In the 1990s, college hockey had gained a lot of stature in the big picture, but was still a ways off from the first-round NHL draft-pick hotbed that the 2000s became.
Three Hobey winners from the '90s became big-time NHL players — Paul Kariya ('93, Maine), Brendan Morrison ('97, Michigan) and Chris Drury ('98, Boston University). In the 2000s, there will be at least five, led by current U.S. Olympic goalie Ryan Miller ('01, Michigan State). There's also Mike Mottau ('00, Boston College), Jordan Leopold ('02, Minnesota), Matt Carle ('06, Denver) and most likely Matt Gilroy ('09, Boston University).
The point is that, thanks to attrition from players leaving early, and the lack of as many big-time players filling the gaps, the Hobey race this year resembles something closer to the '90s than the 2000s. That doesn't mean there aren't very good players fighting it out for the Hobey this year. It's just that, relatively speaking, it lacks the kind of star power we've become accustomed to in recent years.
Midway through the season, it was very difficult to really get a feel for the Hobey race, and no one really stood out as an obvious finalist.
But in recent weeks, some major candidates have emerged, after getting hot to varying degrees. Here there are:
We go with the theory that goals are more important than points, and more telling most of the time. Not listing them in particular order, we have:
Chase Polacek, RPI: No ECAC player has won the award since Lane MacDonald in 1989. Polacek's RPI team is finally back from years in purgatory, and that gives him hope; as does his five goals last weekend, which raised his season total to a national-best 23. The last ECAC player to lead the nation in goal scoring was Clarkson's Todd White in 1997.
Corey Tropp, Michigan State: Back from a certain kind of purgatory himself, the junior has become a leader, and his 20 goals are practically a bonus from what could've been expected. A very nice bonus, and one that puts him in the Hobey picture.
Gustav Nyquist, Maine: Another player on a team that's been in the doldrums the last two years, and has snapped out of it in a big way. As part of the best power-play unit in the country, Nyquist leads Maine's offense, and his team has a legit chance at getting back to the NCAAs.
Bobby Butler, New Hampshire: He's never going to be mistaken for splashy, but as a senior on a first-place team, he gets marks for that. He's been remarkably consistent all year long, then went bonkers with four goals against Providence this past weekend, giving him 22 for the season, and putting him on this list.
Blake Geoffrion, Wisconsin: He's finally put it all together with a strong year, start to finish, 20-plus goals. And as a senior captain, he has that intangible going for him — something the others don't. And his team is a strong candidate for the Frozen Four, which is another thing in his favor.
Four defensemen won the award in the last decade, after none had won it since Tom Kurvers in 1984. With scoring down, it became easier for two-way defenders to stand out.
Another could join that list. Perhaps the favorite here among all of them, Brendan Smith has made Wisconsin fans quickly forget Jamie McBain's early departure. Smith had 23 points last year — this year as a junior, he has 36 points, a nation's best 13 goals as a defenseman, a plus-16 (second on the team to freshman John Ramage) and nine power-play goals. He leads a defense corps that has five first or second rounders.
Despite that scoring being down, Ryan Miller — and his ridiculous 2001 season — is the only goaltender to capture the award since 1988. A number of goalies haven't won with gaudy numbers, like Cornell's David LeNeveu or David McKee, or Brown's Yann Danis — perhaps precisely because there's been so many of them and scoring is down.
Which brings us to Marc Cheverie. Certainly there are many reasons why Denver is No. 2 in the country, but goaltending is a big part of it, obviously. When Cheverie went down early in the season with a severe cut to his calf (from a skate blade), the Pioneers' hopes rested in the balance. But Cheverie returned relatively quickly, and has been no worse for wear.
Freshman Adam Murray was clearly not ready for the role, so Cheverie's presence is that much more valuable. He has a 1.88 goals against average and .939 save percentage in 24 appearances. These numbers are better than most other goalies of recent vintage — even those of Zane Kalemba of Princeton, a finalist last season with 1.82/.933.
These players could all reach the upper tier, easily, by year's end, but aren't there right now: Casey Wellman / James Marcou (Massachusetts); Matt Read (Bemidji State); Tyler Ruegsegger / Rhett Rakhshani (Denver).
Wellman has the 19 goals, and Marcou is the big-time playmaker. But their team isn't good enough, and both of them are minus players right now.
Matt Read was looking great at mid-season, and unlike some players from mid-major teams of recent years, was much more legitimate thanks to Bemidji State's lofty Pairwise ranking at the moment. But he's tailed off in the scoring department in recent weeks. He is still a plus-27, however, which leads the nation.
Ruegsegger and Rakhshani are the senior leaders, and standouts, on one of the most talented teams in the country — and they score big goals. Thing is, their overall numbers aren't gaudy, and Cheverie is ahead of them on the list. So they will probably be left out.
Also of note: No one on Miami is under consideration here. That's the No. 1 team in the country by all measures. This is somewhat by design. It's just a tremendously well-balanced team, with two good goaltenders, and a treat to watch. Sophomore goalie Cody Reichard was emerging, as he got the bulk of the playing time early on, but when Connor Knapp returned from an illness and got to 100 percent, they've been rotating again, so it's hard to include Reichard. His numbers are better than Cheverie's overall, however — 1.42/.938 — and he's not totally out of the running.