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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.