As we enter the New Year and are making our way towards the halfway point of the college hockey season, it is the perfect time to take a brief look ahead to what may happen in the postseason. More superficially postseason awards.
The Hobey Baker Award is annually handed out to the best player in NCAA Division 1 Hockey. It has been given to legendary names that include Paul Kariya and Chris Drury, along with some newer NHL stars such as Jack Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau.
So far this season, there have been a few notable players that have shown that they are head-and-shoulders above the rest in the country. Here are my five players that have displayed their abilities to be considered the best player in college hockey.
Shane Pinto (North Dakota)
While his North Dakota Fighting Hawks teammate and last year’s Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalist, Jordan Kawaguchi is just as deserving, Pinto has shown to be one of the best in college hockey so far this season.
Arguably the MVP of the NCHC Pod last month, the sophomore from Franklin Square, NY posted five multi-point games in Omaha. His balanced attack has seen him total five goals and eight assists through the Fighting Hawks’ first 10 games. Pinto’s 13 points were tied with Kawaguchi for most in the conference coming out of the Pod. The Ottawa Senators prospect is now tied for second in the NCHC scoring race to Minnesota-Duluth’s Nick Swaney, who has since played a pair of games since the start of the New Year.
Nationally, Pinto is tied for 11th in the country in scoring and is tied for 10th in the NCAA in points-per-game (1.3).
Jack LaFontaine (Minnesota)
You should have at least one goaltending candidate every year. Goalie Union Policy No. 43 (I think…I haven’t been to a meeting in three years, though).
There is no question that the best goaltender in the country this season, so far, has been the man backstopping the best team in college hockey, Minnesota’s LaFontaine.
The Carolina Hurricanes prospect has been outstanding in his second season as a Golden Gopher. He is 9-0, with a ridiculous .965 save percentage, which is the best in the country. LaFontaine is also tied for the best goals-against average in the country, only giving up one goal per game through his first nine starts.
With an excellent team in front of LaFontaine, it is easy to assume that his workload may not be that tough. However, that is far from the truth with LaFontaine. The Mississauga, Ont. native has had to stop 30 or more shots four times this season and has earned a pair of shutouts so far.
Odeen Tufto (Quinnipiac)
Maybe the biggest underdog in this group, given the fact that the Hobey Baker Award voters lean towards the big conferences (Harvard has been the only school outside of the CCHA, WCHA, Hockey East and NCHC to have award winners). Yet, the Quinnipiac Bobcat has been at the forefront of an attack on a team poised to take the ECAC this season.
Tufto came into this season averaging 40 points a year in his first three seasons, leading the Bobcats in scoring since coming on campus in 2017. This season, he is off to another blazing start. He leads his team, and the country, in scoring with 19 points in 10 games, with a 1.9 points-per-game that is also the best in the country. His 15 assists are also the most in the country.
To say consistency has been the name of the game for the Quinnipiac captain is an understatement. Tufto has only been held off the scoresheet once this season and is currently on a seven-game point streak where he has scored 15 points over that span. The Chaska, Minn.-native is also on a four-game run where he has registered at least two points a game.
Cole Caufield (Wisconsin)
Cole Caufield had a lot of fanfare and expectations when he first joined the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2019-20 season. He was a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the previous summer’s draft and was joining one of the most historic programs in college hockey. He ended up averaging a point-per-game as a freshman on a Badger team that finished last in the Big Ten.
This season, he is already above that pace, posting 12 points in 10 games. An eight-game point streak to kick off the season was not so bad either, including a hat trick against Penn State on Nov. 24. To say he is talented enough to win the Hobey Baker Award is more than fitting, given what he has done representing the United States at the World Juniors.
When he comes back to Wisconsin, he will re-join an improved team, with a lot of confidence, and ready to take on the best of the Big Ten. If Caufield can continue to produce at the rate that he has started the season at, he can be the favorite to be named the best player in the country.
Matthew Kessel (Massachusetts)
The last two Hobey Baker Award winners have been defenders of the blueline, one of which was UMass’ Cale Makar in 2019. While Makar was days away from becoming one of the best young defencemen in the NHL, Matthew Kessel was no more than a recruit to play for the Minutemen.
Now, he is staking his claim to be one of the best blueliners, not just in Hockey East, but in the entire NCAA.
In the 2019-20 season, Kessel scored 11 points in 34 games as a rookie. This season, experience has paid off for the St. Louis Blues prospect. Through the Minutemen’s first 12 games, Kessel has scored six goals and six assists. His 12 points are tied for the team lead in scoring with Carson Gicewicz. He is also tied for the lead in scoring by defencemen with Quinnipiac’s Zach Metsa and St. Cloud State’s Nick Perbix.
While his offensive output is impressive, Kessel is just as good in his own zone. He is tough around his own net, and his 6’3″ frame helps be a physical presence on the back-end.
