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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.

The case for Miami’s dynamic duo

In a recent post I pointed out that Miami’s Andy Miele and Carter Camper are having great seasons, but if the RedHawks don’t make the NCAA tournament, they probably won’t win the award.

Last night, I had a chance to see them play against Michigan on CBS College Sports, and I would like to add a related comment:

If the RedHawks DO make the NCAA tournament, my vote almost certainly goes to one of the two.

One of the things that I noticed watching the game last night is the way that Miami goaltender Cody Reichard seemed to be fighting the puck at times, despite finishing with 30 saves on 32 shots. A look at the RedHawks’ goaltending numbers indicates that it wasn’t just last night, and it’s not just Reichard.

The 2010 Hobey Baker Finalist and reigning CCHA Player of the Year, who posted a .914 save percentage as a freshman and a .921 save percentage last season, has a .902 save percentage this year, 51st in the country, and by far the worst of his career. His partner in Miami’s goaltending tandem, Connor Knapp, had a similarly rough freshman year (.904), but after stopping 92.1 percent of opponents’ shots last season, is back down to .901, 56th in the country.

But here’s where things get interesting.

While Reichard and Knapp are 51st and 56th in the nation, respectively, in save percengtage, they’re 20th and 18th, respectively, in goals-against average (2.27, 2.26).  Overall, Miami ranks 15th in the nation in scoring defense at 2.41 goals per game, which is a drop from last year’s best-in-the-nation 1.95 (or even the 2.17 that had them eighth two seasons ago).

How is that happening? Hard work, a staple of Miami’s success in recent years.

The penalty kill is 6th in the country, stopping 86.9 percent of opposing power plays. The PK is one of my favorite stats for showing you how hard a team is working, especially in front of goalies who aren’t having great seasons. It’s clear that Miami is working as hard as ever, and that’s the sort of thing that starts with the leaders (Camper’s the captain, with Miele as one of his assistants) and spreads throughout the entire locker room.

If Miami can overcome  the less-than-stellar play by their goaltenders this season and make the NCAA tournament – and make no mistake, they’ll need better performances in net down the stretch – it will be a testament to the performance this season by Camper and Miele, both as high-powered point-producers at the offensive end and as leaders of the RedHawks’ all-out defensive effort.

Dave Starman asked on his Twitter page last month (@DaveStarmanCBSC) if the Hobey Baker Award is Carter Camper’s to lose. With Miami in danger of missing the tournament, I’d have to say no…and having Miele as a fellow front-runner doesn’t help, either.  However, the fact that Miele and Camper have been able to keep Miami in the mix despite the RedHawks’ goaltending issues almost makes me think they DON’T need to make the NCAA tournament to win the Hobey.

Of course, knowing Miami, I don’t think the Hobey will be much consolation to either RedHawk if their season ends before the tournament begins.

However, if Miami is still playing at the end of March, I think it’s very likely that some kind of hardware comes back from St. Paul in April.

Since I was Justin the neighborhood…a couple of Schultz’s old Wisconsin teammates on his Hobey campaign

In my last post, I noted that since Matt Carle finished 10th in scoring in the country in 2005-06 with 1.36 PPG, the person who’s come closest to matching those numbers is Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz. Schultz is currently tied 14th in the country with 1.30 PPG, which is on a pace to best former teammate Brendan Smith, who finished 15th last season with 1.24 PPG. Schultz also leads the Badgers in points with 39, and shares the team lead in goals with 15 in 30 games (four more goals than Carle had in 39 games).

Well, today, I was at New York Rangers practice, working on a story for New York Hockey Journal, and in between interviews for that story, I took the opportunity to talk to Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh, two of the leaders of last year’s team that went to the national championship game, about Schultz, Smith, and what it is about Wisconsin that produces such prolific scorers on the blueline.

“I don’t want to compare those two guys,” Stepan said. “They’re very different, but they’re both competitors, and that’s something where they’re very similar. They compete hard, they hate to lose, but they’re different styles in the way they get things done.”

McDonagh, meanwhile, sees more similarities between Schultz and Smith.

“They’re both good skaters,” McDonagh said, “Tall lanky guys, both can shoot the puck real hard, and both have real good vision for finding guys and finding lanes to the net.”

And, while he wasn’t one of those bigtime point producers himself, McDonagh noted that the Wisconsin blueline has featured some strong offensive d-men in recent years.

