Yeah, I know, I’m a bit late to the party this year, but better late than never.
Welcome back to the Hobey Watch blog, where I, your humble correspondent, analyze the race for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, and attempt to predict the finalists and winner for college’s top individual honor.
Now, I’m pleased to report that due to a couple of developments since I came back to USCHO last year, I’ll be able to see more college hockey this season, both on TV and in person, which should give me additional perspective for my projections and analysis this season. However, as is my custom, I’ll start with the Casting Call, wherein I look at last year’s group of Hobey finalists, and look to fill those players’ roles for this season.
This part of my job is about as easy as it’s been, as four of last year’s Hobey finalists have returned: Air Force forward Jacques Lamoureux, Colgate forward David McIntyre, Princeton goaltender Zane Kalemba, and Michigan forward Louie Caporusso.
Now, never mind that we haven’t had a repeat Hobey finalist since I’ve been doing these “Casting Calls.” Big things are expected from all of those players, and I’ll join in those expectations. I’m not re-casting their roles just yet.
Jamie McBain is one of the three Hobey finalists I didn’t pick last season, mostly because of the issue with his plus/minus rating, but the fact remains that he was one of the nation’s most potent offensive defensemen last season, albeit for a team that missed the NCAA tournament.
I wouldn’t expect Denver to be sitting home in March – although it has happened to a team with high preseason expectations before (2004-05 Minnesota Duluth, anyone?) – but that’s really not the concern here. What I’m looking at is the fact that Patrick Wiercioch stepped in at Denver and became one of the nation’s top offensive defensemen. If he can replicate that performance as a sophomore, and if the Pioneers can live up to their high expectations, I’d look for Wiercioch to be a big part of the Hobey conversation.
Wisconsin’s top rival Minnesota also missed the NCAA tournament last year, and as the Gophers look to change that, I’ve got my eye on Cade Fairchild. He and Wiercioch are the top two offensive defensemen returning to college hockey, and both actually put up more points than did Jamie McBain. However, the Badgers came closer to the NCAA tournament than did the Gophers, and we know Hobey doesn’t especially like freshmen
When I think of Alaska’s Chad Johnson and Northeastern’s Brad Thiessen, I think of two goalies who took a traditional non-factor and put them in the mix come March. Obviously, Thiessen’s Huskies got into the NCAA tournament, while Johnson’s Nanooks did not, but the profile is still largely the same. I’m going to pick two players here for this role.
As a sophomore. Dartmouth’s Jody O’Neill may be a bit young for the role, but he was a major factor in Dartmouth’s quick turnaround his freshman year. Evan Stephens and Joe Stejskal should lead a strong blueline corps in front of him, so O’Neill will have a chance to put the Big Green in the NCAA tournament after spending the majority of Bob Gaudet’s tenure on the wrong side of the bubble. If that happens, look for him to get some Hobey buzz.
Certainly, the perennial also-ran with the highest expectations this season is UMass-Lowell, and the River Hawks have gotten strong goaltending in the past from both Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton. If one of those two netminders can grab the reins and drive the River Hawks into the NCAA tournament, that’s a good place to look for a Hobey finalist.
Viktor Stalberg was one of three Hobey finalists I didn’t see coming last season, so it’s going to be a little bit difficult for me to figure out who fills the role. It’s tempting to pick his younger brother, Vermont freshman Sebastian Stalberg, but let’s let the kid adjust to college hockey a bit, huh?
I think the things that stood out to me about Stalberg when I had the chance to watch him are his skill level and the balance he was able to strike between goals and assists. It’s a combination that Louie Caporusso has at Michigan, obviously, but he’s already on the list.
Boston University junior Nick Bonino is the top returning scorer for the reigning national champions, and the top returning goal-scorer as well. He was a bit more of an assist man last season, but with two finishers like Brandon Yip and Jason Lawrence graduating, Bonino will be called on to keep putting the puck in the net, and if you’re looking for potential Hobey contenders, a guy who had 50 points a year ago is a good place to start.
