Talking through some of the candidates for the 2015 Hobey Baker Award

Chris Lerch and Candace Horgan run through the list of players that have distinguished themselves this season, including Boston University’s Jack Eichel and Michigan’s Zach Hyman.

Michigan’s Zach Hyman is tied for fourth nationally with 48 points (photo: Melissa Wade).

USCHO staff writers discuss this year’s Hobey Baker Award race before the March 19 announcement of the 10 finalists.

Chris: Last season was a one-man show for Hobey, with Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau tabbed early as the overwhelming favorite to win the award. Is it a two-man race this season between Michigan senior Zach Hyman and Boston University rookie sensation Jack Eichel?

How confident do you feel that one of these two will walk away with the trophy?

Candace: I don’t think it’s necessarily a two-horse race, though those two names certainly seem to come up a lot. Gaudreau had an amazing year last year, but the year before, he finished as a Hobey runner-up, so he was pretty established. Eichel has been astounding in his first year, but in the 34 years since the award has been given, only one freshman, Paul Kariya, has won it, so Eichel is fighting history.

I can think of a few others in contention, such as Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey, Minnesota State’s Stephon Williams and Denver’s Joey LaLeggia. On the initial 10, perhaps Rochester Institute of Technology senior Matt Garbowsky might get a nod. Do you think it’s a two-horse race?

Chris: I do think Eichel and Hyman probably will be sitting next to each other in Boston, but the occupant of the other “Hobey Hat Trick” seat is anyone’s guess.

Focusing on forwards first, Garbowsky has had an amazing year and I’ve seen it mentioned that he’s the strongest candidate to be “Atlantic Hockey’s representative” on the list of the 10 Hobey finalists. But there is no such thing as an AHC “representative” — the list of finalists will be determined by the ballots of the 59 Division I coaches, period.

But speaking of Atlantic Hockey, the league I cover, I thought Robert Morris’ Cody Wydo was snubbed last season and that may help him this year, despite not having as brilliant numbers (19 goals so far versus 31 last season). It may be only because I have seen Garbowsky play a lot more than any other candidate this season, but I think he should be in the top 10. No player has meant more to his team this season.

Other forwards that I think will make the list of finalists? Vesey, as well as Union senior Daniel Ciampini, because Hobey voters love goal scorers and both of those guys can light the lamp.

And most of the guys we have mentioned have linemates that complement them, like Evan Rodrigues with Eichel at BU, Dylan Larkin with Hyman at Michigan and Kyle Criscuolo, who’s on Vesey’s line at Harvard. You might see one of them on the list of finalists as well, but despite fine seasons I think they’ll be seen in more of a supporting role.

What are your observations on likely forwards, and then who do you see besides LaLeggia as a possible finalist among blueliners?

Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey is second nationally in goals and points (photo: Melissa Wade).

Candace: I think Vesey is a strong possibility; he’s second in the country in scoring, second in points per game, and he goes to Harvard, so that plays into “scholastic achievement and sportsmanship” part of the award. I think the Harvard aura might also play in with “strength of character, on and off the ice.”

I don’t know if any blueliners will make the Hat Trick list. LaLeggia definitely is a possibility. Other defensemen to look at include Notre Dame’s Robbie Russo and Minnesota’s Mike Reilly.

What about netminders? I mentioned Williams. Alex Lyon at Yale is having a fine season. Are there any goalies you think might at least make the finalist list, if not the Hat Trick list?

Chris: Williams is a huge reason why Minnesota State is enjoying its best season ever. Lyon and rookie Kyle Hayton from St. Lawrence are the best from ECAC Hockey. With so many netminders posting minuscule numbers, it’s easy to overlook Ferris State’s CJ Motte, who has a lower GAA than he did last season, when he was a Hobey finalist. He’s a captain as well, a rarity among goaltenders.

You bring up an interesting point about the criteria, which includes off-ice traits like character and academic success. Hyman was nominated for the Hockey Humanitarian Award this season for his work promoting childhood literacy. How much will something like that factor into his chances?

The 27 members of the committee are given loose guidelines as how to evaluate the candidate holistically. They are permitted to give the criteria any weight they want, so it’s difficult to predict a player’s chances other than by using what really is, year in and year out, the dominant factor: success on the ice.

Candace: I think it always comes down to success on the ice first, and then if two players are really close, other factors come into play, such as leadership, scholastic achievement, etc. To my mind, there might always be people who long for college athletics to be more about the college part first, but I think it’s moved far beyond that, especially as you see more and more collegiate players leaving for the pros. I mean, will BU even have Eichel back next year? Even if not every player who is a pro possibility should jump, there’s always that temptation.

You made an interesting point about Motte, who is a senior. Even with more players leaving early, it does seem that more often than not, the award goes to a senior. Of the 34 winners, 23 have been seniors, five have been juniors, five have been sophomores, and one has been a freshman. That upperclassman experience also factors into the leadership criteria. However, I don’t think Motte will be even in the final 10; he is only at 21st nationally in GAA; there are two other seniors above him, Sean Cahill of Alaska and Ryan Massa of Omaha, the latter of whom has been important to his team’s success.

I think you also could make a strong argument to recognize Jamie Phillips of Michigan Tech, a team that is having its best season in years, in no small part due to Phillips’ play. When it comes to the final list, however, Phillips might be overshadowed by teammate Tanner Kero, the WCHA player of the year.

There are other interesting possibilities. Omaha’s Austin Ortega has set the NCAA record for game-winning goals. Might an intangible like that get a player on the initial finalist list?

Chris: I agree about the intangibles. They can help to break a tie in the voters’ minds. I like to look at plus/minus to see if anything pops out, and this season Shane Hanna of Michigan Tech leads all defensemen in that category (plus-28), and is third overall behind Eichel (plus-36) and BU teammate Danny O’Regan (plus-31). I don’t think we’ll see Hanna on the list of finalists, but that’s an impressive number.

In the end, I think the committee will weigh giving the award to a freshman for just the second time against going with an upperclassman with a greater body of work. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be all about this season and this season only, but an overall great career may be one of those tiebreakers that we discussed.

Candace: Where it gets interesting to me further is how much postseason play will factor in. The Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top player in women’s Division I, has voting for the winner done before the semis and finals of the conference tournaments are done. For the Hobey Baker, the committee votes for the only time after the NCAA regionals, so there’s room for a player to really assert himself as key to his team’s postseason success, something I think might factor into consideration with Hobey voters.

I’m wondering what conferences might be represented. The NCHC, which I cover, had 12 players on the initial ballot. In addition to LaLeggia, ones from that list that I think might be finalists are Miami’s Jay Williams, Omaha’s Massa and Miami’s Austin Czarnik. Of those four, I think Czarnik and LaLeggia are the most likely to be on the top 10 list.

You cover the AHC. Wydo was on the initial ballot, although I can’t find any consideration for Air Force senior Cole Gunner, who is eighth in the country in scoring. Do you think at least one AHC player might make the finalist list?

Chris: You make a great point about timing. Atlantic Hockey has had a Hobey finalist seven out of the 11 seasons it’s been in existence, and never more than one. As I said earlier, I think forwards Garbowsky and Wydo are the front-runners in the AHC, but if Gunner can help take Air Force all the way to the NCAAs and put up numbers like he did last weekend (four goals and two assists), a case can be made.