“It’s always been good,” McDonagh said. “Even before I was there, they had Tom Gilbert, Ryan Suter was there before him. They’ve got a good plethora of offensive d-men. Eaves thrives on jumping up in the play, and on the power play, he likes having two defensemen up top no matter what. Some teams do five forwards or four forwards and a D, but he’s always got two of them up there.

“I know Schultzy’s been running it since his freshman year, so it’s no coincidence that he’s come around and put the puck in the net.”

Schultz is starting to make more and more sense as a Hobey candidate, with the top two scorers in the country playing for a team that is in danger of not making the NCAAs, Yale’s array of high-scoring forwards not being so high-scoring at the moment, and the lingering question of whether one of BC’s high-scoring forwards – in this case, Cam Atkinson – will get that Hobey that has eluded Brian Gionta, Chris Collins, Nathan Gerbe, Patrick Eaves, Tony Voce, etc. If the Badgers continue to play well, and Schultz remains in the territory he’s in on the scoring charts, Wisconsin may not have nearly so long to wait for its second Hobey winner as it did for its first.

Double or nothing for Miami?

I had the pleasure of listening to this week’s Hobey Watch podcast, with their special guest, Miami head coach Rico Blasi, and it got me thinking about the RedHawks’ high-scoring duo of Carter Camper and Andy Miele.

After this weekend’s games, it’s now Miele who leads the national scoring race, with one goal and two assists more than Camper, making it really hard to pick which one is the more likely Hobey winner. And naturally, Blasi isn’t planning on promoting one over the other, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a program that prides itself on its “Brotherhood.” (and I mean that in the best way possible).

Certainly, there’s no reason why Camper would keep Miele from winning the Hobey, or vice versa. Just look at Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling in 2005. I’m also reminded of a couple of years ago, when Chad Kolarik – who could have easily been a Hobey finalist himself that year – told anyone who would listen that Kevin Porter was the real Hobey candidate on the team. I could see something like that happening at Miami, although I don’t know which one would promote the other over himself (perhaps both?).

However, the reality is that while both players are having fantastic individual seasons, and are near-certain finalists, that could be as far as it gets. I’m going to predict that if Miami doesn’t make the NCAA tournament, neither one of them is going to win the Hobey.

Yes, the first Hobey I saw handed out in person – 2006 – went to a player whose team didn’t make the NCAA tournament, Denver’s Matt Carle. Carle, however, had won two NCAA titles already at DU, and that season, he was 10th in the nation in scoring  with 1.36 PPG. No blueliner has been that high up since, although Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz is as close as it comes this season, 14th in the country at 1.30. The point, though, is that there were extenuating circumstances for Carle, and they don’t exist for Miami’s dynamic duo.

Of course, we won’t know whether Miami is in or out by the time the finalists are selected (although if the RedHawks aren’t still playing at that point, it’s pretty likely they’ll be out), but when the Hobey winner is chosen, Camper and Miele need to have played in this season’s tournament to win. The next six games – against Michigan, Western Michigan, and Lake Superior – will tell us a lot as to whether they’re in or out of the running.

And, if Camper and Miele wind up out, and Yale’s offensive machine has slowed down (Broc Little is the top ‘Dog at 18th in the country with 1.29 ppg), who’s the front-runner? Paul Thompson? Chase Polacek? Schultz? Cam Atkinson?

It’s about to get very interesting…

The newer faces in the Hobey race

It won’t take any sting out of a 5-4 loss to Dartmouth on Saturday night, but the fact that New Hampshire’s Paul Thompson is the nation’s new points-per-game leader makes it a perfect opportunity to look at those players who have emerged as contenders in the Hobey Baker race. This should answer all the “What about?” questions that emerged when I looked back at my preseason 25.

A couple of groups are worth talking about before we get into individuals.