Monday, Jan. 4
Air Force ties Niagara, 1-1 (Niagara wins in a shootout)
A much better performance from Air Force saw them pick up a point against the Niagara Purple Eagles. Niagara netminder Mike Corson had to be sharp, as he was tasked with making 41 saves in the contest. After overtime solved nothing, the game went to a shootout where Walker Sommer, who scored the lone goal for Niagara in regulation, buried the game-winner to give his team the extra point.
Michigan State def. Penn State, 5-1
After a lackluster performance that saw the Michigan State Spartans get a shutout, they came back in a big way with their biggest offensive output of the season. Jagger Joshua scored twice for the Spartans, with Kristoff Papp assisting on both. Drew DeRidder was once again outstanding in goal for MSU, stopping 36 of 37 in the win.
No. 15 UMass-Lowell def. Maine, 9-5
This wild and chaotic meeting between the Maine Black Bears and UMass-Lowell River Hawks saw each team score three times in the first period before the River Hawks took over from there. They scored three goals in each stanza, making it the first nine-goal game for UMass-Lowell since 1999. Chase Blackmun led the charge with a hat trick, and Lucas Condotta helped out with a four-point night. Matt Brown and Carl Berglund each registered a goal and two assists in the win.
No. 1 Minnesota def. Arizona State, 6-4
The Minnesota Golden Gophers were able to pull off the weekend sweep against Arizona State, but that did not mean the Sun Devils did not do everything they could to break the unbeaten Gophers. ASU held a 3-2 in the second period after Johnny Walker pulled off a highlight-reel goal.
Yes…it is called The Michigan and I will not let anyone tell me different.
However, Minnesota answered back with four unanswered goals to move to 10-0 on the season. Blake McLaughlin scored twice during that span, along with Brannon McManus who scored what ended up being the game-winner for the Gophers.
Wednesday, Jan. 6
No. 19 American International vs. Army-West Point, 6-3
The AIC Yellow Jackets had an offensive explosion in their first battle with the Black Knights this season, jumping out to a 6-1 lead by the second period, before coasting to their seventh win this season. Zak Galambos and Justin Cole each found the back of the net twice for AIC, with Jake Stella chiming in with three assists.
Sacred Heart def. Air Force, 4-3 in overtime
While the Air Force Falcons were not able to pull it out, that does not mean they did not make things difficult on the Sacred Heart Pioneers. Sacred Heart led 3-1 in the third before Air Force came back to tie the game, as Thomas Daska scored with only three seconds left. However, the Pioneers pulled out the win thanks to a goal from Braeden Tuck in the latter half of the overtime period.
Tuck’s goal was assisted by Grant Anderson who, along with Tuck, Ryan Steele and Marc Johnstone, picked up a goal and an assist in the win for Sacred Heart.
No. 8 Massachusetts def. New Hampshire, 4-0
The Minutemen continue to stay hot in Hockey East, as they have won their last seven contests. Kessel (*cough**cough*) scored twice for the Minutemen. He had a couple of notable helpers in the game, as Oliver Chau picked up two assists, while Zac Jones posted three apples in the win. Matt Murray earned his third shutout of the season, stopping 21 shots on Wednesday.
Thursday, Jan. 7
No. 19 American International def. Army-West Point, 4-3 in overtime
It looked as if the Black Knights were going to pull off the upset as they led the Yellow Jackets 3-1 late into regulation. Then, Aaron Grounds and Justin Cole scored in the final two minutes to send the game into overtime. On the power play, Blake Bennett scored his first of the season to complete the comeback for AIC.
Grounds also had an assist, giving him a two-point night.
No. 20 Robert Morris def. Niagara, 3-2 in overtime
The Niagara Purple Eagles gave everything they had against the Robert Morris Colonials on Thursday night, leading by one heading into the final period. Brendon Michaelian then scored for Robert Morris to tie the game, and the game needed extra time. Just over a minute into overtime, Michaelian scored again to give the Colonials their ninth win of the season.
Matthew Guerra had another solid performance, scoring a goal and an assist, with freshman Randy Hernandez helping out with a pair of assists for Robert Morris.
St. Lawrence def. Colgate, 2-1
The St. Lawrence Saints improve to 2-0-1 after they held on against the Colgate Raiders. A power-play goal from David Jankowski in the opening period, and Cameron Buhl’s second of the season in period two, proved to be all the Saints needed. St. Lawrence goaltender Emil Zetterquist looked good once again, making 25 saves in the winning effort.
No. 7 Bowling Green def. Bemidji State, 3-2
It was being looked at as Bowling Green’s first test of the season, the Falcons stepped up to the task with a win over the Bemidji State Beavers. The teams traded goals in the opening 20 minutes, but two from the Falcons in the second period ended up being just enough to move to 12-1 on the season. A lot of thanks has to be given to Bowling Green’s netminder, Eric Dop, who is now 6-0 this season after a 31-save performance. Max Johnson scored his seventh goal of the season, which ended up being the game-winner.
I’m a broadcast journalist from West Michigan, with an incredible passion for the game of hockey. After playing in goal for 16 years, I realized that my time on the ice was up, and chose a slightly different path working in the media. It is just as demanding, just a little less physical.