Handicapping the Hobey
Our Top 10 Strongest Candidates
This is an odd year in the Hobey Baker Award race.
Not taking anything away from those players who are putting up numbers this year, but it wasn't until the last few weeks that any real favorites could be distinguished.
Coming into this season, things were as wide open as they've ever been. So much high-end talent has been scooped up by the pros in recent years, that the players who are left are a mix of solid veterans who are reaching the peak of their college capabilities, and raw-yet-talented freshmen.
There are only 13 NHL First Round draft picks playing in the NCAA right now, and 11 of them were taken this past June. Only two remain in college from all previous years — Colin White (Boston College) and Brock Boeser (North Dakota) — both taken in 2015. A lot of their blue-chip classmates are gone. Boston College, in particular, lost seven underclassmen, four of which have already played in the NHL.
Goaltending leaves a similar tale, as evidenced by the 33 percent of teams with freshmen getting No. 1 minutes.
Last season, six Hobey finalists were not seniors. All six left for the pros.
That said, there remains a strong crop of 10 Hobey finalists to make this list, in what should be a wide-open race.
Zach Aston-Reese, Sr., Northeastern
He leads the nation in goals with 29, and that's enough right there to get you on the list. Northeastern's style of play lends itself to piling up points, and his teammates, Dylan Sikura and Adam Gaudette, are up there too and could easily be on this list. Sikura is fifth in the nation with 53 points, and Gaudette is sixth with 51, plus a school-record 15 power-play goals and national-best 153 shots. But if you're going to pick one, it's the senior, Zach Aston-Reese. He's a better two-way player than the others. One thing to note, his 68 penalty minutes is 15th highest, which could sway the moralistic Hobey voting panel against him. Actually, in this case, it's legit. Better a player be penalized for a lack of on-ice discipline than for alleged off-ice issues.
Mike Vecchione, Sr., Union
Mike Vecchione enters the weekend just one behind Aston-Reese and New Hampshire's Tyler Kelleher for most points. He won't be playing this weekend, though, while the other two participate in first-round games of the Hockey East tournament. What that says, however, is that Vecchione is on a better team, and he's a large reason why. He's been the signature player for the program after it transitioned away from the group that won the national championship in 2014, a team on which he was a freshman. He was always good, but this has been his breakout year, with 26 goals including six game winners. And another stat that should be given high consideration — his faceoff numbers are off-the-charts good, at 61.5 percent, while taking almost all of the team's important draws. Like Northeastern's group, he has a linemate in Spencer Foo that could just as easily be on this list, too, given that he's right behind Vecchione in fourth in the national scoring list.
Anders Bjork, Jr., Notre Dame
As the Fighting Irish have made a second-half surge, Anders Bjork has been a major reason. The fifth-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins is likely to bolt for the pros after this season, and his play lately has shown that he's ready. For a team that struggled early, Bjork has been a model of consistency all season. His 44 points is 10th in the nation.
Justin Kloos, Sr., Minnesota
Teammate Tyler Sheehy (18-30—48) may have somewhat better numbers than Justin Kloos (17-22—39), but you watch Minnesota play, and Kloos is the straw the stirs the drink. As a center, he plays a strong two-way game, and he takes most of the team's important draws, where he wins 54 percent of them. When you talk about a "program player" that teams like Minnesota need to go far in the postseason, Kloos is who you're talking about.
Joe Gambardella, Sr., Massachusetts-Lowell
Like Kloos, other players put up more numbers than Joe Gambardella. But few players do more for their team than this 5-foot-10 native of Staten Island, N.Y. He is strong on both ends of the ice, he plays in all situations, and he's a leader on a team that is the model of consistency. Lowell gets overlooked because of how quietly the program seems to go about its business. But all it does is win, because the roster is filled with a lot of players like Gambardella. But on a roster full of them, he stands above the rest.
