Wide-open race makes for important final weeks for Hobey hopefuls

As we prepare for next week’s announcement of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, the most impressive thing to me about this year’s race is how wide open it is.

Yes, with the proverbial gun to my head, I would still pick Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau to win the award when all is said and done — especially now that he’s the national points-per-game leader again — but from where we sit right now, there are several qualified candidates who could easily walk away with college hockey’s top individual honor in less than a month.

Picking the Hobey Hat Trick is an even more complicated enterprise, trying to pick a top three from a group that includes Gaudreau, Greg Carey of St. Lawrence, Ryan Walters of Nebraska-Omaha, Danny Kristo and Corban Knight of North Dakota, Erik Haula of Minnesota and Eric Hartzell of Quinnipiac.

That having been said, as we evaluate the action due to unfold this weekend, I’d say that the stakes are highest on three players: Walters, Carey and Hartzell. I think that all three players are pretty much locks to be named finalists next week, but if they want to go further than that, big performances this weekend are an absolute must.

Walters probably hasn’t gotten as much coverage in this space as he’s deserved this spring, as he is having a fantastic year for the Mavericks. His 50 points lead the WCHA (although Haula leads slightly in points per game), and having 21 of those points be goals is tremendously helpful to his cause. As I’ve written in the past, this year’s Hobey Hat Trick will have room for one player (at most) who doesn’t advance to the NCAA tournament, and I’d give the nod to Walters over Carey — assuming neither makes the tournament — based on the strength of the conference in which he plays, which likely will help make his stats more impressive to the voters.

By the way, I was very impressed by his goal in the first period against Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, and that will almost definitely be a part of the Hobey finalist video you see at the conference and regional tournaments in a couple of weeks.

However, that having been said, I’m not convinced that this year’s Hobey Hat Trick will have any players that don’t advance to the NCAAs. With a field that includes Gaudreau, the two North Dakota players, Haula and Hartzell, it’s very easy to see a Hat Trick that excludes both, even if one of them winds up as the nation’s top scorer.

Remember, there is no “divine right” to Hobey success associated with being the nation’s top scorer. It was something of a stunner when Ryan Potulny didn’t advance to the Hobey Hat Trick in 2006, while forwards Dave Borrelli of Mercyhurst and Bryan Leitch of Quinnipiac were left out of the top 10 altogether in 2005 and 2009, respectively.

While I don’t see that kind of a snub in the cards for either Carey or Walters, I do think that both could be left home from the Hat Trick if neither is in the NCAAs. That makes this weekend’s playoff series — Carey and St. Lawrence at Yale, Walters and UNO at Minnesota State — crucial for both players … besides, of course, that both players care much more about their team fates than an individual award.

That leaves Hartzell, who will certainly be playing in the NCAA tournament, likely as a top regional seed. However, Quinnipiac will certainly have some doubters based on lack of history and conference affiliation, not to mention a couple of questionable non-conference losses (although Hartzell wasn’t in net for that American International stunner), and if the Bobcats go home early from the ECAC Hockey tournament, it’ll be a huge blow to Hartzell’s chances.

Quinnipiac has a tough draw for this weekend’s quarterfinal series — Cornell was supposed to be much better than it showed during the regular season, and the Big Red fans travel well enough to take over almost any building they visit — but I have a feeling that Hartzell’s Hobey chances are shot if the Bobcats fall this weekend.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts below.