Who’s representing the West?

I realized something earlier in the week, as I was doing my weekly call-in segment on Hockey On Campus on ESPN 890 in Boston with Bernie Corbett and Paul McNamara.

As wide open as this Hobey race is, it seems like we’ve been discussing a lot of candidates from the eastern conferences, particularly the guys from Hockey East like Brad Thiessen, Matt Gilroy, Brock Bradford, and Colin Wilson, but also Jacques Lamoureux from Air Force out of Atlantic Hockey or Ben Scrivens from Cornell in ECAC Hockey. Every now and then, we’ll get to Ryan Stoa from Minnesota or Aaron Palushaj or Louie Caporusso from Michigan, or a defenseman like Jamie McBain from Wisconsin or Chay Genoway from North Dakota, but it seems like this year’s race for the Hobey has developed into an Eastern affair for the most part.

(Cue the screams of “East Coast Bias!!”)

Now, that’s all well and good – or not – but it makes the Hobey Hat Trick very hard to figure out.

You see, I’ve been thinking lately about the first year I ran the Hobey Watch over at CSTV, particularly the last week, when we projected our Hobey Hat Trick. This was the 2005-06 season, and we came up with a final three of Ryan Potulny, Matt Carle, and Brian Elliott, with Potulny winning the award.

Of course, Potulny was nowhere near the Hobey the night it was presented, partly because his Golden Gophers had been beaten by Holy Cross, but also because he didn’t make the Hobey Hat Trick. Chris Collins did. In explaining where our voting panel had gone wrong, I pointed out that this is a national panel that votes on the award, and when there’s a qualified candidate in the East, it’d be awful hard to get a Hobey Hat Trick comprised entirely of Western players. Collins was clearly qualified, and as such, was sitting right there when Carle collected the award.

Fast forward to this year, and you can understand why the concept of, say, Matt Gilroy, Colin Wilson and Brad Thiessen in the Hobey Hat Trick doesn’t quite work in my head. It should, in theory, be just as hard to get an all-Eastern Hobey Hat Trick as an all-Western Hobey Hat Trick.

But in practice, will it be?

(Pause for more shouts of “East Coast Bias!!”)

I’m not sure, but if I’m picking a player from the CCHA or the WCHA to sit in the Hobey Hat Trick, there are several options.

The obvious place to start would be with Stoa, who’s been as consistent a presence in the Hobey conversation as any player in the west. He has more goals than any other WCHA player, and the forwards who win the Hobey do tend to be formidable goal-scorers (as opposed to forwards who are primarily set-up men). He’s come back from a season-ending injury last season to lead the way for the Gophers. Unfortunately, leading the way is less impressive if your team isn’t going anywhere special, and with Minnesota fighting for its NCAA tournament life, I’m wondering how Stoa’s chances will be affected by a disappointing season in Gopherland.

Then, there’s the Michigan duo of Louie Caporusso and Aaron Palushaj. Of the two, Caporusso appears the stronger candidate, as he’s the CCHA’s leading goal-scorer, while Palushaj is more the setup man. The thing that gives me a bit of pause is the way he’s struggled to light the lamp in 2009, with just five goals in the last two months. To his credit, though, he did average a point and a half per game in February, finding ways to be effective even when he wasn’t putting the puck in the net himself. Palushaj has a higher points-per-game average, so that may count for something, but I think Caporusso may be the best Hobey candidate in the West, and I’m wondering why he doesn’t have a snazzy website like Thiessen39.com or PickVik.com. Is KingLouie.com available?

Garrett Roe from St. Cloud State is the leading point scorer among the western conferences, but he suffers from two problems. First, like Palushaj, his goal total is a little underwhelming for the hat trick, and second, like Stoa, Roe is not likely to see the NCAA tournament, and a lack of team success may hurt (and yes, I know it didn’t hurt Matt Carle in 2006 – more on that later – but St. Cloud hasn’t won a game in the NCAA tournament, let alone back-to-back titles). 

McBain, as an upperclassmen and one of the top scoring defensemen in the country, has been another of the more steady presences in the Hobey conversation this season, but I’m wondering if his thunder has been stolen by Denver’s Patrick Weircoch. Now, Hobey doesn’t seem to like freshmen all that much – see the unconscionable snub of WCHA Player/Rookie of the Year Richard Bachman last season – but Weircoch has 16 points in 15 games since the start of 2009, at a point in the season when freshmen can be expected to “hit the wall,” and has tied McBain for the WCHA lead in defenseman scoring (not to mention the lead among the “big four” conferences). If not for Hobey’s skepticism about freshmen, Weircoch would be the West’s best hope for a Hat Trick spot (and for all I know, he may still be).

Notre Dame’s Erik Condra is another name we’ve heard a bit more in recent weeks, and while his scoring average is on the low end of this conversation, there are a few things working in his favor. First, he’s a senior and his team’s captain, and the Irish are one of the top contenders for the national championship. Second, he’s been one of the key figures in Notre Dame’s emergence on the national scene over the last few years. Third, he’s put himself in the picture with 20 points in 16 games in 2009, picking up his game over the later weeks of the regular season. The points may say otherwise, but don’t sleep on Condra as the West’s representative in the Hobey Hat Trick.

But of course, this may not be the only way to look at it. There are two other possibilities I want to float, which would certainly be a bit unorthodox. The thing is, a year like this might lend itself to unorthodox thinking.

The first possibility is that Air Force’s Jacques Lamoureux could fill in as a representative from the West. Even though Lamoureux plays in Atlantic Hockey, he also plays in Colorado, which could satisfy the geographic tendencies of the Hat Trick. I think that given the lack of a true dominating candidate, Lamoureux – with the national lead in goals (and power-play goals and game-winning goals), the intangibles that come with being an Air Force cadet, and a nomination for the Hockey Humanitarian Award to boot – is a very likely candidate for the Hat Trick, and coming out of Colorado Springs, could be the man from the West in this year’s Hobey Hat Trick.

The other possibility that creeped into my head is a little off the wall. He’s not going to sniff the NCAA tournament this year. His team is having an awful season. But at the same time, when you think about what the Hobey Baker is supposed to represent, he may be one of the best candidates for the award in years.

I’m referring to Michigan State goalie Jeff Lerg.

Yes, the Spartans are having a year that must be described as awful, bordering on embarrassing. But Lerg is hardly the culprit. After all, he’s No. 9 in the nation in save percentage, having faced more shots than any other goalie in the country (Brad Thiessen and UConn’s Beau Erickson are the only ones who are even remotely close). He also does all that while overcoming his small stature -which leaves him much less room for error than, say, Thiessen (6′ even), Chad Johnson (6’2″), or Ben Scrivens (6’2″) – and his severe asthma. He’s also an excellent student and a finalist for the Hockey Humanitarian Award. And while his season will end long before that of just about anyone else in the Hobey race, he does have that 2007 NCAA title on his résumé, and I have a sneaking suspicion that helped Matt Carle a little bit in 2006, when Denver missed the NCAA tournament. Will it happen? Probably not, but who knows?

I could be completely wrong about this, and we could find ourselves looking at Scrivens, Wilson and Thiessen; Gilroy, Lamoureux and Zane Kalemba; or some other all-Eastern combination. However, my gut feeling is that that won’t happen, and that someone in the CCHA or WCHA should make sure he has a nice suit for April 10. Maybe it’s Louie Caporusso. Maybe it’s Patrick Weircoch. Maybe it’s Erik Condra.

Maybe it’s Jeff Lerg.