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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.

A word with the last guy to put up “Ryan Miller numbers”

Anyone who’s been reading this blog over the past three seasons knows the familiar refrain that comes up whenever a goalie is thought to be in the mix for the Hobey.

“Ryan Miller numbers.”

.950 save percentage, 1.32 goals-against average. A tough standard to live up to.

Dave LeNeveu had the GAA and then some (1.20), but the save percentage wasn’t quite there (.940 in that Cornell system that Big Red goalies seem to be penalized for, but we’ll get back to that when a Cornell goalie is in the mix). Brian Elliott backstopped Wisconsin to an NCAA Championship, but Matt Carle skated off with the Hobey. Dave Brown was in the conversation all season long in 2006-07, but Ryan Duncan got it. Dave McKee, Yann Danis, Brad Thiessen…you know the story.

No Ryan Miller numbers, no Hobey.

So of course, when I covered the Rangers-Sabres game on Tuesday night as part of a New York Hockey Journal story I’m working on, I had to get a word with the former Michigan State Spartan about those magical numbers that made him the last goalie to win the Hobey Baker.

“Minus the fact that we didn’t win a national championship,” Miller said, “that was pretty much a fairytale season. We had a great team, and everything seemed to go right except right at the end there.”

As you might expect, Miller has been too busy with the Sabres to keep tabs on exactly how things have been going in the college ranks lately as it concerns his netminding brethren. However, he did say that he doesn’t think it should take a reprise of (or improvement on) his 2001-02 stats to get a goalie the top individual honor in the college game.

“They look at number of goals and assists [for forwards],” Miller said, “but they also talk about who you play against. It comes down to more than just those stats. I think if you factor in the goalies playing against really strong competition, and you can take a team really far in the NCAA tournament, I think you have a goalie who deserves top billing.”

If you really want to read into that, “Really strong competition” could be seen as a dig at the Cornell guys, but I don’t think Miller was really thinking about it that much (and besides, ECAC Hockey is having quite a year, with Yale, Union, RPI and Dartmouth all in the mix for NCAA berths). I will say that I don’t think the next goalie to win the Hobey will come from Atlantic Hockey (sorry, Shane Madolora), but depending on the year, I think another goalie will hoist the Hobey sooner or later, “Ryan Miller numbers” or not.

Probably not this year, though, although I do think that Dartmouth’s James Mello, RPI’s Allen York, Merrimack’s Joe Cannata and Boston College’s John Muse are all worthy of consideration for finalist berths, with one of them getting a spot in the Hobey Hat Trick (and really, with Muse having a good shot at a third NCAA title in four years, he should get a long look).

What do you think? You think Miller has a point about his numbers not being a requirement for future Hobey-winning goalies? Who’s the most Hobey-worthy goaltender on the college ice this season? Leave your thoughts below.

Hobey Top 10 Won’t Dump Chase

In life, as in hockey, the value of timing can never be underestimated.

For example: this week’s Hobey Watch Podcast with Ed Trefzger and Jim Connelly features a guest appearance by RPI head coach Seth Appert, the same week that the Engineers’ Saturday afternoon tilt against Cornell is picked up by the NHL Network. All told, it seemed like a good time for me to take a closer look at RPI senior Chase Polacek.

I’ve had Polacek on my list for Hobey contenders all season long, starting in October when I made my pre-season list. Of course, since he was a Hobey finalist last season, Polacek seemed like a natural, even though repeat Hobey finalists have been insanely rare in the time I’ve been following the race (I want to say there haven’t been any, but I’m not absolutely certain). In any event, this is what I wrote about Polacek in September:

Polacek was the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year last season, and luckily for the Engineers, the nation’s sixth leading scorer turned down any opportunity to turn pro. Unfortunately for the Engineers, that made him the exception rather than the rule among RPI’s top stars. It’ll be interesting to see how the absence of early signees Jerry D’Amigo and Brandon Pirri affect Polacek. When a team loses major weapons, the ones who are left will command more attention, so RPI will need to make up for the lost productivity relatively quickly. Still, when you scored 50 points a year ago and you stay in school, you get consideration for the Hobey coming into the season.

When I revisited the pre-season list last month, this is what I had to say:

Polacek was the nation’s No. 6 scorer last season, and made the laudable decision to return for his senior year. It was uncertain how the early departures of Jerry D’Amigo and Brandon Pirri would affect Polacek. As it turns out, Polacek’s points-per-game average (1.39) is higher than it was at the end of last season (1.33), although his goal-scoring has dropped. He’s 15th in the nation in PPG right now, and I think that if RPI continues to play well and make a run at returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995, Polacek’s stock will rise. He remains a player well worth keeping an eye on.

Polacek has seen his stock rise since I wrote that, as Polacek is sixth in the nation in points per game as of this writing. So, having kept an eye on Polacek in this afternoon’s 3-2 overtime loss to Cornell, here’s what I think.

