA titles, which made it easier to give him the award in a year where his team didn’t even make the tournament. Atkinson will have time to get his degree at BC, whether it’s in the offseason or after his career is over (or even if he has an injury that wipes out most of a season, although we certainly hope that doesn’t happen to him).

Still, I do think that the winner will be either Frattin or Miele. You have the top scorer in the country in points per game and the top goal-scorer in the nation, both seniors, and both leaders on teams that won their conferences. I don’t see Atkinson topping them, especially when players who have had better seasons at BC (i.e. Gionta, Gerbe) haven’t won the award.

Which of the two it will be, however, is a more difficult question, and one that I’m not going to address tonight. I’ll muse on it a bit in the coming days, including another visit to that little issue of “character.”

Getting in under the wire

Sometime Thursday, the Hobey Hat Trick will be announced, which means that I really should have posted my predictions some time ago.

What can I say? I’ve been busy.

First, I’ll look back at my finalist predictions, which saw me go 7 for 10, which is pretty much par for the course. The three I had wrong were Paul Zanette, Gustav Nyquist and Jack Connolly, where I had Carl Hagelin, Stephane Da Costa and Keith Kinkaid.

I doubted that Connolly would stand out enough from his two outstanding linemates, Justin Fontaine and Mike “No Relation” Connolly, which was clearly a mistake. That’s probably the best line in the whole country, and with Jack Connolly being the setup man, it’s natural that he should be a selection. I think I have a better appreciation of that having watched Jack and his linemates played this past weekend in Bridgeport.

With Zanette, I thought that Niagara’s season ending before the finalists were selected would be a major hamper. Clearly I was wrong, as Zanette has a great overall profile for a Hobey Candidate, especially those 29 goals. Remember: “Hobey Likes Goals.”

Of course, that thinking had me overlooking Nyquist for a long way, especially with Maine really on the periphery of the NCAA tournament picture for much of the season. Still, as a returning member of the Hobey Hat Trick, a spot among the top 10 scorers in the nation is very hard to ignore, and I should have paid more attention to him.

Now, those are the three I got wrong, so let’s look at the three I’m trying to get right: the Hobey Hat Trick. Two of them are pretty easy to figure out, since they’ve been the two that we’ve been talking about for weeks: Matt Frattin and Andy Miele. Frattin was relatively quiet over the weekend, but in this case, “relatively” means, “one goal and two assists while the team scored 12 goals overall.” Miele, meanwhile, was a minus-2 in the RedHawks’ 3-1 loss to New Hampshire, not a great showing. On the other hand, Miele did have two goals and two assists against Notre Dame in the CCHA semifinals and a goal and an assist against Western Michigan to win the Mason Cup, bringing home the first playoff title in Miami history.

Well, that’s the easy part. There’s eight more guys for one more spot, so I have some narrowing down to do.

My instinct is to start by eliminating the guys who weren’t playing this past wekeend: Nyquist, Zanette and Justin Schultz. Of course, that thinking burned me with Nyquist last year, and I’ve got a nagging feeling about Schultz. Still, I don’t see a non-tournament player in this Hat Trick. That leaves five players for one spot: Carter Camper, Chase Polacek, Cam Atkinson, Paul Thompson, and Connolly.

Looking at the weekend results, I feel pretty strong eliminating Polacek. The way RPI was demolished by North Dakota in the Midwest hurts his case. He deserves credit for coming back in his senior year and taking RPI to the tournament, but I’m having trouble seeing him in the Hat Trick.

The way Camper and Miele were simultaneously promoted for the Hobey all year, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the two RedHawks sitting side-by-side next Friday, a la Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling. However, I’m not sure if that necessarily works after Miami got knocked off by UNH in the Northeast Regional semifinal. One member of the Hat Trick, certainly, but not two.

The player whose Hobey stock went up the most this past weekend  is Jack Connolly, and there’s certainly a feeling that goes with a Duluth kid leading Minnesota Duluth to the Frozen Four, playing closer to campus than any Frozen Four team since Wisconsin in 2006. There’s also the matter of him being the glue on the top line in the country. I’ve got a good feeling about him, but I can’t shake one nagging thought: Where’s the east?

