Analyzing the Hobey
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
This year's Hobey Baker Award race became an interesting dynamic, with contrasting players, contrasting styles, and contrasting team accomplishments. It all made predicting a winner this season very difficult.
The ultimate winner, Denver defenseman Matt Carle, was undeniably a major force in college hockey this season, being named the WCHA's top offensive and defensive player in the same year — a first. But his team failed to even make the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a best-of-three series loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA playoffs.
Chris Collins opened eyes by exploding for Boston College, scoring 31 goals heading into the weekend. The vote, unfortunately for him, took place before his hat trick in Thursday's Frozen Four semifinal. His defensive play was also noteworthy, as a top penalty killer.
Then there's Wisconsin junior goaltender Brian Elliott, who had the most "yeah ... buts" of all the players, as if it was a tennis match going back-and-forth among positives and negatives. After starting the season playing every minute of the Badgers' 18-2-2 start, Elliott got injured in a practice. Subsequently, the Badgers went into a tailspin, presumably proving Elliott's importance. But then he returned too soon, and allowed a lot of goals in his first two weekends back. He eventually settled back down and recorded three straight shutouts heading into the Frozen Four, but those were against a Minnesota team in the WCHA consolation that was less than inspired, CHA champ Bemidji State, and offensively-challenged Cornell.
Finally, there was the elephant in the room — or not in the room, as the case may be — Minnesota junior Ryan Potulny. Most observers were shocked to discover that Potulny, with his 38 goals the most in the NCAA since Todd White of Clarkson in 1996-97, was not among the final three. With his dominant shooting ability, and increased intangibles this season, he seemed to be a favorite. Then again, who comes out of that list if he's in the Top 3? Collins? Then all three finalists would be from the WCHA. Maybe that worked against him. Or was it Minnesota's loss to Holy Cross? Then again, that didn't seem to hurt Carle. And so around and around we go.
My top choice, frankly, was Potulny. He has an uncanny way of creating space for himself, and for his remarkable nose for the net. This year, after an injury his freshman year, and a tailspin in the second half of his sophomore year, he dedicated himself in the weight room and it paid off in spades. There was no scarier player on the ice this season for defenses in college hockey than Ryan Potulny.
Once the final three was revealed, and the shock of Potulny's absense subsided, you could break down what remained. At that point, the question begged to be asked: Did all those Western guys split the vote, and would that mean Chris Collins would sneak in as Boston College's third-ever Hobey winner?
Ultimately, that proved not to be the case.
Backing up, I had Elliott No. 2 on my list, simply as a nod to his great overall season. Carle was third on my list, simply because of what happened to his team.
But once I found out who the final three were, I threw my support behind Carle. So why not Elliott?
As great as Elliott's numbers were this season, there are many people in college hockey — and apparently enough of them who voted — who did not see Elliott as a dominant player. He is very good, obviously, and he is in a system that helps, too. But he doesn't leave the impression as a player who steals games.
Mind you, we are splitting hairs at this point, because Elliott is clearly superb. But when trying to decide against all of these superb players, this must be taken into mind. Like Cornell's David LeNeveu and David McKee, Elliott's stats are boosted by Wisconsin's system. That doesn't necessarily mean they are lesser of a goaltender, because you can't have numbers that low if are merely average in a great system. But it is worth factoring into the equation.
At the end of the day, too, you have to trust your eyes. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, the goaltender is the most important player on the ice. And Elliott's value to Wisconsin was evident when he was gone, for as much being that backup Shane Connelly simply wasn't ready.
But when you assess who the DOMINANT players on the ice are, then Carle and Potulny rise to the top.
There's one other thing to take into consideration.
The Hobey is not supposed to be a cumulative award, but you wonder if voters, faced with uncertainty, didn't take Carle's entire career into consideration. It's hard to overlook all that he's accomplished, which includes two national championships.
Mainly, when you think of Carle's career, the first thing that usually stands out is being on the ice during the famed 6-on-3 against Maine at the end of the 2004 national championship game. Denver held on and won the game, 1-0, to win the first of two straight titles.
"People ask about that moment a lot," Carle said. "When I look back, I'm still in shock we won. Berky (goalie Adam Berkhoel) made some huge saves. It was the longest minute of my life."
It's gone down as one of the most famous moments in Frozen Four history, and consider that all the players that helped kill off that penalty for Denver were all seniors, except Carle, who was just a freshman. All of this must have played into the voters' thinking, despite his team's absence from this year's NCAAs.
"To be honest, I was concerned ... for him, that he would drop off the radar," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. "But he's established himself so strongly across the country and has such a great reputation, that he stayed there."