The Atlantic guys: This group consists of Robert Morris’ Nathan Longpre (seventh in the nation with 1.45 ppg) and Denny Urban (second in defenseman scoring with 1.17 PPG), Niagara forwards Paul Zanette and Brian Haczyk (tied for eighth at 1.41 ppg) and RIT’s Andrew Favot (22nd at 1.29 PPG). The fact that there’s five (maybe only four) players in this category creates a problem, because it means there’s a healthy debate about who the best player in Atlantic Hockey is. History shows that Atlantic will get no more than one player in the top 10 Hobey finalists, and when it happens, there’s little to no debate about who the top player in the conference. The smallest points-per-game margin between a Hobey finalist from Atlantic Hockey and the next highest scorer was two years ago, when Jacques Lamoureux of Air Force averaged only .04 PPG more than Mercyhurst’s Steve Cameron, and in that year, Lamoureux was the nation’s leading goal-scorer by a wide margin.  Other than that, it was .20 for RIT’s Simon Lambert over Sacred Heart’s Bear Trapp in 2008,  .27 for Air Force’s Eric Ehn over teammate Andrew Ramsey in 2007, and .11 for Quinnipiac’s Reid Cashman over Mercyhurst’s David Wrigley in 2005 (a margin made more impressive by Cashman being a defenseman).  By comparison, Mercyhurst’s Dave Borelli enjoyed a .09 PPG margin in 2006 and Canisius’ Cory Conacher had a .14 PPG margin last season.

What does all this tell us? Well, there probably needs to be a clear-cut Player of the Year in Atlantic Hockey for there to be a chance of a Hobey finalist from the conference. Still, it’s worth watching these guys in the second half to see if one of them breaks out of the pack. If the top player happens to play for the top team – which is certainly possible with the Purps and Colonials chasing RIT for the conference lead – then the chances of a Hobey finalist from Atlantic certainly improve.

Yale players not named Broc Little - Certainly, Little is Yale’s top Hobey candidate, currently tied for fourth in the nation at 1.59 PPG. However, the Bulldogs did, in the not-too-distant past, boast four of the top seven scorers in the country, so it’s worth asking what the chances are for Andrew Miller, Denny Kearney and Brian O’Neill in this race. Going by the “Hobey likes goals” theory, O’Neill seems like the most likely choice as a second Hobey finalist from the Bulldogs, while Miller seems like the least likely with five goals. Yale’s overall situation recalls last season’s Miami team, where four balanced scorers canceled one another out in the Hobey race, leaving a goaltender, Cody Reichard, as the RedHawks’ representative in the Hobey race. Ryan Rondeau has made a quantum leap from his efforts of a year ago, but I don’t think that he’s Hobey material yet. Keep an eye on Yale’s situation, because someone from this team will be a Hobey finalist, possibly more than one “someone.”

With those groups out of the way – and in all honesty, they’re not major players in the Hobey race – let’s take a look at a few of the new faces who have established themselves as Hobey contenders.

Paul Thompson, F, SR, New Hampshire - Thompson is now the nation’s leading scorer after adding two more points to his season total in Saturday’s loss to Dartmouth, but he’s been great all season. Through 20 games this season, Thompson has only three fewer goals and six fewer total points than he did in 39 games a season ago, and given that he was a point-per-game player as a junior, this is someone who started as a major contributor and took his game to another level. Saturday’s setback doesn’t change the fact that UNH is tied with BC atop Hockey East with games in hand, and as their leader, I’d say that Thompson is a very likely Hobey finalist, with the potential for more if both he and the Wildcats keep it up.

Jack Maclellan, F, JR, Brown - I’ve been pointing out Maclellan’s  strong play for a while, and with a goal and an assist in the Bears’ upset of No. 1 Yale today, more people are likely to start taking notice. The problem for Maclellan is that Brown is still sitting in ninth in ECAC Hockey play, but more than half the conference schedule remains to be played, and Brown has gone 1-0-3 against Hockey East teams, with Maclellan averaging 2.25 PPG in those contests. I think Brown is going to climb in the ECAC standings down the stretch, putting Maclellan in solid position to snag a Hobey finalist slot. I think moving further is a stretch at this point, but Maclellan does have one more year in Providence, so he’s a player worth keeping an eye on for the future.

Matt Frattin, F, SR, North Dakota - Until this weekend, Frattin may well have been the hottest player in the country, until an eight-game goal-scoring streak and a nine-game point streak were snapped in Friday’s game against Minnesota. Frattin is still the nation’s leader in total goals, and while North Dakota hit a hiccup against the Gophers, the Sioux appear to have hit their stride much earlier this season than they have in past seasons, and Frattin is a big part of that, making him a strong Hobey candidate.

Justin Schultz, D, SO, Wisconsin - The nation’s leading scorer among defensemen, Schultz has emerged as a successor to Brendan Smith on the Badger blueline. His 1.23 PPG average is just a hair off of Smith’s pace of a year ago, and his 14 goals are more than many of the forwards we’ve discussed this season, including Maclellan, Little, Carter Camper and Andy Miele. I’d be very surprised if Schultz didn’t end up as a Hobey finalist, especially since he doesn’t have the same competition on his own team that Smith did a season ago.