Since I’ve been tracking the Hobey race, there’s always been an eastern conference represented: Cornell’s David McKee in 2005, BC’s Chris Collins in 2006, Air Force’s Eric Ehn in 2007 (Atlantic Hockey!), BC’s Nathan Gerbe in 2008, the entire 2009 Hat Trick (Matt Gilroy, Brad Thiessen and Colin Wilson) and Nyquist and Bobby Butler in 2010. That’s an argument for predicting that Paul Thompson or Cam Atkinson will be the third member of the Hat Trick.

Thompson might seem the safer choice there, by virtue of being the Hockey East Player of the Year, although Atkinson does have more goals, the Hockey East Championship, and last year’s NCAA title to his credit (and don’t think that a championship in your past doesn’t mean something).

So, there’s a lot of different ways one could go about this, but this is how I’m seeing it.

The 2011 Hobey Hat Trick will be:

Matt Frattin, SR, F, North Dakota
Andy Miele, SR, F, Miami
Jack Connolly, JR, F, Minnesota Duluth.

Yeah, that’s right, I’m going there. All-Western Hat Trick. If it can happen in the east, then why not in the west?

Watch, now, I’ll turn around and be wrong. But at least I won’t be accused of East Coast Bias.

Making the Call: 2011 Edition

The time, it seems, has come.

It’s the eve of the announcement of this year’s Hobey Baker finalists, and it’s time for one of the most challenging parts of my job as your humble Hobey pundit: picking the 10 players whose names will be on the list when it comes out tomorrow.

It’s also one of the most fun parts, in part because it is so challenging. I do enjoy a good puzzle – I dare say I have the Scrabble prowess to challenge Dartmouth alum and noted Scrabble aficionado Tanner Glass – and whittling down a list of some of the most distinguished players in the country down to a group of 10 certainly qualifies. Also, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from knowing what an honor it is for some of these players to even make it this far (sometimes, as they say regarding the Oscars, the nomination is a player’s win).

This year, I’m going to break it down by conference, and size up who’s in the mix. Then, at the end, I’ll pick my 10.

Let’s get started.

Atlantic Hockey

I wrote last week that Niagara’s Paul Zanette is the most likely – in fact, the only likely – Hobey finalist from Atlantic Hockey, and I’m sticking by that. He’s second in the country in points per game, he’s one of the top goal-scorers in the country (although he no longer has the national lead), and he’s been active in the community. It’s a nice package, but there’s one thing that concerns me about Zanette, and that’s the fact that Niagara’s season ended not this past weekend, but the weekend before. While you don’t have to make the NCAA tournament to be a Hobey finalist – or even to win the award (Hi, Matt Carle) – you generally have to at least be on the bubble when the finalists are named. That could be Zanette’s undoing. I suppose there’s an outside chance that RIT goaltender Shane Madolora could get a nod with some of the best goalie numbers in the country, but I don’t think Atlantic has the depth of offensive talent for a goalie to get that kind of respect. I think it’s Zanette or bust.

CCHA

Just about all the talk in the conference has been about Miami’s Andy Miele and Carter Camper, and there’s no question that they deserve it. The two RedHawk forwards have been national scoring leaders pretty much from the start of the season, and while there was a brief concern that the RedHawks could miss the tournament, Miami rebounded and showed us why you shouldn’t make too much of the Pairwise until the last week or two of the season. I think it’s reasonably certain that both players will be in the top 10 (although I suppose that with Miele getting the lion’s share of the attention lately, there’s an outside chance that Camper’s out).

There generally hasn’t been too much talk besides the Miami boys, partly because Notre Dame’s best players are freshmen (who almost never get nominated) and Western Michigan’s run at a potential NCAA tournament berth has been powered largely by a team defensive effort that wins games, but isn’t much for generating a Hobey candidate. There is one name that hasn’t really been discussed much, though, and that’s Carl Hagelin. For a guy with 47 points on a team that’s contending for a top seed in its regional, Hagelin has been quiet as a mouse, and that’s largely because he has 17 goals (which, for the record, is as many as Camper has). Hagelin could wind up being a sleeper finalist, and has the best shot at it of anyone outside the Miami boys.

