The race for this year’s Hobey Baker Award presents yet another interesting twist in an already strange college hockey season. With the NHL pulling out of the Olympics, some of college hockey’s most talented players, including five of the strong favorites to take home this year’s award, will be headed over to Beijing to play in the tournament, gaining a nearly unprecedented level of exposure for a college hockey player.
While technically what happens in the Olympics should have no bearing on the voting for a college hockey award, the reality is that most voters aren’t watching many, or in some cases any, games outside of the conference, or even their own team that they follow. But everyone is going to be watching the Olympics, and if one of the college players involved goes on to have a breakout performance during the Games, that could give them the momentum needed to become the heavy favorite for the award.
Here are my current five favorites in the Hobey Baker race, and how the Beijing Games could help them out:
- Nathan Smith, Forward, Minnesota State, Team USA
Smith is headed to Beijing as the nation’s leading scorer both in points and points per game. Despite the fact that Smith has posted those numbers against a schedule that KRACH ranks as ninth-toughest in the country, it can be difficult for players from the CCHA to gain as much hype in the voting process as some other conferences.
But a standout showing at the Olympics would be the perfect opportunity for Smith to show voters how good he has been this year. With Smith’s combination of strength and aggressive playing style, he will not back down against some of the older, more mature competition he’ll face in the tournament, and he could surprise some people with how much skill there is to his game.
2. Jake Sanderson, Defenseman, North Dakota, Team USA
Sanderson has been arguably the best all-around player in college hockey this season. As a defenseman, Sanderson does not necessarily have standout offensive statistics — he’s tied for third nationally in points among defenseman, but there are 10 other defensemen within two points of him — but his value as a defenseman goes far beyond just his point production.
Sanderson is one of the few players in the tournament that is not in the NHL by choice and he should be one of the top players on this US Olympic team. If the US has a good result, it will probably be with him leading the way. It could solidify the perception of him as the best player in college hockey.
Matty Beniers, Forward, Michigan, Team USA
Beniers is just a step behind Nathan Smith in the national scoring race, and is much more of a known commodity thanks to being a high NHL Draft pick and playing in the World Juniors. Like Sanderson, he probably could have been in the NHL this season as well, if he had wanted to be.
Beniers is a smart, crafty player that is really good on both ends of the ice, but he has shown great progression in his offensive game this season, and will more than likely seen some power play time for the US squad, which could boost his total point.
4. Owen Power, Defenseman, Michigan, Team Canada
Power is last year’s # 1 overall draft pick in the NHL Draft, and is having a strong season for Michigan, tied for the national scoring lead among defenders with 26 points, and averaging over a point per game, which historically, has been a very strong indicator of future pro success (Also a good indicator: Being the # 1 overall pick). But as strange as it is to say, it almost feels like some of what Power is doing can fade into the background, as he kind of gets lumped in with all of Michigan’s top NHL draft picks.
The Olympics could be Power’s opportunity to separate himself from that group. And there is some precedent for that. Power was outstanding at last year’s IIHF men’s World Championships, rising up the depth chart to be Canada’s top defenseman at the tournament, in which Canada won gold, playing against competition that was probably a notch better than what will be at these Olympics.
Devon Levi, Goalie, Northeastern, Team Canada
Levi probably has the toughest route to winning the Hobey Baker of any of the five. That starts with the fact that it is ridiculously hard, if not impossible, for any goalie to take home the award. Levi played his way into the conversation early in the season with numbers that paralleled those of Ryan Miller, the last goalie to win the award. But even then, while Miller’s numbers were head and shoulders above what anyone else in college hockey was doing, Levi has to contend with a couple different goalies putting up nearly similar numbers. Add in that it is a near-historically bad year for Hockey East, which means a very soft schedule for Levi, and that Levi has not performed well in the few games Northeastern has played against Tournament-caliber competition. He’s probably not in serious contention right now.
But all that said, if Levi gets an opportunity in net for Team Canada – not a given; it was rumored that Levi was told he would not be the starter heading into the tournament – and can have a couple of standout performances, especially late in the tournament, that would definitely change some of the perception around him. Add in some serious vote-splitting between the many candidates out West, and there is at least the possibility that Levi could make history by taking home the award.