Taking a Look at the Hockey East Awards Races

Posted by: Scott McLaughlin

As we race toward the end of the season, there’s been lots of discussion about playoff spots and the ever-volatile Pairwise, and rightfully so. But we’re also starting to hear some talk about end-of-season awards. In fact, we here at CHN just published our first Hobey Watch earlier this week.

All this got me thinking about some of the Hockey East awards. There are always great debates over these, and I’m sure those debates will only get more heated as we get closer to awards night. So I figured I’d take a look at how some of these races are shaping up.

Keep in mind that every team still has six or seven games left, and that those games could not only impact some of these races, but possibly decide them. Also keep in mind that the Hockey East awards are based solely on conference play. Out-of-conference games aren’t taken into account, or at least they’re not supposed to be.

Player of the Year
Might as well start with the big one. I asked fans on Twitter who they would pick, and everyone who responded went with either Merrimack’s Mike Collins or BC’s Johnny Gaudreau. Smart fans. Those are the top two candidates in my opinion as well. Our own Joe Meloni presented the case for another BC playerSteven Whitney — earlier this week, and it’s certainly a case worth discussing.

As Joe points out, Whitney is a great defensive forward who actually plays defense on the penalty kill. He even moved back to defense 5-on-5 for a game while BC was battling injuries on the back end. At the other end of the ice, Whitney has one of the best shots in the league. He has a quick release, he’s accurate, and he’s able to get it off in traffic. He isn’t leading the league in goals by accident.

That said, I put Gaudreau and Collins just a little bit ahead of him right now. To use an old cliché, Gaudreau is the straw that stirs the drink for BC. He might not be as good defensively as Whitney — although his defense has certainly improved — but Gaudreau is the guy you want to have the puck. His speed, vision and shiftiness make him a threat to create a scoring chance any time he touches it, and he’s equally comfortable creating for himself or his linemates. His league-leading five game-winning goals can’t be ignored either.

As of right now, though, Collins is my pick for Player of the Year. He leads the league in points (30), and he’s doing it without having the star linemates that Gaudreau and Whitney have. In fact, no other player on Merrimack has more than 12 points in conference play. Let me repeat that — he has 30 points, and none of his teammates have more than 12. On top of that, Collins has developed into a great defensive forward. He’s one of the Warriors’ top penalty killers, and he ranks fourth among Hockey East forwards with 25 blocks this season.

The only other player I could see a case for would be Providence goalie Jon Gillies, but ultimately I think it comes down to the three guys above. More on Gillies below.

Rookie of the Year
I also threw this one out there on Twitter and, as with Player of the Year, it was a two-horse runaway, this time between Gillies and Northeastern forward Kevin Roy. Ultimately I agree that those are the top two, but I think BC’s Michael Matheson and BU’s Matt Grzelcyk deserve to at least be in the discussion.

They’re two of the best freshman defensemen I’ve seen in recent years. Grzelcyk, with his smooth skating and smart decision-making, has looked like a veteran since Day 1, and he’s continued to play well in the second half even as his team has struggled. Matheson took a little bit of time to adjust to the college game, at least in his own end, but has emerged as BC’s best defensemen (and one of the league’s best defensemen) in the second half. He has it all — he’s strong, he’s physical, he can move the puck, and he has a great shot.

But as great as those two are, I think Gillies and Roy have been just a little bit better. Roy might already be the best pure scorer in the league. His coach, Jim Madigan, said earlier in the season that he just sees things that non-goal-scorers don’t. When you watch Roy play, you see exactly what Madigan means. On numerous occasions, I’ve seen Roy turn a seemingly benign rush into a goal. The one thing that needs to be mentioned with Roy is that 14 of his 34 points (including those five goals he scored in the Beanpot) came in out-of-conference games.

That brings us to Gillies, who is my choice for Rookie of the Year as of right now. As I mentioned above, I think you could conceivably make a case for him as Player of the Year, which is something you can’t really do with any of the other three freshmen I’ve mentioned. He is without question the biggest reason the Friars are competing for home ice right now. He ranks third in Hockey East in both goals-against average and save percentage while playing more minutes and facing more shots than any other goalie. In my opinion, he’s stolen more points than any goalie in the league.

All-Hockey East First and Second Teams
Let’s start with the (relatively) easy part. My First Team forwards, at least as of right now, would be the three players I mentioned for Player of the Year — Collins, Gaudreau and Whitney. The third member of BC’s terrific trio, Pat Mullane, would have to settle for a spot on the Second Team. Mullane is right there with Gaudreau and Whitney in terms of points, and he has the added bonuses of serving as team captain and being one of the league’s best faceoff men. I just think Gaudreau and Whitney make a little bit more of an impact on any given night, though.

