Commentary: For the 2011 Starzies, the nominees are …

The CBS College Sports Network, the national home of college hockey, will announce the winners of the third annual Starzies this weekend during the ECAC championship tournament in Atlantic City, N.J.

There are eight awards which are given out and each award is the namesake of a former great college player or coach.

The awards, the brain child of my former CSTV partner Matt McConnell (now the TV voice of the Atlanta Thrashers) recognize outstanding work in certain categories, and the winners are determined by me.

This season, as in recent seasons, I reached out to some coaches and a few colleagues in the scouting community to gauge some ideas of who best fit the criteria to win the award. Some scouts/coaches see certain teams/conferences more than others, so the vast amount of input I got on this was great.

The ultimate choice of a winner was based on their input and my observations after seeing about 100 college games this season either live or on tape through the five conferences.

On TV, the finalists will be four per award but here at USCHO I can be more liberal so I’ll mention as many candidates that got significant discussion among the unofficial committee of experts to whom I reached out. Winners will be announced this weekend, so stay tuned.

Ken Morrow Award, best defenseman

The finalists:

Justin Schultz, Wisconsin
David Warsofsky, Boston University
Jake Gardiner, Wisconsin
Taylor Fedun, Princeton
Matt Donovan, Denver
Denny Urban, Robert Morris

This produced a pretty heated discussion. The ECAC was obviously enamored with Fedun, and he just signed a pro contract after Princeton’s season-ending loss to St. Lawrence. Justin Schultz seems the clear-cut winner statistically but there were a few WCHA folks who said that Schultz is great but might not be the best defenseman on his team, a reference to Gardiner.

Matt Donovan has been solid for two years. Warsofsky showed ability this season and played his tail off for a very young BU team that hung in all season. Denny Urban doesn’t get much press but is impressive to watch and carried his great play to Reading of the ECHL.

Ron Mason Award, top coach

The finalists:

Wayne Wilson, Rochester Institute of Technology
Jeff Blashill, Western Michigan
Nate Leaman, Union
Mark Dennehy, Merrimack
Jerry York, Boston College
Red Berenson, Michigan
Jeff Jackson, Notre Dame

The obvious choice here is Dennehy. Three or four years ago Merrimack barely had the budget to stay overnight between games and now it just might get to the Frozen Four. There have been improvements at Merrimack in every area, from the facilities to the team, and Dennehy is the reason.

Then again, in the past five years only two coaches have gotten their team back to the NCAA tournament after winning it all the previous year — Michigan State’s Rick Comley in 2008 and York with BC this season. York seems too obvious because his teams are always so talented, but it takes a great coach to coach a great team. Expectations carry heavy burdens and York has met them this season in what has been a very good Hockey East.

Wayne Wilson continues his great work at RIT as that program is still making strides and should do so under his watch for years to come.

Leaman might take a hit with the upset loss to 12th-seeded Colgate in the second round of the ECAC playoffs, but he put together a season and a consistent body of work that has his name on lists of more high profile programs for next season.

Then there is Jeff Blashill at Western Michigan. There is a program going in the right direction, and he is only in year one. He changed the culture and the identity of the program this season and Western could easily knock off one or two teams in Detroit this weekend.

Here is a good one though: Red Berenson basically took the same seventh-place team he had last season and won the CCHA with it, and the CCHA was a much improved conference this season. That is impressive. He also did it minus the star power of past Michigan teams. On that note you would have to give Jeff Jackson a nomination as well. He took a young bunch on a good ride this season.

Dave Poulin Award, best freshman

The finalists:

TJ Tynan, Notre Dame
Anders Lee, Notre Dame
Jason Zucker, Denver
Mike Pereira, Massachusetts
Charlie Coyle, Boston University
Jon Merrill, Michigan

I almost watched two scouts brawl over this one! Tynan and Lee have helped each other be the dominant rookies in the NCAA this season, but how do you overlook two-time Team USA World Junior player Zucker? He’s a kid you can build a team around.

Pereira is establishing himself as a terrific player who combines his older brother Joe’s great work ethic and brings a nice set of skills to the table. Coyle is the first player for whom we used the “man child” moniker at the network since Jack Johnson departed for LA. Then again, there’s Jon Merrill, who was as good as any rookie this season and played like a vet.

Each of these kids can take over a game by himself. I’m close to calling this a five-way tie.

Ken Dryden Award, top goalie

The finalists:

John Muse, Boston College
Keith Kinkaid, Union
Sam Brittain, Denver
Cal Heeter, Ohio State
Pat Nagle, Ferris State
Shawn Hunwick, Michigan

The knock on Muse has been he is just part of a great team, but I’d counter that he is a big part of a great team and his steady play allows the Eagles to do the things they need to do to be great.

Kinkaid had a terrific season, as did Brittain in Denver. The CCHA kids in Heeter and Nagle waged a season-long battle to see who would flinch and fall out of that race and neither did. Both are to be commended for the way they gave their team a chance to win every night in some games they had no business winning.

There is a part of me that wants to add Shawn Hunwick to this list. You know what? It is my list so Hunwick is now a candidate.

