The first season for the newly-formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference will feature some excellent candidates for the Hobey Baker award this year, including two players that were among the 10 finalists for last year's award. Ultimately, the favorite out of this group will likely be the player whose team is able to claw their way to the top in the extremely deep conference.
Here are the top five candidates for the Hobey in the NCHC:
1. Ryan Walters, Nebraska-Omaha
Ryan Walters is an obvious choice, having been a Hobey Baker finalist last season, and finishing last year tied for second overall in national scoring after being atop the scoring chart much of the year. He chose to return to Omaha for his senior season, making him college hockey's leading returning scorer heading into the year.
Team performance may have as much to do with Walters' Hobey hopes as his own personal performance. Last year, the Mavericks suffered an epic collapse, losing 9 of their last 12 games. They went from a shoe-in to make the NCAA tournament to having their season ended on the road in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Walters wasn't necessarily to blame for the skid; he still averaged a point per game over that 12-game stretch. But with so many other candidates with similar scoring numbers playing on teams that went deep into the postseason, Walters wasn't going to be seriously considered for the award. If Walters maintains his scoring, while helping lead the Mavericks to an NCAA tournament berth, he'll be considered much more strongly this time around.
Discipline will continue to be a big factor in Walters' success, as well. It's perhaps no coincidence that last year, Walters cut his penalty total in half from his first year in Omaha while doubling his point total. If he can keep himself on the ice, and focus on scoring goals rather than extra-curriculars, he's a much better player.
2. Austin Czarnik, Miami-Ohio
Austin Czarnik is the NCHC's other returning Hobey finalist from last season. Czarnik was a bit of a surprise inclusion in last year's ten Hobey finalists, considering he had relatively modest scoring numbers. He barely finished the year in the top 20 in national scoring. But Czarnik was also the best candidate the CCHA had, which helped earn him some votes. This year, in a conference loaded with potential candidates, gaining that recognition may be a tougher proposition.
That's not to say that Czarnik was entirely a token inclusion. Czarnik, along with linemate Riley Barber were basically the entire RedHawk offense on a Miami team that was among the best in the country all year long. Czarnik's 40 points on Miami's 106 goals last year, meant he had a hand in nearly 38% of his team's offense. Though he's not very big, Czarnik will be one of the fastest players in college hockey, and his excellent hands make him an exceptional playmaker.
Miami is a team that really believes in defense first, which means Czarnik likely won't have the same big scoring numbers as some other candidates, but if he's the leader on a team that is among the top of the conference, and the top of the country again, he'll have to be considered for the award.
3. Nic Dowd, St. Cloud State
Nic Dowd spent much of last season in the second line center role for St. Cloud State behind eventual Hobey winner Drew LeBlanc, so his performance was a little overshadowed. But Dowd was one of the most effective all-around players in the WCHA last year, winning face-offs, playing the penalty kill, and using his size to win battles along the boards. And his 39 points last year, second on the Huskies behind only Leblanc, makes him one of the NCHC's top returning scorers heading into this season.
This year, Dowd has been named a captain of St. Cloud's team, and will look to take over the role of St. Cloud's top line center. Though the Huskies were hit hard by graduation, losing seniors Leblanc and Ben Hanowski, sophomore goal-scorers like Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila should give Dowd some talent to work with. If he can fill Leblanc's shoes as one of the nation's top scorers, and help match the unprecedented success St. Cloud had last season, Dowd could make a run at being St. Cloud's second consecutive, and second ever Hobey winner.
4. Chase Balisy, Western Michigan
Chase Balisy suffers from a similar problem to Austin Czarnik in that Western Michigan plays a very conservative, defense-first style of hockey that doesn't lend itself to the type of gaudy statistics that draw the interest of Hobey voters. Balisy tied for the Broncos team lead in scoring, but did so with only 25 points in 38 games.
Don't confuse the smaller point total for a lack of talent, however. Balisy has blossomed in Kalamazoo to become an excellent all-around player. Western Michigan suffered a late-season collapse last year that took them from solid NCAA tournament position to missing out on the tournament. If the Broncos can play consistent hockey all season long, and earn their way into the NCAA tournament, Balisy should draw strong consideration as the face of that team.
5. Alex Krushelnyski, Colorado College
Alex Krushelnyski was maybe one of the most under-appreciated players in college hockey last year, but he very quietly finished tied for 12th in the nation in scoring with 43 points, making him one of college hockey's leading returning scorers. Even more remarkable is that Krushelnyski only scored two points on the power play all season, making him one of college hockey's most effective scorers at even strength.
The big question for Krushelnyski is whether he'll be able to maintain those scoring totals without Rylan Schwartz, who finished as the nation's leading scorer last year, in the lineup. Colorado College may also struggle this year in the new, deeper, NCHC, which could hurt his chances. But there's no doubt that Krushelnyski is a very talented, hard-working forward with a great amount of skill.