Hobey Watch – The Casting Call

As the 2008-09 college hockey season gets under way, there are all sorts of questions all over the college hockey map. Will Boston College be able to repeat as national champion? Will Notre Dame continue its meteoric rise as a program? Will Minnesota bounce back after what was clearly a down year for the program? Will St. Cloud ever win an NCAA tournament game?

Personally, though, I have just one question.

Where’s my Watch List?

I’ve got to be honest: three and a half years at CSTV.com was an unbelievable experience, but it made me a little bit jealous in one regard. It seemed that every time I turned around, I was bumping into another Watch List that included everyone who might be considered for a Player of the Year award of one sort or another. The Tewaaraton Trophy for the nation’s top lacrosse player has a Watch List. The M.A.C. Hermann Trophy (soccer) has a Watch List. College baseball has five or six different Player of the Year awards, with some ridiculously expansive Watch Lists. The Heisman Trophy may not have an official Watch List, but really, everyone and his brother does a weekly Heisman Watch anyway, and every single positional award in college football has a Watch List.

But for the Hobey Baker Award, no watch list (ditto the Patty Kazmaier, for that matter).

So, as I begin another season of commentary on the race for college hockey’s top individual honor, I have to come up with my own way of focusing on the likely contenders.

Thankfully, I’ve been down this road before – trying to come up with material for a weekly college hockey column throughout the entire offseason requires no shortage of creativity – and so, I present to you, the 2008-09 Hobey Baker Casting Call.

Here’s how it works: we take the ten finalists for the 2008 Hobey Baker Award, and we find players from this year’s college hockey rosters who can fill their roles. For fun, I’ll even pick understudies for the roles.

I say “to start with” for several reasons, primarily that you don’t need to fit a specific mold to be among the best players in the nation. As a matter of fact, my previous attempt to shoehorn players into roles of previous finalists resulted in the correct prediction of just one finalist (thanks, Jeff Lerg, for saving me from looking like a complete jackass). On the bright side, it’s almost impossible for me to do worse this year (almost).

So, let’s get started, shall we?

First of all, reprising their roles as Lee Jubinville, Ryan Lasch, and Jeff Lerg, we have…Lee Jubinville, Ryan Lasch, and Jeff Lerg. This isn’t exactly a safe assumption, as none of the incumbent Hobey finalists from 2007 (Nathan Davis, Eric Ehn, and 2007 winner Ryan Duncan) were finalists this past spring. However, I’ll encourage you to work with me here, assume that they won’t have to contend with major injuries (Davis, Ehn) or two Hobey finalists for teammates (Duncan), and we shall move on.

That leaves seven roles to fill: Hat Trick finalists Nathan Gerbe, Ryan Jones and Kevin Porter, along with Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, T.J. Oshie, Kevin Regan and Simon Lambert.

Lambert himself filled the role of ‘Small Conference Superstar,’ a role that’s seen its share of players in recent years. Players like Quinnipiac’s Reid Cashman in 2005 (when the Bobcats were still in Atlantic Hockey) and Air Force’s Eric Ehn have put up numbers that command attention nationally, regardless of the competition. In Ehn’s case, the military connection to Baker, a fighter pilot in World War I, gave the Falcon forward’s campaign extra momentum, and Lambert’s credentials may have been bolstered by the fact that he was recruited to play Division III hockey.

So, who to fill the role in 2008-09?

Niagara forward Ted Cook, that’s who. Don’t forget that while Atlantic Hockey has produced three Hobey Baker Finalists in four seasons, one of the first ‘Small Conference Superstars’ was a Purple Eagle (Joe Tallari in 2003). Reaney got buzz as a sophomore playing with current pros Sean Bentivoglio and Les Reaney, and is set for his senior year with the preseason CHA favorite. After scoring 32 goals as a sophomore, his production dipped to 19 goals and 31 points last season, but as a man with a 48-point season on his résumé, he’s as likely a Hobey finalist as anyone outside of the big four conferences.

The understudy is Army’s Owen Meyer. Army has been pegged as primed for a fall in 2008-09, and it’s not hard to see why. The Black Knights graduated a huge senior class this past spring, most notably two-year captain Bryce Hollweg, who will be missed much more at West Point than big brother Ryan will be by the nearby New York Rangers, and Luke Flicek. That said, since Brian Riley took over the ‘family business’ at Tate Rink, his teams have consistently found ways to exceed expectations. Meyer could and should be a key to that as a junior for the Black Knights, and if the numbers are there, his military training will work in his favor with the committee.