Rick Meagher Award, top defensive forward

The finalists:

Brian Gibbons, Boston College
Ryan Guentzel, Notre Dame
Matt Mangene, Maine
Reilly Smith, Miami
Riley Sheahan, Notre Dame
Matt Rust, Michigan

Smith does a great job creating offense from his defensive play and his skating allows him to be a very good defensive zone player. Rust might be one of my favorite college players ever and I felt he was the top penalty killer in the nation at many times in his career.

Gibbons is unique because he is really good in both ends but his defensive play stands out with a good stick and diligence in his own end. No surprise that two Notre Dame kids make the list but Sheahan has become a tough player to play against in his own end. Mangene was brought up by a couple of Hockey East scouts who love his attention to detail in his own end and his ability to read dangerous scoring chances before they happen. Mangene played D at various times this season.

Bavis Brothers Hustle Award

The finalists:

Joe Pereira, Boston University
Carl Hagelin, Michigan
Torey Krug, Michigan State
Pat Cannone, Miami
Jason Zucker, Denver
Reilly Smith, Miami
Antoine Laganiere, Yale

When you see any of these kids play you notice them because they are involved on a shift-by-shift basis.

Laganiere plays every shift like it’s his last — great intensity and determination to win pucks. Pereira is a junkyard dog with his tenacity. Krug seems to be in constant motion even when he is sitting down. Zucker reminds me a lot of Keith Acton when he was a player — all over the ice making something happen. Smith wants the puck but almost as important he doesn’t want the other team to have it on his watch, so playing against him is never fun.

Having Cannone as a candidate for this award speaks volumes about him as a competitor. He is a player that always was involved in the game but now with his commitment to fitness he has increased his value to this team and himself big time. He now can play at full speed every shift instead of conserving energy. That extra boost has made a huge difference in how he plays.

Hagelin was a late addition to the list and the point was made that he is constantly going 100 mph on the ice. It is a great point. If anyone defines hustle, it is Hagelin.

Brian Gionta Award, top forward

Andy Miele, Miami
Carter Camper, Miami
Paul Zanette, Niagara
Paul Thompson, New Hampshire
Matt Frattin, North Dakota

This is a good one. Miele has been fabulous, especially in the second half, but so has Camper and they make each other better players. Zanette and his linemate Bryan Haczyk have been almost as good a duo. Thompson has been a huge part of why UNH has been so good and Frattin is a future NHL player who has steamrollered the WCHA.

Dee Rizzo Award, unsung hero

The finalists:

Matt Tomassoni, Miami
Patrick Wey, Boston College
Scooter Vaughn, Michigan
Pat Cannone, Miami
Shawn Hunwick, Michigan
Travis Oleksuk, Minnesota-Duluth
James Mello, Dartmouth
Pat Nagle, Ferris State

This list could have 30 players on it. Tomassoni plays everywhere you ask him to and does it well. Wey is an understated defenseman who just gets it done. Vaughn has really proven himself to be a great teammate and a versatile one; he was recruited as a defenseman to Michigan and became a very good fourth-line winger/PK guy. We’ve said a lot about Cannone but he is a top-six guy and a No. 1 or No. 2 center on any other team in the nation. But at Miami he plays behind Camper and Miele a lot in the No. 3 slot, does it without a complaint and does it well.

Hunwick might not be unsung any more after last season but try to argue against his underdog role in backstopping a potential Frozen Four team. Mello came out of nowhere to lead the Big Green to the ECAC tourney and has been very solid despite no one outside of the league knowing who he is. Oleksuk was brought to my attention a lot this season by my WCHA colleagues as a kid who just gets it done without fanfare or accolades.

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A little history behind the names of the awards: To be an award namesake you must have played all four years of your college career. In the future we might add a ninth award: The Red Berenson award for best senior. Red is a staunch supporter of players playing four years and finishing their education.

Coach of the year is named after Ron Mason, the winningest coach in NCAA hockey history.

The Ken Morrow Award is named after the 1980 Olympian who was a great defenseman at Bowling Green.

The Dave Poulin Award is so named because he had one of the better freshmen years in NCAA history playing for Notre Dame.

There have been many great NCAA goalies, but has anyone done more in the nets off a college career then Ken Dryden of Cornell?

Rick Meagher of Boston University was a three-time All-American and a great offensive player who also understood there were three zones and was pretty good away from the puck in all three.

The Bavis brothers were twin siblings who played at Boston University and were known as hardworking players with high compete levels. This award is dedicated to the late Mark Bavis and his brother Mike who is an assistant at BU and carries on the Bavis tradition every day on Comm Ave.

The Brian Gionta Award is named after a player we felt was one of the more dominant offensive players in college hockey who went on to equally as successful career in the NHL. He’s an alum of Boston College.

The Dee Rizzo Award for the Unsung Hero is an interesting one. Rizzo scored a huge goal in the 1985 CCHA playoffs at Munn Ice Arena for Michigan State to beat Ferris State. It was “the goal that sank Ferris” as Mr. McConnell, an MSU student and hockey play-by-play broadcaster aptly termed it at the time. Rizzo typified the undersized/below-the-radar player that made MSU in that era such a success, so the award is named for him.