The case for the goalies

There are so many things I like about my annual trip up to Boston for the Beanpot. I enjoy seeing so many friends from the Boston media in the press room before the games, from Brion O’Connor of ESPN Boston to John Connolly of the Boston Herald to Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of the Boston Globe to the USCHO contingent of Dave Hendrickson, Jimmy Connelly and Scott Weighart (and I know I’m leaving people out … trust me, I like seeing you, too!). In addition, TD Garden serves one of the best press meals in the country, although I ruined my appetite this year by eating too big a lunch at Uburger. Most of all, though, I know that the Beanpot is going to deliver great hockey, as it did this past Monday with Boston College’s overtime victory over Boston University.

(Note to the “Beanpot is overrated” crowd: Regardless of how good the teams may be in any given year, there’s no arguing that the grand stage brings out the best in the participants.)

In addition, I love knowing that whenever I go to the Beanpot, I’m going to come away with something to write about. This year’s tournament was no exception, although my inspiration for this week’s post came from an odd source: the info table in the press room.

A quick explanation: the Will McDonough Press Room at TD Garden is broken up into two parts: the dining room and the work room. In the middle of the work room is a table that, on the days of the Beanpot, contains media guides, line charts, press releases and other informational forms. Among these on Monday afternoon was a flier from the BU athletic communications department promoting goaltender Kieran Millan as a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award.

This, of course, is pretty standard stuff. I’ve seen plenty of promotional materials for various Hobey candidates over the years, in addition to fliers for All-American candidates. What made this jump out at me was that last week, in this space, I wrote this: “keep an eye on Adam Clendening of Boston University as a representative of a Terriers squad that has been excellent this year, despite midseason turmoil and that, like the rival Eagles, there’s no superstar forward to speak of.”

Apparently, the feeling at BU is that the appropriate representative is Millan, and after watching the Terriers on Monday, it’s hard to dispute that.

Not that Clendening played badly, mind you. His assist on Garrett Noonan’s second goal on Monday was a beautiful play, as Clendening controlled the puck while skating backward before threading his pass through traffic to Noonan for the goal. It’s just that Millan turned in an outstanding (albeit unsuccessful) effort, right up until Bill Arnold’s shot won it for the Eagles in the waning seconds of what otherwise would have been just the first overtime. Jerry York, by the way, later remarked on the difficulty of beating Millan on his glove side, which gives some indication of how much respect Millan has earned with his play this year.

Now, the reason I hadn’t given Millan much consideration before has to do with his statistical performance this season. It’s not even really a case of “Ryan Miller numbers” being the issue so much as it is his place in the national statistical rankings. With Monday’s 44-save performance in the books, Millan is 15-10-1 with a 2.41 goals against-average and a .926 save percentage. That ranks him 21st in the country in win percentage, 29th in GAA and 13th in save percentage. It’s not hard to see how a statistical look at Millan didn’t exactly scream “Hobey Baker” at me.

On the other hand, watching Millan as he came up with big save after big save against the Eagles drove home the point of how valuable he’s been this season to BU, a team that is tied for third in the PairWise Rankings, when the Terriers could easily have fallen apart after the midseason double-whammy of losing Corey Trivino and Charlie Coyle. Clendening is certainly an important piece of the Terriers’ puzzle, but it’s become clear that as things stand, Millan is the cornerstone, doing what needs to be done to win far more often than not. Pull him off the Terriers, think about where they’d be, and you get a good sense of why he’s the Hobey candidate on that team.

That got me thinking about the other goalies who could be considered for the award this season, who have similar roles in their team’s success this season (albeit without the midseason drama). Should their status as Hobey contenders be called into doubt simply because of the lack of “Ryan Miller numbers?” Ryan Miller didn’t think so when I spoke with him last year.

Several commenters have mentioned Shawn Hunwick of Michigan, and he certainly has a strong case. He’s got a record of 18-9-3 with a 2.08 goals against average and a .931 save percentage, which ranks him 11th, 10th and seventh in the country in those categories. Michigan doesn’t have a single big scorer — points leader Chris Brown is 62nd in the nation in points per game — so Hunwick is the most likely Hobey candidate on a team that’s in contention for a top regional seed in the NCAA tournament. Throw in the unlikely story of a walk-on who went to Michigan at the last minute and has succeeded despite being undersized for his position, and it’s very easy to see Hunwick as a Hobey finalist and possibly more.

Ferris State has certainly thrived on goaltending this season — the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the polls and the PairWise this week despite being in the middle of the pack nationally in scoring offense. But with senior Taylor Nelson and freshman C.J. Motte dividing up the netminding duties, it’s hard to see either making a serious run at the award, if for no other reason than because it simply hasn’t happened that way in the past. Nelson may get a finalist nod, as Miami’s Cody Reichard did in 2010, but don’t expect it to go much further than that.

Of course, Ferris isn’t the only school enjoying a historically rare year as a powerhouse, and Massachusetts-Lowell’s Doug Carr should be getting some serious attention. At 18-5-0 with a 1.81 goals against average and a .935 save percentage, Carr is the nation’s leader in win percentage while ranking third in save percentage and fourth in GAA. With Lowell leading Hockey East and contending for a top regional seed, I’d certainly keep an eye on Carr for some big honors.

Finally, there’s Troy Grosenick of Union. It would have been easy to see the Dutchmen dropping off big time after Nate Leaman left to take over at Providence and Keith Kinkaid decided to start his pro career, but Grosenick has stepped up admirably to backstop a Union team that leads ECAC Hockey. With a 1.58 goals against average and a .940 save percentage, Grosenick is leading the nation in both of the main goaltending statistics, which should start some serious Hobey conversation there. One thing that does work against him is that he’s been out of the lineup lately due to a “lower-body injury,” and Colin Stevens has performed well in his absence, as the Dutchmen are on a five-game unbeaten streak. It shouldn’t hurt your cause if the backup performs well in your absence, but given how rarely goalies win the Hobey in the first place, who knows?

You could certainly go on down the line with the likes of Merrimack’s Joe Cannata and Northern Michigan’s Jared Coreau, both of whom have their teams in position for NCAA tournament berths on the strength of outstanding numbers. However, there’s a limit to how many of these players can actually be considered for the Hobey, and if history is any indication, that limit is four. In 2005, Dov Grumet-Morris of Harvard, David McKee of Cornell, Jordan Sigalet of Bowling Green and Tuomas Tarrki of Northern Michigan were all named finalists for the Hobey, tying the record for goalies in the Hobey top 10. With a number of talented skaters having outstanding seasons as well, it’s hard to see this year’s group of goalies breaking that record. But then again, I could be wrong, and you’re more than entitled to say so below.

Other things to consider: If there can be four goalies in the Hobey top 10 this year, which ones should they be? Do you think the Hobey voters will look past the numbers to see the impact these players have had on their teams? Could one of these goalies possibly top the likes of Connolly, Abbott and Smith to win the Hobey? Leave your thoughts below, and I’ll see you back here next week.