While the Big Ten is about to begin its inaugural season sponsoring hockey, the list of Hobey Baker candidates feels smaller and not just because it has the smallest number of teams.The conference is missing several players who didn't make the jump.
There was not a Hobey Baker Award top-ten finalist last year from the incoming Big Ten teams, unlike the new NCHC, but the six B1G schools lost several big names during the offseason who would be frontrunners for the 2014 Hobey.
That includes Michigan defenseman Jacob Trouba, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets after a freshman season where the 2012 first round pick was named to the All-CCHA first team, and Ohio State goaltender Brady Hjelle. The Buckeyes goalie graduated although not before finishing sixth in the country last season with a .935 save percentage.
No one was hit more by undergrad losses than Minnesota. The Gophers lost five juniors early. Nick Bjugstad signed with the Florida Panthers and Nate Schmidt was first team All-WCHA defenseman last season now with the Washington Capitals. Erik Haula, who barely missed being a top-ten Hobey finalist last year, is currently battling for a top-six spot with the Minnesota Wild after leading the Gophers with 51 points.
Still, there are quite a few preseason Hobey Baker Award candidates from the Big Ten. Others will emerge throughout the season. Each of the six teams and its players benefit from the added exposure of the conference. Players can make their own case. The nation will learn their name.
Here are the top five preseason candidates from the Big Ten in alphabetical order.
Tanner Fritz, Ohio State
The final CCHA regular season scoring champion, Tanner Fritz had 10 multiple point games en route to 37 points (11G-26A) in 40 games. That led to an all-CCHA second team selection as a sophomore.
Most importantly, Fritz was at his best for the Buckeyes at the end of the season. In the final ten games last year, the 5'11", 192 lbs forward scored 14 points (5G-9A). If he can continue at that pace for Ohio State, who went 16-17-7 last season, and first-year head coach Steve Rohlik there is no reason why Fritz can't be considered.
Alex Guptill, Michigan
Michigan is without Trouba and A.J. Treais, but the seventh-highest offense in the country last year returns plenty of firepower. No one scored more than junior forward Alex Guptill, who led the Wolverines in goals (16) and points (36) as a sophomore.
The 2010 3rd round pick by Dallas was hot in bunches. Guptill had scoring streaks of 10, 8 and 5 games last year although he also had a stretch of 1 point in 10 games. Not surprisingly, Michigan also struggled during that time; going 3-8-1 (Guptill missed two games) from mid-November to mid-January.
The Wolverines are hungry after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years last season, and Red Berenson's squad looks to get back there in the new Big Ten. A healthy and scoring Guptill is one component for Michigan.
Michael Mersch, Wisconsin
No player in the Big Ten scored more goals last year than Wisconsin junior forward Michael Mersch. The 2011 fourth round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings scored 23 goals for a Badgers team that struggled at times to put pucks in the back of the net.
During the first ten games last season, Mersch accounted for eight of Wisconsin's 18 goals. That ended up being six more than any other player . He continued that pace as the Badgers found footing despite mostly playing on a different line than Mark Zengerle and Nic Kerdiles (who was suspended during the team's 1-7-2 ten-game stretch). Wisconsin went 21-6-5 in its final 32 games (averaging more than a goal per game better than the first ten) en route to the WCHA postseason championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.
As Andy Johnson of Bucky's Fifth Quarter wrote in April, Mersch generated NHL interest. However, the Park Ridge, Illinois native is returning to Madison for a senior season filled with national championship aspirations.
Kyle Rau, Minnesota
Despite all the talk earlier about who the Gophers lost last year, Minnesota returns plenty of talent from a team which led the nation in scoring and was third in team defense. No one is bigger than the 5'8", 173 lbs junior forward. Rau, a 2011 3rd round pick by the Florida Panthers, is the top returning scorer for Minnesota (and of the Big Ten teams) with 40 points (15G-25A) in 40 games and spent his first two seasons on the top line.
More than anything, he was a barometer for the Gophers' season, which ended with the team losing in the first round to eventual NCAA champion Yale. In the 26 games that Rau had at least one point last year, the Gophers went 23-2-1.
Additionally he tied for the most game-winning-goals in the nation as a sophomore with 7.
The Gophers still look to have an explosive offense this year, however, Rau makes his presence. He can be an agitator on the ice and is respected as a teammate to the point where the 20 year-old was named a co-captain this past month.
Joel Rumpel, Wisconsin
The junior goaltender finished last year near the top-ten of every major goalie category. His .929 save percentage is second among returning goaltenders who played a majority of their team's games last year; only Providence's Jon Gillies (Calgary Flames) was better than Rumpel.
Still, the goalie nicknamed "Sunshine" for his outlook quietly took over down the stretch of his sophomore season for the Badgers. Wisconsin also has junior Landon Peterson, who was no slouch last year - Peterson had a .926 save percentage and 2.005 GAA in 14 games - however it was Rumpel who got the nod in the final ten games when the team needed to go on a postseason run.
Wisconsin was 10-2 in Rumpel's last twelve games and made 88 of 93 saves during the three Final Five games (including this stickless save). While being part of a goalie tandem does hurt some Hobey chances, the Badgers are going to need everything they can get from Rumpel.
Honorable Mentions: Casey Bailey (Penn State), Matt Berry (Michigan State), Nate Condon (Minnesota), Phil Di Giuseppe (Michigan), Ryan Dzingal (Ohio State), Jake Hildebrand (Michigan State), Jake McCabe (Wisconsin), Adam Wilcox (Minnesota)
Hobey Baker Award winners from Big Ten schools (since 1990):
2010 - Blake Geoffrion (Wisconsin)
2008 - Kevin Porter (Michigan)
2002 - Jordan Leopold (Minnesota)
2001 - Ryan Miller (Michigan State)
1997 - Brendan Morrison (Michigan)
1996 - Brian Bonin (Minnesota)
1990 - Kip Miller (Michigan State)
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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate