A feeling I get when I look to the West

It’s always nice to see when a blog post gets people talking, and last week’s Hobey Watch post about goalies certainly did that. Of course, given that some of the chatter consisted of suggestions of “East Coast bias” and questions about the absence of Minnesota netminder Kent Patterson from my list, I was left with a bit more thinking to do as I posted this week.

As far as Patterson is concerned, I actually wrote a feature on him for NCAA.com early in the season, so he’s definitely been on my radar. There’s no question that he’s been a very steady presence for the Gophers this season, and a key factor in what seems to be a likely return to the NCAA tournament. He leads the nation in shutouts and is among the nation’s top 10 goaltenders in goals against average. I think the reason I didn’t include Patterson had something to do with his save percentage, where he ranks 29th in the nation. Given that only two goaltenders have won the Hobey in the last 31 years, I don’t think someone who’s outside the top 10 in either save percentage or GAA has a real shot at the Hobey. Of course, that would knock out Kieran Millan of Boston University, but since it was the BU promotional material about Millan that inspired last week’s blog post, it’d be kind of hard to write the post without him.

That having been said, most of last week’s post did concern Eastern players, which makes it only fair that I go in the other direction this week. So, this week, we’ll focus on the Hobey candidates in the West.

About a month ago, I was fairly certain that Jack Connolly of Minnesota-Duluth was the clear front-runner for the Hobey. He was leading the nation in scoring, the Bulldogs held the top national ranking, and the other top forwards played for teams that were not on track to earn an NCAA tournament berth. Things have changed a fair bit in the last month, although it’s not like Connolly has slowed down all that much. He’s still one of the top scorers in the country with 50 points in 32 games (1.56 PPG), but he’s now second to Spencer Abbott of Maine, whose Black Bears are solidly in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are in a hard-fought battle to a top NCAA tournament seed, and are ranked fourth in the country this week rather than first. All of that having been said, the fact remains that Connolly is the biggest reason why the Bulldogs have a serious chance at repeating as NCAA champions despite heavy offseason losses. Minnesota-Duluth has two other players among the national scoring leaders in J.T. Brown and Travis Oleksuk, but as Hobey candidates from the West go, Connolly still belongs atop the list.

Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz will almost certainly suffer as a Hobey candidate because of the Badgers’ struggles this season, but he’s having a fantastic year and is a very likely Hobey finalist. Not only does Schultz lead all defensemen with 40 points (12-28–40) in 30 games, but he’s also plus-10 on a Wisconsin team that has a negative goal differential this year. Schultz hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since his freshman season, when the Badgers advanced to the NCAA title game against Boston College, and that may hurt his cause slightly, but it’s hard to imagine Schultz not making the top 10.

Denver has a couple of possible Hobey candidates at forward in Jason Zucker and Drew Shore, both of whom are among the national top 10 in scoring average. The question, however, is what separates one from the other as a Hobey candidate. Don’t be surprised if at least one of the two gets a finalist nod.

Another part of the reason that I didn’t give Patterson more of a look as a Hobey candidate last week is because I had it in mind that Nick Bjugstad is the Gophers’ best Hobey candidate. Bjugstad is third in the nation in goals (22), and is the leading scorer on a Minnesota team that’s primed to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

I’m not really seeing much in terms of Hobey candidates from the CCHA, save the goalies we discussed last week, like Jared Coreau of Northern Michigan and Shawn Hunwick from Michigan. If there’s there’s one skater I like to contend for a Hobey finalist spot out of the CCHA, it’d probably have to be Miami’s Reilly Smith, who’s second only to Colgate’s Austin Smith when it comes to goals. However, when you add Smith and Bjugstad along with the players we’ve already mentioned, that’s a strong group of candidates with a shot at the Hobey.

So, whom do you like as the top Hobey contender out of the West? How do you think this group stacks up against the Hobey candidates from the East?