Commentary: Think Deeper at Hobey Time
by Dave Starman/Columnist
The Johnny Gaudreau-Nic Dowd debate reached a zenith via the Twittersphere during regionals weekend and I found myself under siege by BC nation. I was hammered by their faithful (actually by four of their faithful) for even mentioning that Nic Dowd of St. Cloud State was a worthy choice to win the Hobey.
WHAT??? Speak out against our John Gaudreau?? Blasphemy. All that was missing here was Torquemada on skates taking me to the ultimate sin bin.
I was on the Hobey Baker voting committee for three years and in our time we chose Ryan Duncan, Kevin Porter and Matt Gilroy. I have a formula for how I rank the 10 candidates and that formula, since Duncan’s win, has been perfect minus one year. (Out of respect for the players involved, I’ll refrain from saying who I voted for in one my years that player didn’t win.)
Taking out of the equation what the award stands for outside of goals, assists, or save percentage, you can make an argument for 3-4 candidates every year and the obvious choice isn’t always that cut and dry. With Johnny Hockey this season, he's had a year reminiscent of the Mike Donnelly era when he had 59 goals his senior year for Michigan State. JG and his linemates, Billy Arnold and Kevin Hayes, have even outdone the most famous BC line ever, the “HEM” line (Steve Heinze, Marty McInnis, 1991 Hobey winner David Emma) when it comes to scoring.
There is a part of me offended that Billy Arnold wasn’t a candidate either. If you watch BC closely, which its fan base does, how can you have sat there and not railed against the system for Arnold? With all due respect to his linemates and their offensive proficiency, without Arnold and his commitment to being a 200-foot player, that line isn’t as successful as it was. Add in his skill level and playmaking ability and there you have it, the perfect centerman for two very different and gifted offensive players.
Arnold sets the table very nicely by doing so much that most people don’t see. I’ve been seeing it for four years and it amazes me how good and how smart he is. His combination of size, speed, skill, hockey sense, and ability to play in all three zones, with and away from the puck, probably makes him the best long-term NHL player of the trio. He reminds me of Brent Sutter as a player.
When you look at the candidates you really need to weigh several things. Well, you don’t have to, but you do if you want to have an educated hockey mind. If you are a die hard fan of any player on the list, or his team, you immediately need to take your emotion out of it, which most show is impossible. That being said let’s examine some criteria and you can go and do the numbers work if you so choose.
Everything is weighted against something when looking for a result. Does the 4.0 student from Brooklyn College have the same chance for the big job that the 4.0 student from Harvard does? No. But the 4.0 from Brooklyn College probably had to do more with less to get the 4.0, and that would be something that a prospective employer would look at.
You can apply some of this to the Hobey race. None of these two candidates are the same or faced the same challenges. You had two Big Ten goalies, but even so, they played on different teams with different schedules and different styles of play. I don’t know how much support the voters gave to Ryan Dzingle but on a team rebuilding, he managed to lead the Big Ten in scoring.
You want to say the B1G was not as good top to bottom as Hockey East, you can say that and I won’t debate you, but Dzingel LED the league with good college players on his team. Gaudreau led the nation with two NHL’ers on his line, three NHL defensemen behind him and probably a first-round pick as his goalie. Think he had some advantages? That should not lessen Gaudreau or shoot Dzingle to the top of the list, but you can add some points to his overall score for doing what he did with less horsepower at his disposal than either Dowd or Gaudreau.
Now, how about St. Lawrence's Greg Carey. Ever spend a season in the ECAC playing against 10 of 12 teams that don’t give you an inch of space to operate. The ECAC is spread out and you don’t have that advantage of playing the same team two nights in a row. There is no comfort level the second night either, having played the same team Friday night or even having played in the arena the night before and knowing what is coming at you.
Long bus rides, small buildings with fans on top of you, tight checking, and vastly improved programs the past five years at Yale, Quinnipiac and Union. That is not an easy league to dominate and Carey did. Once again, he did it without the skill guys JG had.
How about Dowd? Dowd is a pre-vet major and an honors student but we’ll leave that out of this. The NCHC had stromg teams. Some had tough starts, some weren’t four lines deep, but all were pretty good and I watched a ton of them since they are the network partner for one of the three broadcast outlets I did games for this season, CBS Sports Network. Miami and Colorado College didn’t have great seasons, but they were not easy outs. I watched all three games CC played against North Dakota in the postseason, and the Tigers never went away. Miami KO'd St. Cloud in two games as an 8-vs.-1 matchup. There was high compete and parity in the league.
There were no nights off, or at the very least, there were very few — there's a lot of plane rides or long bus rides and at times teams would stay on the road for the full week because it was easier and cheaper than going home. They don’t do that in Hockey East, the grind in the WCHA or NCHC is a little tougher. Dowd played with real good players but not sure he played with two guys like Hayes and Arnold and he is more the Arnold type. Dowd sacrificed a ton of offense to play in his own end, trust me I saw 10-15 games he played (for the record I saw about 10 BC games, mostly on film).
So when you factor in some intangibles you can look at this a little differently. To me JG’s performance in the Northeast Regional about cemented it from an on-ice perspective. He was the best player in both games, and he played the best in the biggest of moments and that was early in Game 1. BC had been off two weeks after having lost three of its last four games to Notre Dame, and were about to play two games against two ND-style teams in Denver and Massachusetts-Lowell. JG set the tone early, never took his foot off the gas, and told his team to follow him. That counts huge. Dowd had a quieter weekend but scored the OT game winner against Notre Dame to get the Huskies to the regional final against Minnesota.
If you choose, you can take into account some of the intangibles I have listed above — conference, travel, caliber of teammates. For goalies you can factor how many back-to-back games they played in and what system they played behind. Notre Dame and Cornell goalies were always accused of being system goalies; I never found that fair but there is some merit to the argument that Jordan Pearce never faced the same scoring chances per game as Jeff Lerg did. The odds of a goalie ever winning this again are so slight, someone had to create a Mike Richter Award to give the goalies a chance to win anything.
In the end JG will win the award and will be a deserving recipient. He is a kid who exhibits class and skill and is a tremendous ambassador for college hockey and Boston College. Once again, removing blind fanaticism and emotional attachment to the school or the hockey program you root for, weigh all the variables, and you’ll see that there is a reason there is a never a clear-cut winner. Production always wins out here but don’t forget how good all 10 finalists were this season.