James Mello, G, JR, Dartmouth – Of all the goaltenders who weren’t on the radar at the start of the season, Mello has done the most to put his name into the Hobey mix. He’s got the top save percentage in the country among everyday starters (Princeton’s Sean Bonar splits time with Mike Condon in the Tiger net), he held Yale to one of its worst offensive performances of the season last weekend, and perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t have to compete with a skater for Hobey attention. John Muse’s save percentage is just .006 off of Mello’s, and he’s got two NCAA titles on his résumé, but in the Hobey race, he takes a backseat to BC teammate Cam Atkinson, and maybe even Brian Gibbons. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Muse wind up as the first team All-American goalie in the East, but I think Mello’s building a very nice case for himself to earn a possible Hobey finalist spot, especially if Dartmouth can build off of Saturday’s win over UNH and make a run at an NCAA tournament berth.

Jerry Kuhn, G, SR, Western Michigan – Kuhn is No. 8 in the country in save percentage and No. 12 in goals-against average for a Western Michigan team that is just on the outside looking in for an NCAA Tournament berth. With WMU 39th in the country in scoring offense, the burden of getting the Broncos to the NCAAs is going to fall squarely on Kuhn, and if he has them in position to pull it off when March rolls around, look for him to snare a Hobey finalist spot. He’s not going to be the first goalie to win it since Ryan Miller, but he could get a finalist berth.

Scott Greenham, G, JR, Alaska – See above. Greenham is eighth in goals-against average and ninth in save percentage for a Nanooks team that’s in the mix. If the Nanooks are still in the mix in March, Greenham is a candidate for a Hobey finalist spot. If they’re not, he isn’t.

So, that’s where we are. Between these players and the 11 or 12 who are left over from my pre-season list, we’ve still got a group of more than 20 players for 10 Hobey finalist spots, with a handful of players worth watching to win it all.

Revisiting the 25, Part II – The East

…and we’re back.

So yesterday, I looked at 11 players from the CCHA and WCHA that I’d identified before the season as Hobey Baker contenders, and narrowed them down to 6 potential finalists, with one or two who could contend for the award.

Now, it’s over to the east, and the 14 players from Atlantic Hockey, ECAC Hockey and Hockey East that I thought worth keeping an eye on before the season.

Jacques Lamoureux, SR, F, Air Force – Lamoureux was the nation’s leading goal-scorer and a Hobey Baker finalist two years ago, and that generally commands a bit of attention before every season that follows. This season, however, he has just five goals and 10 assists in 17 games. That does put him among the top 100 scorers in the country, and Air Force is contending again in Atlantic Hockey, but I think that we’ve more or less heard the last of him as a Hobey contender.

Cory Conacher, SR, F, Canisius – Conacher was No. 2 in the nation in points per game a year ago, and when he started the season with a hat trick at Western Michigan, it looked like he was going to pick up where he left off. At mid-season, though, he’s 59th in the country in points per game with an even 18 points in 18 games. That’s a solid season for the Golden Griffins, who are tied for fourth in Atlantic Hockey, but again, it’s not going to impress Hobey voters.

Chase Polacek, SR, F, Rensselaer – 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.

Broc Little, SR, F, Yale – Before the season, I wrote “Keep your eye on Little first, but don’t be surprised to see a number of Yale forwards earn consideration.” I think that turned out to be a solid call, although I certainly didn’t expect Yale to have four of the nation’s top seven scorers. Little, however, is the goal-scorer – to the tune of 12 in 13 games for a national-best average of .92 goals per game – and it’s pretty clear that as the top scorer on the nation’s No. 1 team, Little is a serious contender for the Hobey.

Cam Atkinson, JR, F, Boston College – Speaking of goal-scorers, Atkinson is fifth in the country in goals per game at .83 (15 goals in 18 games), and No. 12 in overall points per game. His six goals in last year’s NCAA Tournament en route to a national championship told us to keep an eye on him this year, and he hasn’t disappointed. As the leading scorer for a Boston College team that is once again a top squad in Hockey East and a national contender, Atkinson is a very likely Hobey finalist, but after that, the outlook is murky. When you think about players like Brian Gionta, Nathan Gerbe, Chris Collins, Pat Eaves and other BC forwards who have had similar success under Jerry York, you can’t help but wonder if BC’s playing style – which enables this kind of scoring – works against those forwards when the votes are counted. Will Atkinson do what those others didn’t and hoist the Hobey? Stay tuned.