ECAC Hockey

I wrote last week that Keith Kinkaid of Union was a likely finalist, but that was before the Dutchmen were upset by Colgate in the conference quarterfinals. I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker, but it does muddy the picture a bit. He’s still the anchor of a team set to earn its first-ever NCAA tournament berth, and that counts for a lot. One way or another, he could be joined by a rival from the Capital District in RPI’s Chase Polacek. Polacek returned for his senior season to lead RPI back to the NCAA tournament, and despite a series loss to Colgate in the first round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs, rumors of the Engineers’ demise are greatly exaggerated. His scoring numbers alone aren’t quite as impressive as they were a season ago, but in light of the early departures the Engineers suffered last summer, I think it’s safe to say that Polacek has met or exceeded expectations in his senior season.  I know I’d written about Allen York as a possible Hobey finalist, and that’s still a possibility, but Polacek has had the benefit of being a returning finalist, and I don’t think skaters suffer as much for upset losses in the playoffs as goalies do. The goalie I do see as an X-factor is Dartmouth’s James Mello, who is No. 2 in the nation in save percentage behind Madolora, and is a finalist for both the Ken Dryden Award as ECAC Hockey’s top goalie and the conference’s Player of the Year Award. That second finalist berth intrigues me, although I’m going to try not to be blinded by Dartmouth homerism here, especially since there was really no Hobey promotion behind him. Finally, Yale looked like it had a shot at multiple finalists earlier this season, but I’m not really feeling it with any of the Bulldogs right now. Ryan Rondeau has put up impressive numbers, but I think he’s perceived as the No. 4 goalie in the conference behind Kinkaid, Mello and York. Broc Little was looking like a big-time scorer, but the Bulldogs’ offense fell off in the second half. I could see Little possibly getting a spot, but I have my doubts

Hockey East

With Merrimack all but assured a spot in the tournament, I think Stephane Da Costa is a no-brainer choice here. The national rookie of the year last season, Da Costa is a top 10 scorer and the catalyst for the Warriors’ offense. I also like Cam Atkinson from Boston College, who has plenty of goals this season and was a force in the NCAA Tournament last season, which put him on the radar for this year. At the same time, though, I don’t really see why we haven’t heard more about John Muse as a Hobey contender. He’s fourth in the country in save percentage, tops in win percentage, and has already won two NCAA championships. He may not have Ryan Miller numbers, but he could certainly be a finalist.

Finally, there’s Paul Thompson of UNH. The Wildcats may not have played their best hockey down the home stretch of the regular season, but Thompson’s 28 goals and 24 assists are pretty darn hard to ignore, especially since “Hobey Likes Goals.”

WCHA

The obvious name to start with here is Matt Frattin. The argument can be made – and certainly has been – that his issues last season hurt his candidacy this year, but we’ve been through that already. As the nation’s leading goal-scorer playing in the toughest conference in the country – yes, this East Coast boy is acknowledging that as fact – Frattin is all but a mortal lock.

Then, there’s the Minnesota Duluth trio of Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine. It’s hard to figure how things will shake out with these guys. Jack is No. 3 in the country in points per game, but he also has the fewest goals with 15 (and “Hobey likes goals”). Mike has the most goals with 25, but also has the fewest points per game. Given the Bulldogs’ recent hair-dyeing activities, the “Goldilocks” tag certainly fits Fontaine, but I don’t know if his 20 goals and 31 assists are the “just right” combo for a Hobey finalist spot.

Wisconsin’s Justin Schulz was looking like a likely choice earlier in the season, but stopped scoring as much down the stretch. He’s still putting up great offensive numbers from the blueline, and could be a finalist, but I think the early end to Wisconsin’s season could hurt him. The defenseman who has gone under the radar in the Hobey race after being part of the conversation early last season and this year is North Dakota’s Chay Genoway. The returning senior factor is always nice, and he’s been a point-per-game player for the Fighting Sioux this season.

OK, so that’s all five conferences, and I named 21 players. From that, I need 10.

Here’s what I’m going with:

Matt Frattin, North Dakota
Andy Miele, Miami
Carter Camper, Miami
Chase Polacek, Rensselaer
Keith Kinkaid, Union
Stephane Da Costa, Merrimack
Cam Atkinson, Boston College
Paul Thompson, New Hampshire
Carl Hagelin, Michigan
Justin Schultz, Wisconsin

I’m taking a couple of risks here, and they could come back to hurt me. The biggest one is having just one player from the WCHA and leaving Duluth out entirely. This is not – I repeat, NOT – me hating on the Bulldogs. The question is: if you’re a coach – and remember, that’s who votes at this point in the process – do you include all three guys in your top 10? You probably don’t which begs the question of which one you pick out from the bunch. That’s a hard question to answer, and I think that’s a problem for Duluth in the voting. With the other guys, you know who to worry about.