Clayton Keller, Fr., Boston University
Clayton Keller is 19th in the country in points, with 38, including 19 goals. Yes, that means there are a bunch of players above him on the points list. But it would be foolish to leave Keller off the list. We talked a lot here about how there is a lack of obvious showy names right now in college hockey. But Keller is certainly an exception, the best of the bumper crop of BU's youngsters. He simply dominates play when he's on the ice. And his 38 points have to be taken in context — he missed a few games because of the World Junior tournament and an injury, and his 1.46 points per game is actually good for ninth nationally.
Along with Keller, there are a few other blue chippers that could be here too, guys that will clearly be tremendous pros, and maybe sooner than later. Denver's Henrik Borgstrom and Troy Terry are dynamite. Put North Dakota's Tyson Jost on that list, now that he's healthy. And Wisconsin's Luke Kunin has a bright future. But there wasn't room for everyone, and on a list dominated by upperclassmen, it's OK that these names aren't Hobey-ready at this point. Having to pick just one, it's Keller, but that's not a knock on the rest.
New Hampshire's Tyler Kelleher is tied for the national lead in points, and perhaps it's crazy to leave him off, but the other names on this list do more night in and night out, against all kinds of competition. Ohio State's Nick Schilkey is another name worthy of consideration. He has 24 goals, though just 36 points, and he missed some time.
Will Butcher, Sr., Denver
This is not a year where defensemen pop out at you. As a result, this is the only one officially on our list. It's hard to argue with Will Butcher, though; he is the anchor of a defense that helps drive the top team in the country. Lowell senior Dylan Zink has the same points as Butcher, 31, and has 10 goals to Butcher's 6. But Butcher has a plus-minus of plus-24, while Zink is a minus-2. Plus-minus gets a bum rap these days, but that difference is hard to overlook when you consider that Zink is on a very good team.
Though Butcher is the one that gets the nod here, there are others that close. Zink, as we mentioned. Then there's Minnesota-Duluth's Neil Pionk and Harvard's Adam Fox. Remarkably, UMD and Harvard are the No. 2 and 3 teams in the Pairwise, but get no one on the list. But, hey, it's a team game. If you were going to put someone, those guys would be it. Interestingly, as programs, UMD (5) and Harvard (4) have more winners than any other school (Minnesota also has four). Fox, as a freshman, is one of the biggest reasons Harvard is where it is. He adds a dimension the Crimson haven't had in a while. Pionk is simply rock solid, good all around. They both just miss the cut. Minnesota's Jake Bischoff and St. Lawrence's Gavin Bayreuther are worthy of mention.
Charles Williams, Sr., Canisius
If ever there was a year a player from Atlantic Hockey could get serious consideration for the award, this is it. Charles Williams is a grad student transfer from Ferris State, who had a year of eligibility left. He wasn't the sure-fire starter when the season began, but after getting a chance, he took off. Canisius was unbeaten in 15 straight to end the season and won its first Atlantic Hockey regular-season title. Williams leads the nation in save percentage at .944 and shutouts with 5. We understand that the quality of competition in Atlantic Hockey is not as high, on average, as the other conferences (the top three goaltenders in save percentage are all from the conference). But when you consider that Williams also faces the most shots per game of any goaltender who plays regularly, with 948 saves in 31 games, then it becomes truly noteworthy.
Kyle Hayton, Jr., St. Lawrence
In that same vein is Kyle Hayton. His goals against average is higher than the other hopefuls, but that's because he's seen a lot more shots than most of them, just over 1,000. And his save percentage is .929. A save percentage that good while seeing that many shots is noteworthy. The team has struggled a bit down the stretch, thanks in large part to injuries, but Hayton has helped keep the team afloat.
Tanner Jaillet, Jr., Denver
Denver is loaded with good, if not great, players. It's the No. 1 team in the Pairwise. Tanner Jaillet doesn't face as much rubber nightly as, say, Hayton or Williams. But his .929 save percentage and 22-4-4 record is hard to overlook. His numbers are clearly the best among the "major" conference goaltenders, and the Red Deer, Alberta, native has seen his numbers steadily improve over his three years. An oddity is that Jaillet has no shutouts, but he's allowed just one goal in 14 games. Compare to UMD's Hunter Miska, whose numbers are a hair below Jaillet's overall, but he has five shutouts.