Brian Gibbons, SR, F, Boston College – Gibbons was on the Hockey East First Team last season, not Atkinson, but as we know, Hobey Likes Goals. Gibbons has lit the lamp 10 times this season as part of his 25 points, but Atkinson is ahead of him in both goals and overall points, and that makes him BC’s leading contender for the Hobey. I think Gibbons has a chance at a finalist nod of his own, but I’d expect to see BC’s eggs go into the Atkinson basket when it comes time to promote Hobey contenders. A return to the Hockey East First Team is quite possibly in the cards, not to mention All-American honors, but when it comes to the Hobey, Atkinson is BC’s man.

Gustav Nyquist, JR, F, Maine - Nyquist, to his credit, had announced his return to Orono before the Hobey ceremony last year, and there’s no doubt that the Black Bears are glad to have him back. They’re fourth in Hockey East and contending for a return to the NCAA Tournament, but Nyquist has not been the same prolific scorer that he was a year ago. Six goals and 16 assists is nothing to shake a stick at, but in terms of the Hobey race, it’s not going to impress. Nyquist is worth keeping an eye on in the second half for a possible finalist berth if he and the Black Bears turn it on, but it’ll take some doing.

Stephane Da Costa, SO, F, Merrimack – I went to watch Da Costa myself when the Warriors played Army last week, and watching him, it’s hard to believe that he only has 12 assists this season. His passes are crisp, and often creative, and he’s clearly legit. Unfortunately, he’s not going to make much of a move in the Hobey race sitting 34th in the country in points per game, although again, if he and the Warriors make a move in the second half, there’s an outside chance that Merrimack could have its first Hobey finalist.

Evan Stephens, SR, D, Dartmouth - This is one pick that just plain hasn’t worked out. It’s not that Stephens is doing anything badly, it’s just that he’s not scoring all that much. He’s got two goals and four assists in 13 games for a Dartmouth team that’s having an okay year. I said before the season that he had an outside chance at a finalist berth if the breaks went his way, and they haven’t.

Taylor Fedun, SR, D, Princeton – Fedun is having a very fine year with the Tigers. He’s No. 8 in the country in defenseman scoring, while the Tigers are 10-5-1 and contending for an NCAA tournament berth. Does it translate to a Hobey finalist nod? Only if Princeton makes it back to the NCAAs, and maybe not even then. Still, he’s doing exactly what they need him to do.

Jeff Dimmen, SR, D, Maine - Dimmen hasn’t played since November 19 due to an ankle injury, but even before he was sidelined, Dimmen had not enjoyed the kind of success he did in his junior season, when he scored 12 goals and handed out 18 assists. He could prove a valuable contributor down the stretch for the Black Bears – which I’m sure is what really matters to him – but the whole possibility of a Hobey finalist bid really didn’t work out.

Blake Kessel, JR, D, New Hampshire – Ask Kessel, and I’m sure he’ll say that the important thing is that New Hampshire is tied for the Hockey East lead, and in contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament (and while play regional games at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester if and when they make the tournament). However, he’s another blueliner who hasn’t delivered on his scoring promise this season. He’s having a good enough year, with three goals and nine assists in 17 games, but I don’t see him in the Hobey picture at all. Could he turn it on in the second half? Sure. Would he be able to get into the Hobey picture? I doubt it. Does it matter to him? Probably not.

Allen York, JR, G, Rensselaer – I think it’s safe to say that this one has worked out so far. Second in the nation in goals-against average, sixth in save percentage, playing for an RPI team that’s seventh in the Pairwise and making a strong bid to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 16 years. He stopped 28 of 29 shots in a win over Boston University, and stopped 20 of 23 shots in 4-2 loss to Yale. That last stat might not sound terribly impressive, but when you consider that the .869 save percentage in that game is a good bit higher than the .855 that opposing goaltenders average against Yale, it adds a bit more context. Look for York to make a strong push for Hobey finalist consideration during the second half of the season. Whether he gets more than that remains to be seen, but given goalies’ history with the Hobey, it doesn’t look good.

Keith Kinkaid, SO, G, Union – Kinkaid has been solid for a Union team that is contending again in ECAC Hockey and looking for that elusive first NCAA Tournament bid. Solid, but not spectacular. Of course, Kinkaid and the Dutchmen have 16 of their 22 ECAC Hockey games left to play, so there’s time for him to make a push, but I see him as a finalist at best.