I made one last-minute change, putting Schultz in for Zanette. They’re both out, but Schultz is out in a tougher conference. Plus, I think it’s smart to have at least one defenseman in the mix.

We’ll see how smart it was tomorrow.

Checking out the ‘Frat’ party

If you followed my work in the CSTV days, you know that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in fraternity houses. However, this post has nothing to do with any frat parties I may or may not have found myself at along the way (really, unless I was at my own house at my alma mater, I was generally inclined to just get my work done and go to sleep).

However, there is one element of my time as the traveling “Rink Rat” that has popped back into my head lately: the things I wrote about Nathan Gerbe with regards to his candidacy for the 2008 Hobey Baker Award, which someone reminded me about a little while back vis a vis Matt Frattin’s status as a candidate for the award this year.

Of course, you know what happened there: Michigan’s Kevin Porter got the award, as everyone expected, and Gerbe was the Most Outstanding Player at the Frozen Four after leading BC to the NCAA Championship. Along the way, though, there was no shortage of hand-wringing about Gerbe’s one-game suspension in November after a spearing incident against Merrimack, which was accompanied by a statement from Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna about a pattern of “inappropriate behavior” on the ice.

I actually didn’t remember what I’d written about Gerbe at the time, so I went back to read this CSTV blog post, this feature article, and the beginning of this blog, toward the end of the 2007-08 season. As far as I can tell, my thoughts on the matter were as follows:

- Yes, Gerbe’s “inappropriate behavior” could count as a point against him under the Hobey criteria, but it became a dead issue when Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna vouched for him to Inside College Hockey’s Jeff Howe.

- No, Gerbe wasn’t going to win the award anyway, because Porter was having the more Hobey-worthy season.

Of course, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, I’ve been revisiting the Gerbe issue in preparation for my comments on Frattin, who’s having quite the season for the Fighting Sioux, and has made impressive changes in his life since being kicked off the team in 2009, as Patrick C. Miller notes in his profile of the Fighting Sioux senior.

It goes without saying that Frattin’s past infractions go far beyond a spear the refs didn’t catch or any other instance of “inappropriate behavior” on the ice. And, if you’re BC fan who’s upset about Gerbe, or a Michigan fan who’s still bitter about T.J. Hensick, there’s no way that someone who’s been arrested should ever be considered for the Hobey Baker Award, right?

Well, not exactly.

You will never see me condone the things that Matt Frattin did to get himself arrested and kicked off the team at North Dakota. Ever. It’s not a question of “boys will be boys,” or college kids doing stupid things.

However, the criteria for the award include “strength of character, on and off the ice,” and if you ask me, turning down a chance to take the easy way out is a demonstration of character. I felt that way about Mike Carman at Minnesota when he stayed in school despite being academically ineligible, and that’s how I feel about Matt Frattin now.

Again, I make no comparison between academic ineligibility and Frattin’s arrests and guilty plea. I simply think that the person without “strength of character” would have put his development as a hockey player ahead of his development as a student or as a human being, and would have bolted for the pros the second his opportunity to play hockey was taken away from him. Matt Frattin, to me, passed that test, so, when we evaluate him as a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, I think we can stick to evaluating him as a hockey player, without dwelling on the circumstances that affected his absence from the Fighting Sioux for the first semester of last season. So, moving on to the hockey…

With 33 goals on the season, Frattin is the leading goal-scorer in the country, and, as we know, “Hobey Likes Goals.” He’s also seventh in the country in points per game, playing for a North Dakota team that’s a likely top seed in the NCAA tournament. Based on that alone, I think he’s all but a lock as a top 10 finalist.

The question, then, is whether he goes further.

The folks over at Inside College Hockey have pointed out that Frattin has scored the majority of his points against the bottom five teams in the WCHA, scoring more than three times as many points per game against those teams than he did against the Sioux’s top six WCHA opponents. That compares most unfavorably to other top scorers in the WCHA, not to mention Miami’s Andy Miele in the CCHA, RPI’s Chase Polacek in ECAC Hockey, and Cam Atkinson in Hockey East.

