Final thoughts and a quick look at next season’s potential Hobey hopefuls

The end of another college hockey season is upon us, and along with it, the end of another Hobey Watch. Congratulations to Drew LeBlanc and St. Cloud State on the program’s first Hobey Baker Award, and congratulations to Yale on its first NCAA championship.

Having spent a lot of time around the Yale and Quinnipiac programs during my CSTV years, it was very exciting to see the Bulldogs and Bobcats playing for an NCAA championship, and certainly, having gotten my start covering ECAC Hockey, it’s great to see the conference shine on the big stage.

It’s also great to see the Hobey Baker Award go to LeBlanc, who certainly breaks the mold established by previous Hobey winners. There’s been a smattering of backlash since LeBlanc won on Friday, but overall, I think a winner like LeBlanc is good for the award because it shows that there is a place for the playmaking forward on the Hobey stage (and given that Hobey himself was the ultimate team player, having died testing out a repaired plane so none of the men under his command would have to, I think it’s entirely appropriate that there be a place for a guy who’s best known for helping his teammates score).

Of course, as I pointed out last week, the Hobey winner was going to break the mold regardless of which Hat Trick member got the award, and the fact that this year’s Hobey went to LeBlanc means that goalies (Eric Hartzell) and small Boston College forwards (Johnny Gaudreau) are out again … but for how long? After all, as we begin to look ahead to next year, two of the more intriguing candidates are a small BC forward (Gaudreau, if he stays in school to play with younger brother Matt) and a goalie (Massachusetts-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck).

Hellebuyck will be an interesting case, as he posted those elusive “Ryan Miller numbers” over his 23 games in the River Hawks’ net this year, most notably a .952 save percentage. Come fall, he should be the man from day one, and if he can avoid a “sophomore jinx” or any other similar misfortune, he should have a great case to win the award.

Gaudreau, meanwhile, told reporters after the Hobey ceremony that he’s planning to return to school next season and that the Calgary Flames are giving him space to make his own decisions. That hasn’t always been the case in Calgary (see also: Chucko, Kris), but this is obviously a different regime, and for whatever else one might say about Jay Feaster’s performance up there, it’s good to hear that Gaudreau isn’t being pressured.

If he indeed comes back, he’ll obviously enter 2013-14 as a favorite for the award, and if the performance is there, he could break through for the Eagles. It’s also worth noting that BC’s performance tends to be better in even-numbered years than odd-numbered ones since the 2001 NCAA title season — five Frozen Fours and three titles in even years, one Frozen Four and no titles in odd years) — and if that form holds, the additional team success could put Gaudreau over the top.

I’m not going to get too deep into other candidates just now — we’ll save that for the fall — but I would be remiss if I didn’t note the three players named as “Hobey Hopefuls” by my colleague Dave Starman during ESPN’s intermission report on Saturday night: New Hampshire forward Kevin Goumas, Miami forward Austin Czarnik and Minnesota State forward Matt Leitner.

Goumas is an interesting case right off the bat because he’s a playmaking forward who doesn’t score a lot of goals himself, and that’s a type that hasn’t gotten much Hobey love until this year with LeBlanc. Obviously, LeBlanc’s selection shows it’s possible, and I would certainly keep an eye on Goumas, an honorable mention Hockey East all-star this season and a past All-Academic honoree, as the 2013-14 campaign begins.

Czarnik was a Hobey finalist this year, not to mention a first-team All-American and the final CCHA player of the year. It will be interesting to see how he performs in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season, as his performance will be immune from the (never justified in the first place) criticism that “Miami never plays anyone.” He wasn’t a huge scorer this year (0.95 points per game), but there’s certainly room for a jump from sophomore to junior year, and I’ll be interested to see what Czarnik brings to the table next season.

Finally, there’s Leitner, who put up fine numbers for Minnesota State this year and could certainly be poised for an even better statistical season next year, as the Mavericks figure to be a top team in the reconstituted WCHA. That’s a bit of a double-edged sword, though: As well as Leitner might play next year, his performance likely will carry less weight than it would in this year’s WCHA, to say nothing of either of the two new conferences that are coming next year. Presuming that he stays and continues to perform at a high level, Leitner could be an interesting test case for the new WCHA as it concerns the Hobey, and I would definitely watch with interest.

But that won’t happen until the fall. For now, I’ll sign off for the Hobey Watch this year. Congrats to Yale, congrats to Drew LeBlanc and St. Cloud State, and thanks to all who read and commented this year.