So, in the East, we have a couple of true contenders out of my preseason list in Atkinson and Little, some strong finalist candidates in guys like Gibbons, York and Polacek, and a bunch of outside chances.

All I can say is that this definitely beats “casting” for roles.

Revisiting the 25, Part I – The West

This morning, as I was working on my NCAA.com column on Michigan and the balanced scoring the Wolverines have enjoyed this season, I couldn’t help but remember the column on my pre-season blog entry challenging the absence of Carl Hagelin from the list.

Well, Hagelin is having a fine season, and is certainly a big part of why Michigan has the best winning percentage in the CCHA, but at the midway point of the season, I’m just not seeing him as a major Hobey contender. However, it did give me an idea: as we wade through the early stages of the 2011 portion of the season, it’s probably about time to check in with the 25 players I identified before the season, and see who’s truly in the mix.

So, we started this in two parts – a group of forwards and a group of defensemen and goalies – and I figure that’s a good way to continue. Except that we’ll split it into East and West, and in case it will do anything to hold off the “East Coast Bias” accusations, I’ll even start with the West. How ’bout that?

Andy Miele, SR, F, Miami - I had wondered before the season if Miami’s depth would again get in the way of a RedHawks forward earning Hobey consideration, but Miele and Carter Camper (more on him in a second) are standing out from the pack. They’re picking up the slack from the graduation of Jarod Palmer and the pro signing of Tommy Wingels, and leading a Miami team that may not be riding high like recent editions of the RedHawks, but should still be in the mix down the stretch. However, while you probably don’t have Camper’s outstanding success without Miele’s – the success of both centermen stops opponents from focusing on just one line – Camper’s the leading scorer in the nation right now, which means a finalist spot is probably the ceiling for Miele.

Carter Camper, SR, F, Miami - Every time I talk about Camper in connection with the Hobey, I’m reminded of how I heard about him during his freshman year. At the time, some of the broadcasting folks who were voting for him in the CSTV Hobey Watch (especially those with less hair than the rest of us) were talking about how great his name sounds on TV. These days, however, it’s clearly more about his game than his name. He’s knocking on the door of two points per game, he’s the captain of the RedHawks (and when you’re selected as the leader by a locker room like Miami’s, I think that says something), and he’s the nation’s leading scorer. I think it’s fairly obvious that Camper is very likely for a spot in the top 10 and the Hobey Hat Trick, and with a good performance down the stretch by Miami as a team, it’s easy to see Camper hoisting the Hobey in April.

Matt Read, SR, F, Bemidji State - Read made noise early last season as a Hobey candidate, but faded down the stretch among the nation’s scoring leaders. Now, he’s not the top scorer on his own team (that’d be sophomore forward Jordan George). The move to the WCHA has not been kind to the Beavers, and barring some sort of unheard-of second half run, I think it’s safe to say that Read is a non-factor in the Hobey race.

Jack Connolly, JR, F, Minnesota Duluth – Connolly enters this weekend’s exhibition against the US Under-18 team as the No. 10 scorer in the nation, and No. 2 in the WCHA behind Colorado College freshman Jaden Schwartz. Schwartz, of course, broke his ankle at the World Junior Championship (and Hobey tends not to like freshmen anyway), so it’s safe to say that Connolly is the premier Hobey candidate among forwards in the WCHA. That makes him a very likely finalist, with the potential for more depending on what the Bulldogs do down the stretch in the WCHA. Unless, of course, the guy is…

Justin Fontaine, SR, F, Minnesota Duluth – Fontaine has three more goals and six fewer assists than his linemate Connolly, which leaves him as No. 2 in the WCHA in total points and No. 3 in points per game. He’s got more goals, which could very easily come into play if and when things get close between the two. Again, another strong contender for a finalist spot, with the potential for growth pending the Bulldogs’ play in the next couple of months.

Garrett Roe, SR, F, St. Cloud - Unfortunately, I don’t get to see teams the way I used to, which is a shame, because you can’t really figure out what happened to Garrett Roe without seeing it in person. What I do know is that Roe is on pace for his worst statistical year as a Husky, on a team that sits an astonishing 11th in the WCHA. Hopefully, he’ll have better things in store as a pro – I’ve liked Roe’s game for a while – but for now, it looks like he’s getting a hearty, “Thanks for playing.”