Army’s Owen Meyer fits more in the roll of “Small Conference Superstar” currently held by Jacques Lamoureux, but he’s worth keeping an eye on if Lamoureux’s numbers drop this season. He was part of a really nice line two seasons ago with Luke Flicek and Bryce Hollweg, and had 21 goals and 18 assists. His numbers fell off a bit last season, but if he can come back strong as a senior, I’d look at him for a potential Hobey finalist spot.
Colin Wilson’s low goal total last season made it hard to take him seriously as a true contender for the Hobey, but there was no denying that he was one of college hockey’s top players last season, and a major factor in Boston University’s run to the NCAA title. A player who hands out the helpers with the skill and frequency that Wilson showed last season will be part of the mix.
In some ways, Jordan Schroeder is almost the opposite of Wilson: he certainly doesn’t have have Wilson’s stacked physique, and while Wilson’s stock skyrocketed heading into the draft (largely due to said physique), Schroeder fell from a projected Top-5 pick to a late first-round grab by the Canucks. Still, Schroeder is a top assist man, and like Wilson, he impressed at the World Junior Championship. What’s more, like Wilson last year, Schroeder is part of a proud program looking to restore itself to glory after missing the NCAA tournament.
The other assist man I’d keep an eye on is Aaron Palushaj of Michigan. Some people had him pegged for a finalist spot last year, but that spot went to Caporusso because Hobey prefers goals. That said, Palushaj showed himself to be an elite setup man, and there is an opening for one of those this season.
(Added 10/21: My bad on the Palushaj pick…insert grumbling about early signings here…let’s give it another go…Ryan Lasch and Garrett Roe of St. Cloud have been on my radar for a while, and they’re both upperclassmen now. Lasch has filled this role before, when he was a Hobey finalist two seasons ago, and Roe was one of my picks as a Hobey finalist last season, although the real voters disagreed. I feel like one or both of these guys could easily get back to that level one more time.)
Let’s be perfectly honest. There’s no one in college hockey this season whose overall package of on- and off-ice can be compared to Matt Gilroy. This isn’t fawning or putting Gilroy up on a pedestal: it’s just a matter of fact. Really, how often do you find a walk-on who switches positions as a freshman, develops into an all-American as a sophomore, turns down more than 20 pro offers after his junior year, then winds up captaining the best team in the country to a national championship as a senior? It just doesn’t happen, and that it did with Matt Gilroy will long remain one of the best stories that college hockey has ever produced. I would say the same for Jeff Lerg and Jacques Lamoureux as well, but we’re not talking about those guys right now.
As good as Gilroy’s story is, it doesn’t make him last year’s Hobey winner without the on-ice component, so let’s start with that. I’m looking for a defenseman in a leadership position on an elite team that missed the NCAA tournament last season (as BU did in 2008).
I just talked to Wisconsin’s Ryan McDonagh for a New York Daily News feature, and the Badgers certainly fit the profile as a traditional power that watched from home back in March. As a first-round NHL draft pick and former Mr. Hockey in his home state of Minnesota, McDonagh doesn’t have Gilroy’s underdog story, and he also doesn’t have the track record that Gilroy had built at BU before last season. Still, he’s likely to eventually be Gilroy’s teammate with the New York Rangers after Montreal traded his draft rights this past summer, and McBain’s departure will leave some bigtime minutes to fill, and McDonagh, one of the Badgers’ tri-captains this season, is a likely candidate to do some of the filling.
The other guy I’d keep an eye on is Chris Summers of Michigan. Sure, Michigan didn’t miss the NCAA tournament last season, but the Wolverines did take a kick in the collective gut with their first-round loss to Air Force, so there’s a certain amount of pride to be reclaimed. As for Summers himself, he’s Michigan’s captain, and he’s a first-round draft pick who opted to play all four years of college hockey (although, when your NHL draft rights are held by the ugly mess of an organization that is the Phoenix Coyotes, that probably makes the decision easier). Summers has seen time both at forward and on defense in his time at Michigan, and he’ll need a big breakout season to get into the Hobey conversation, but he’s certainly the kind of guy I’d keep my eye on.
Of course, as we’ve seen, my preseason casting call isn’t a particularly reliable indicator as to who’s going to be a Hobey finalist at the end of the year, but then, picking teams at the beginning of the season is dicey enough, let alone picking players. As such, this is as good a place to start as any, and we’ll see where it goes from here.