Moving on, Reaan was consistently solid for New Hampshire, but he was never the main attraction on teams packed with scorers. He got the job done on a regular basis, putting up good numbers, but in the end, was unable to help the Wildcats overcome their well-documented NCAA futility.

Richard Bachman of Colorado College can certainly sympathize. Bachman, the reigning WCHA Player of the Year and last season’s Rookie of the Year, was a surprise omission from the 2008 Hobey Finalists, but will certainly come into the 2008 seasons with a healthy dose of Hobey buzz. If Bachman can avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump” – and really, it’s not like you can make more of an effort against a goalie than you did the year before (as you might a sophomore forward or D once he’s shown what he can do as a freshman) – then he should be a likely Hobey finalist this time around.

The understudy is St. Cloud State’s Jase Weslosky. Weslosky showed a great deal of promise in his freshman season before being abused by North Dakota in his last appearance that year. After taking the reins from Bobby Goepfert last season, Weslosky acquitted himself well as a starter, with a 2.12 GAA and .931 save percentage. With a more veteran defensive corps in front of him, Weslosky could certainly make a push for Hobey consideration in his junior season.

Staying in net, Lamoureux began last season amid questions about whether he might be North Dakota’s Achilles heel. He proceeded to make the people asking such questions look quite foolish (I would include myself in this, but apparently, according to a sizable number of you, I already look quite foolish anyway). Lamoureux opened the season with an impressive shutout streak, and even after observers noted a significant drop-off by shaking their heads and saying, “Same old Lamoureux,” the Grand Forks native regrouped and was solid down the stretch…until he had to deal with Nathan Gerbe in the Frozen Four.

The truth is that Billy Sauer should be free of these sorts of comparisions after the season he had in 2007-08, but after his meltdown at the Frozen Four last season, there may still be questions about how he’ll respond and regroup. Personally, while Sauer’s problems at the Pepsi Center would concern me if I were on the hockey operations staff of the Colorado Avalanche (which holds Sauer’s rights), no college games are scheduled there this season, and with Josh Blackburn still on the Michigan staff to offer his guidance, Sauer should be the goalie we saw for most of last season, rather than the one we saw at the end.

Picking an understudy for this role is tricky, since part of the idea is that such a player is looked at as a liability right now, rather than a strength. As such, this pick is the longshot of all longshots. I’ll go out on a limb and name Joe Palmer from Ohio State. With a sub-.900 save precentage in each of his first two seasons, Palmer has yet to deliver on his potential for the Buckeyes, not unlike other recent NTDP goalies (see also Bennett, Brett; Frazee, Jeff), but when you’re picking a surprise Hobey contender in goal, you can do a whole lot worse than an NTDP alum drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Blackhawks.

While we’re on the subject of filling North Dakota roles, let’s look at Oshie. When I look at Oshie, I see a highly skilled, hard-working two-way player. That may be a bland description for such an exciting player, but the truth is that Oshie doesn’t have that much of a story I can work off of; he’s just really, really good. Of course, he’s also in St. Louis now, which means we need to cast his role.

Chad Rau of Colorado College is someone who definitely deserves a mention here. He’s got the skill – one of the most dangerous shots in college hockey – he works hard, and he just happens to be the WCHA’s Preseason Player of the Year. I’d say that’s a good place to start.

As for an understudy, I’m going to look to ECAC Hockey and Cornell’s Riley Nash. Why? Well, if you play for Mike Schafer, you play both ways, and you play hard both ways. Nash also happens to be a late first-round draft pick (21st overall by Edmonton in 2007), which isn’t something you see often in that conference. As such, Nash has a good chance to be the best player on the ice in most of his games this season. My lone concern about Nash is that he can go into business for himself at times out on the ice, and that tendency does need to be reined in. Nonetheless, keep an eye on Nash as a potential Hobey contender out of ECAC Hockey.

That leaves the three Hobey Hat Trick players’ roles to be filled, and we’ll start with Nathan Gerbe. Gerbe’s detractors certainly won’t be shy to offer their thoughts on his distinguishing characteristics, but I’ll keep it positive and stick to what made him a member of the Hat Trick last season: he’s a small player whose success revolves around his being the hardest-working player on the ice, and is a key player in all situations for his team. Looking at those aspects of Gerbe’s game, filling his role is pretty easy.