Zach Redmond, SR, D, Ferris State – Well, let’s start with the good news: Redmond is the Bulldogs’ leading scorer with 13 points (5g, 8a) in 15 games, and the Bulldogs are one of three teams tied for fourth place in the CCHA. Now, here’s the bad news: that leaves him fifth in the nation among defensemen in scoring, with Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz the top scoring blueliner from a “Big Four” conference. If Redmond and the Bulldogs make a run into the NCAA Tournament, I could see Redmond getting a finalist spot. However, I think that’s as far as it goes.

Chay Genoway, SR, D, North Dakota – Genoway isn’t on the point-per-game pace he had set before his 2009-10 season ended in injury, but he is tied for third on the Sioux in scoring, and is sixth in the country among defenseman. He’s also the captain of a North Dakota team that’s as hot as any team in the country right now, and a senior who came back for a fifth season when there would have been pro opportunities. That all works in his favor. The other thing that has to be considered, however, is that Matt Frattin is third in the country in goals per game, and if there’s only one North Dakota player who gets Hobey consideration, it might be him. For now, though, I think Genoway is a strong contender for a finalist spot.

Cody Reichard, JR, G, Miami – Reichard did an outstanding job last season as one half of Miami’s two-headed goaltending monster, but I think the general consensus was that the lack of a single standout scorer in Miami’s balanced and dangerous lineup was a major contributor to Reichard’s CCHA Player of the Year selection and Hobey finalist nod. That’s not an issue this year, partly because Carter Camper and Andy Miele are two of the nation’s top five scorers, and partly because Reichard’s season has been, well, underwhelming. In fact, Reichard is having his worst statistical year as a RedHawk, which, combined with the breakout years by Camper and Mile, renders him a non-factor in the Hobey race. Didn’t exactly see that one coming.

Brad Eidsness, JR, G, North Dakota – Like Reichard, Eidsness has tumbled from the ranks of the top goaltenders in the country, logging an .805 save percentage and a 4.12 goals-against average in five appearances this season. Aaron Dell is the man in net for the Sioux now, so it’s “see you next year…maybe” for Eidsness.

Mike Lee, SO, G, St. Cloud – If you’re looking for a reason why a team that was picked to finish in the top three in the WCHA is sitting in 11th at mid-season, goaltending is a good place to start. Lee has outplayed senior Dan Dunn, but not by much: his .891 save percentage and 3.24 GAA aren’t much of an improvement on Dunn’s .883 and 3.36.  Call it a sophomore slump? Sure. That may mean we haven’t heard the last of Mr. Lee, but in term’s of this year’s Hobey race, we certainly have.

So, out of 11 players in the CCHA and WCHA I identified before the season as candidates, we have six potential Hobey finalists to keep an eye on in the second half.

Tomorrow: The East.

An Ivy-Covered Post

I am, of course, well aware that I haven’t had much to say lately about the Hobey Baker race. I find that there isn’t much to say in October and November. Now, however, it’s December, and your humble Hobey pundit has deemed it time to jump back in, so I’ll share a few thoughts while I flip back and forth between the Big Chill at the Big House on the Big Ten Network and BU and RPI on the NHL Network.

Among the players distinguishing themselves most in the race for the Hobey, there aren’t too many surprises: Carter Camper has taken his scoring to another level with Miami, and averaging nearly two points per game, he has to be considered one of the front-runners for the Hobey, especially with the RedHawks riding high in the CCHA standings. BC’s Cam Atkinson is the national leader in goals with 16, and will also likely be in the mix for the award as the season goes along. I do have some reservations about how Atkinson will be received by Hobey voters, given the fact that Pat Eaves, Tony Voce, Brian Gionta, Nathan Gerbe, Chris Collins, etc. have not won the award, but we’ll get into that more later.

For now, the subject commanding my attention is ECAC Hockey, and more specifically, the Ivy League.

With Yale currently standing atop the national polls, there has been a certain amount of hand-wringing as concerns ECAC Hockey and the Bulldogs’ opponents. It had a familiar sound, as I’ve been hearing similar things about the conference for years whenever Cornell is enjoying a high spot in the polls.