Of course, one of the reasons the final vote takes place after regionals is because we want to see how the top players perform in the biggest games, namely, the conference championships and the NCAA tournament. I think that if Frattin comes up in the clutch for the Sioux this weekend or next, he could certainly make his way from the Top 10 into the Hobey Hat Trick.

For now, though, Matt Frattin will be a finalist, and it won’t simply be in spite the things he did wrong. It’ll be because of what he’s done right.

Closing in on 16…and on 10

We’re heading into the homestretch.

One week from today,  we’ll know who the 10 finalists are for the 2011 Hobey Baker Award, as they’ll be announced on Thursday night. One week from Sunday, we’ll know who the 16 teams are in the NCAA tournament.  And, while the two are not perfectly correlated, there are connections that are worth examining.

For starters, a couple of players who are very much in the running to be Hobey finalists will be sitting and watching: RPI’s Chase Polacek and Niagara’s Paul Zanette. The Engineers lost their ECAC Hockey first round series to Colgate, putting a major dent in their NCAA tournament hopes, while the Purple Eagles saw their season end at the hands of Canisius in an Atlantic Hockey first-round game.

Provided the right combination of upsets doesn’t throw RPI into the NCAA tournament – and I’m not the right person to tell you what those are –  Polacek ends his season with 21 goals and 27 assists in 37 games, an average of 1.30 PPG. That’s a hair off from his 1.33 PPG average of a season ago, but he’s still very much in the running to be a Hobey finalist. At the moment, he’s 14th in the country, as compared to sixth at the end of last season, but I think that he’ll also get credit for being a senior who stayed when he had a chance to leave. There are a lot of good candidates, so I would call him a lock as a finalist, but I’d call it probable.

Zanette, meanwhile, has emerged as a clear front-runner in Atlantic Hockey, sharing the national lead in goals with North Dakota’s Matt Frattin and ranking second in the nation in points per game behind Miami’s Andy Miele. He was also a nominee for the Hockey Humanitarian (though not a finalist) for his work with the Purple Eagles’ “Niagara Fights Diabetes” effort, which is a nice addition to his résumé. The fact that Niagara is out of the running in Atlantic Hockey could hurt – and RIT goalie Shane Madolora could wind up being the conference Player of the Year, which does muddy thigns a bit – but I’d be reasonably surprised to see Zanette out of the top 10.

Meanwhile, a couple of teams are closing in on NCAA tournament berths a long time in coming, and that is likely to mean Hobey finalist berths for the players most responsible.

I caught some flak in the comments on my last blog post for leaving Union’s Keith Kinkaid out of my list of goalies contending for Hobey finalist spots, which was  an oversight on my part. However, our good friend Ken Schott did a fine job of talking up Kinkaid on this week’s Hobey Watch podcast, and I encourage you to give it a listen. I personally tend to value save percentage (in which Kinkaid is 13th in the nation) over goals-against average (where he leads the country), but the big thing, to borrow from Charlie Sheen, is “winning.” Union’s doing more of it than they ever have – and that includes the D-III era – and Kinkaid is a huge part of that. Expect him to be rewarded accordingly as Union closes in on its first Division I NCAA Tournament berth.

Merrimack, meanwhile, has been to the tournament before, but it’s been more than 20 years. Barring the wrong combination of tournament results, the Warriors’ drought could conceivably continue, but it’s probable that we’ll see Mark Dennehy’s team in the field of 16 a week from Sunday. With that in mind, it’s fairly certain that we’ll see sophomore forward Stephane Da Costa as one of the top 10. I had a chance to watch Da Costa when the Warriors played at Army earlier in the year, and I was very impressed with his command of the game, and the passes he makes. At the time, he was right around a point per game, but Dennehy told me after the game that he considered Da Costa to be the best player in the country. I don’t know about that, but Da Costa’s had 22 points in 12 games since that conversation, and is currently sixth in the country in points per game. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll be in.

I’ll have more to say as we get closer to Thursday’s announcement, but for now, Kinkaid and Da Costa are two players to watch this weekend, as they lead their teams toward uncharted territory.