It’s pretty hard to leave a former Hobey Baker winner out of preseason Hobey discussion, and this is as good a place as any to get North Dakota’s Ryan Duncan into the mix. Duncan isn’t much bigger than Gerbe, and work ethic was a key element in his Hobey Baker campaign in 2006-07. His production dipped in 2007-08, but the Sioux got back to the Frozen Four. With Oshie gone, Duncan’s leadership will be key for this North Dakota team, and if they surpass expectations this year, Duncan will likely have a lot to do with it.

As for an understudy, we’ll go back to the Heights and keep an eye on Joe Whitney. He’s the same size as Gerbe, plays on the same team in the same system, and he posted 51 points as a freshman. Works for me if he can avoid a sophomore slump, which he’ll need to, since BC will be counting on him for big things this season.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have the highest respect for Ryan Jones. Not only was he a great power forward for Miami, but he was an exceptional leader for the RedHawks, and his generous donation to Locks of Love after the season (over the objection of then-ESPN commentator Barry Melrose) added a strong off-ice component to his Hobey candidacy. The total package Ryan Jones brought to the table was unique, but I’ll cast the role as best I can.

Staying in the CCHA, I’ll look to Notre Dame captain Erik Condra. Condra missed Notre Dame’s run to the Frozen Four with an untimely injury late last season, but he has been a key figure in the Irish’s rise to national prominence under Jeff Jackson. Condra’s line with Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang has been a consistent weapon for the Irish over the last couple of seasons, and after being an assistant captain last season, Condra is in his second season in a leadership role. As for the off-ice component of Condra’s candidacy, Notre Dame lists his major as psychology/pre-professional studies, but after hearing Jeff Jackson describe him as a pre-med two years ago, I’m wondering if Condra still has designs on the medical profession. I will say that whether Condra, an Ottawa draftee, will make his parents proud one way or another: either as a doctor or a Senator.

As for an understudy, I’ve got my eye on Colin Wilson at Boston University. Jones was traded to Nashville in the offseason, not long after the Predators drafted Wilson. Moreover, Jones’ dedication in the weight room was particularly noteworthy to his teammates and coaches at Miami, and anyone who saw Wilson at the NHL Draft noticed how impressive he is as a physical specimen. As he continues to work with Mike Boyle in the BU weight room and Jack Parker and his staff on the ice, Wilson definitely has the potential for a breakout season with his power game.

That brings us to the 2008 Hobey Baker winner, Kevin Porter. Porter was, of course, the nation’s leading scorer for most of last season (before Nathan Gerbe’s sick performance in the Frozen Four), but the things that I think of when I look at Porter are the fact that he was a great leader for a team that needed one, and he came back to finish his college career when he had the legitimate option to turn pro. With that in mind, my pick to play the role of Porter plays a different position on the ice.

He probably won’t be the nation’s leading scorer, but Boston University defenseman Matt Gilroy is the only player in the country to be an All-American in each of the last two seasons, which makes him a must-include when sizing up the contenders for college hockey’s top individual honor. He’ll be the Terriers’ captain this season, after putting off the pros to finish his BU career. His motives were partly financial – because of his age, Gilroy will be able to bypass the NHL’s entry-level contract system – but elite players who complete their college careers are a rare commodity these days, and I’d expect him to get a long look for the Hobey this season.

As for an understudy, it’s hard to find someone else to fit the role, but I’ll look to a player wearing an A for his team in Denver’s Tyler Ruegsegger. Ruegsegger and his linemate/classmate/fellow assistant captain Rhett Rakhshani will be the Pioneers’ leaders on offense this season, much as Porter and Chad Kolarik were for Michigan last season. There were few, if any, reports of Toronto targeting Ruegsegger for an early signing, but given the overall state of that organization, it’s hard to imagine that they would have minded if Ruegsegger had been ready to leave the Mile High City. Perfect fit? No. A guy worth keeping on the radar? Absolutely.

Of course, not everyone is going to fit the profile, but those names will emerge in time. For now, we have 17 players to keep an eye on.

Stay tuned.

Author: Elliot Olshansky

Elliot Olshansky covers the Hobey Baker Award beat for USCHO.com and also covers men’s and women's hockey and lacrosse at NCAA.com for Turner Sports. His experience includes four years covering college hockey for CSTV, stints at other media outlets including the New York Daily News and Spike TV, and freelance writing. His debut novel, "Robert's Rules of Karaoke," is currently available from The Write Deal (www.thewritedeal.org).