Obviously, the first thing that comes out is that Polacek scored his 18th goal of the season this afternoon, and even though RPI was on the power play when he scored it was hard not to be impressed by the way he cut his way through traffic, skated in on net and put the puck past Andy Iles (the RPI fans broke out in a chant of “Hobey Baker” shortly thereafter).

Of course, so much is made of offensive numbers, but the goal Polacek scored – which leaves him 15th in the country in goals per game (.60) – was just one part of his game that impressed me. I liked the work he did on the power play in general, and also liked what I saw of his contributions to the RPI penalty kill (No. 12 in the country at 85.3 percent). I also saw Polacek take two key faceoffs in the waning minutes of regulation, one in the offensive zone during an RPI power play, and one in the defensive zone at the start of a Cornell power play with 3:30 left. He won them both. So, what we have here is a player who’s one of the top scorers in the nation, the national leader in game-winning goals (eight), plays on the power play and penalty kill, takes key faceoffs at crucial times (and wins them!) and wears a letter as assistant captain. That sounds like a Hobey Baker candidate to me.

Then, there’s the fact that Polacek stayed in school when he had the opportunity to leave, helping to keep the Engineers on the rise, as they have been since Seth Appert came to town. That’s one more factor that clearly counts for something, as the last three Hobey winners – Kevin Porter, Matt Gilroy and Blake Geoffrion – were all seniors with professional opportunities.

At this point, I think RPI would have to go seriously south for there to be a chance of Polacek not making it to the Finalist stage of Hobey voting, and while a pair of overtime losses this weekend leave RPI on the wrong side of a tie for 15th in the Pairwise (before most of the Saturday schedule, mind you) a Rensselaer tournament berth  - especially if accompanied by ECAC hardware – makes Polacek a serious contender for the Hat Trick and beyond.

One final note on the Engineer front: Bryce Merriam played in goal for the Engineers in place of the injured Allen York, who has also garnered Hobey consideration. York is third in the nation in goals-against average and sixth in save percentage, and if RPI strengthens its NCAA bid over the remaining time between now and the Hobey voting, he’s a potential finalist. My gut feeling, though, is that if RPI only gets one finalist in, then it’s Polacek.

A “Little” thought or two about Yale

In case you’re looking for something to talk about while waiting for tonight’s college hockey games to get started, I figured it was about time for me to chime in on Broc Little as pertains to the Hobey Baker race.

That Yale offense that had been sputtering for a few games – and was held to a single goal a week ago in a 1-0 win over Harvard – found its groove against my alma mater last Saturday night, in a game I covered for the Valley News.  That included Little, who scored his 14th goal of the season in a 4-2 win over Dartmouth.  Heading into play tonight, Little is 18th in the country in points per game (1.26) and 13th in goals per game (.61).

As someone who’s included Little in the Hobey discussion all season long, I was paying special attention to Little during the game, and was certainly impressed by the goal he scored, a beautiful shot from the slot to the top right corner of the net. Some of his attempts to beat defensemen seemed to fall in the category of “too clever for his own good,” but overall, I could certainly see how he was one of the top scorers in the country for a good chunk of this season. With speed, creativity, and a strong shot, Little definitely has a package of skills that leads to a great season, and even with his recent slump that saw him go six games without a goal, his scoring pace is ahead of the junior year that put him on the radar.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. As I’ve mentioned before, Yale has several bigtime scorers on the roster, although all of them suffered during Yale’s offensively-challenged January. At one point, as you may recall, Yale boasted four of the nation’s top seven scorers. Now, it’s five of the nation’s top 30 in points per game: Little at 18th, Brian O’Neill and Andrew Miller tied at 22nd, Chris Cahill at 29th and Denny Kearney at 30th.

Now, that’s a bit higher up the chart than the balanced scoring on last year’s Miami team – Andy Miele, Jarod Palmer, Carter Camper and Tommy Wingels ranked from 62nd to 78th, all averaging about a point per game – but it does come back to this question: with such a balanced offense, what are the chance’s Yale’s primary Hobey candidate (like last year’s Miami team) is a goalie?

Like North Dakota’s Jean-Philippe Lamoureux a couple of years ago, Ryan Rondeau has turned a perceived weakness into a strength for the Bulldogs. He’s fourth in the country in goals-against average (1.92) and seventh in save percentage (.929). That kind of improvement from his 2009-10 numbers (4.06, .880) is pretty much unheard of. There’s an excellent chance that Yale goes into the NCAA tournament as the top overall seed (not unlike the Miami team of a year ago), and if that happens, improved goaltending is definitely going to be a factor. Does that make Rondeau a darkhorse for a spot in the Hobey top 10? It’s possible, although I still like Little’s chances as a Hobey finalist as well.

As to whether either Little or Rondeau has a shot at the Hobey Hat Trick (or even the award itself), I think that’s a story that will be told in the days and weeks to come. At the moment, Little’s scoring isn’t quite there, and as much as he’s improved, Rondeau certainly doesn’t have “Ryan Miller numbers.”

There’s a long time between now and the Hobey voting, though.

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