Of course, commenting on polls and who’s overrated or underrated is generally not my department, and it is worth asking how Yale would perform against a WCHA or Hockey East schedule. That said, however, Yale also features four of the top ten scorers in the country – that’d be Broc Little, Andrew Miller, Denny Kearney and Brian O’Neill – and it’s highly likely that at least one member of that quartet will be a finalist for the Hobey when all is said and done. When that happens, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll hear the players’ accomplishments downplayed because of their conference the way their team’s performance has so far.

It is worth noting that ECAC Hockey hasn’t produced a Hobey winner since Lane MacDonald in 1989, and the conference’s last two contributions to the Hobey Hat Trick were a pair of Cornell goaltenders, David LeNeveu in 2003 and David McKee in 2005. To find a skater from the conference who made the top three, you’d have to go back to another Yale forward, Chris Higgins in 2002.

Personally, I don’t see any of these Bulldogs changing that this year.

Normally, I’m one of the first to stick up for players and teams in ECAC Hockey when their legitimacy is challenged, and I maintain that Yale has the talent to beat any team in the country, and will be in the mix for a spot in the Frozen Four this spring. However, there are too many things working against the Bulldogs’ high-scoring forwards to make a serious run at the Hobey.

For starters, there’s the Bulldogs’ schedule. I’m not going to run down ECAC Hockey, but adding two non-conference games against conference opponents (the Ivy Shootout) isn’t going to impress anyone. I do understand the merits of opening the season against opponents who are also playing their first games, but at the same time, it’d be helpful to the conference’s profile to see a high-end team like Yale play against top teams from other conferences as much as is feasible. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. With the two Ivy shootout games, three games with Atlantic Hockey opponents Air Force, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart, and a date with struggling Vermont, Yale’s stiffest non-conference test was a Colorado College team that didn’t even bother to play its No. 1 goaltender (although only Minnesota has scored more against the Tigers this year than Yale did). That is going to be an issue when the committee gets to talking.

Then, there’s the issue that I’ve touched on before: Yale’s balance. If there were a Yale player with the numbers of, say, Peter Sejna in his Hobey Year, the schedule issues wouldn’t stop that player from making it to the Hobey Hat Trick. As it is, though, Yale has four big-time scorers, which makes it hard to single any one of them out as a Hobey candidate. Miami, as we’ve discussed had that “problem” last year – of course, most coaches would love to have that kind of “problem” – and the result was Cody Reichard being the team’s Hobey finalist. I don’t think that’d happen with Yale, since the level of the scoring is higher, but I think the same issue comes back into play when the time comes to narrow the Hobey finalists to the Hobey Hat trick.

Anyone who thinks that Yale isn’t going to be a force to be reckoned with in March is kidding himself (especially if they get consistent goaltending), but I don’t see Yale making a real impact in the Hobey race. At least one of the four big scorers will get a finalist nod (at this point, I’m thinking Little), but unless someone’s numbers surge as the season goes along, I think that’s as far as it gets.

Of course, any Bulldogs who do get to that point probably won’t be the only ECAC Hockey representatives. 2010 Hobey finalist Chase Polacek of RPI is still among the nation’s top 20 scorers – and as I write this, is having a very nice game against Boston University – and as a Hobey finalist who returned for his senior year, will likely be commended for his commitment. However, there is also a pair of players from other Ivy League schools who could give Little some company.

For starters, there’s Jack Maclellan of Brown, who is currently second in the nation in points per game, with 20 points (9g, 11a) in 11 games. That includes three assists in the tie with New Hampshire and a goal in the tie with Boston University, with only Cornell having been able to keep Maclellan off the score sheet. Maclellan is definitely a surprise, currently scoring nearly twice as much per game as he did as a sophomore, but with Brown still rebuilding under Brendan Whittet, there’s probably a limit to how much consideration he’ll get. Still, Maclellan will face two more major conference foes, with games against BU and either Notre Dame or Minnesota State at the Shillelagh Tournament to start 2011.

At the other end of the ice, there’s Dartmouth goaltender James Mello, who is second in the nation in goals-against average and tops in save percentage. It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep it up, since he didn’t play in Dartmouth’s 7-3 loss to Yale (that was Jody O’Neill in net for the Big Green that night), or the 4-1 loss to Rensselaer. If Dartmouth and Mello are still looking good in late January (after they’ve played Yale, UNH and RPI), Dartmouth could be on its way to having only its second Hobey finalist ever (David Jones was first in 2007). Those games (along with a possible date with Boston College at the Ledyard National Bank Tournament) will be a prime indicator as to whether Mello is a contender or a pretender.

Back again soon with more Hobey analysis.