The other two forward spots on the Second Team would be interesting. I’d give one to Roy. Even though he’s only tied for ninth in points per game, he’s still tied for second in goals. UNH’s Kevin Goumas was a lock for a spot on one of these teams at the end of the first semester, but he has just two points in his last seven games. BU has four guys — Cason Hohmann, Evan Rodrigues, Wade Megan and Danny O’Regan — who could snag the final spot, while Lowell has two — Joseph Pendenza and Scott Wilson. But I’d give it to UMass’ Branden Gracel for now. He’s averaging a point per game while leading the league in faceoff percentage among players who have taken at least 200 draws.

On defense, I see it as five players competing for four spots. UNH’s Trevor van Riemsdyk is great in his own zone, and he has the playmaking skills of a forward. His offensive output has dropped off a little in the second half, but his defense hasn’t gone anywhere. Merrimack’s Jordan Heywood is the least flashy of anyone I’m going to mention, but he logs huge minutes, he excels in all situations, he’s a team captain, and he’s been arguably the most consistent of anyone in this group.

Chad Ruhwedel, like the rest of his Lowell teammates, got off to a slow start, but he’s been great in the second half. He contributes on offense, and it seems like he never loses a battle in his own end. The final two candidates are the two freshman standouts — Matheson and Grzelcyk. As of right now, the guy I’d leave out would be Grzelcyk. His consistency as a freshman has been remarkable, but I don’t think he’s been asked to handle quite as much responsibility as these other four. Although I don’t have the stats to prove this, I’d be willing to bet that the other four have matched up against opponents’ top lines more than Grzelcyk has.

As far as First vs. Second Team, I’d go with van Riemsdyk and Heywood on my First Team and Ruhwedel and Matheson on my Second. The deciding factor for me is that van Riemsdyk and Heywood have been great since Day 1, while Ruhwedel and Matheson had some early-season struggles.

As you can probably guess based on my earlier comments about him, Gillies would be my First Team goalie. The combination of his great numbers, his heavy workload and his incredible consistency throughout the whole season separate him from everyone else in my opinion. Casey DeSmith and Sam Marotta are the two goalies ahead of him in both GAA and save percentage, but DeSmith had a really tough stretch from late November to mid-January, and Marotta didn’t become an everyday starter until the second half. BC’s Parker Milner needs to be mentioned just because of how incredible he was down the stretch last year, but he hasn’t really been great this year. He’s obviously still been good, though.

In Joe’s post that I mentioned earlier, he makes the case for Marotta on First Team. While he makes some good points, I just can’t overlook the fact that Gillies has been Providence’s everyday starter all season, while Marotta didn’t become that guy for Merrimack until a month and a half ago. Marotta has been slightly better in the second half, and is obviously a huge part of the Warriors’ ascent to first, but Gillies has still been great — he has a .933 save percentage in the second semester. Marotta gets my Second Team spot.

All-Rookie Team
Five of the six spots here are easy to fill in. Gillies is the goalie, Matheson and Grzelcyk are the defensemen, and Roy and O’Regan are two of the forwards. Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck and Christian Folin deserve to be honorable mentions at goalie and defense, respectively, but unfortunately they’re just stuck behind some stars.

Since losing his first career start, Hellebuyck has gone 8-0-0 with a .950 save percentage. Folin, meanwhile, has taken huge strides since the start of the season and has developed into a stellar two-way defenseman. One or both of them will have a good chance to make the actual All- Rookie Team, because for some reason Hockey East usually names eight or nine players to it. My Rookie Team only has six spots, though.

The only spot that’s really up for grabs is the third forward spot. If you go by points, Maine’s Devin Shore is third among forwards behind Roy and O’Regan, and he just had his biggest weekend of the season, tallying five points against BU. If you go by goals or points per game, the best of the rest would be Providence’s Nick Saracino, who missed the first month of the season with an injury.

But my choice would actually be Lowell’s Ryan McGrath. He has three fewer points than Shore and two fewer goals than Saracino, but based on what I’ve seen of these three, McGrath brings the most energy every time he hits the ice and does a little bit more to impact the game. He never takes a shift off and is absolutely tenacious on the forecheck. If you watch Lowell play, it’s obvious just how much he gets under the opponent’s skin. I wish someone kept track of penalties drawn, because I’m confident McGrath would be near the top of the list.

Coach of the Year
This could very well be decided by whoever wins the regular-season title. Mark Dennehy‘s Merrimack squad has most exceeded expectations, and if the Warriors hang on to win the title, he’d be a lock to win this in my mind. He might win it even if they don’t hold on.

BC’s Jerry York has put together another great coaching performance, as he has kept his team near the top despite a rash of injuries on defense. Dick Umile and UNH have exceeded expectations and turned their biggest question mark (scoring) into a strength. Nate Leaman continues to raise the bar at Providence, and this year he has the Friars competing for home ice and possibly a regular-season title. Norm Bazin has helped Lowell turn its season around, but that slow start might cost him.

BU’s Jack Parker is an interesting case. Having two players leave mid-season and suspending another for the remainder of the year doesn’t really look good, but if the Terriers were to win the regular-season title, he’d certainly have to be considered. Dennehy is the favorite for now, but like I said, this might not be decided until the final night of the season.

………………………….

So, to recap my picks as of right now:

Player of the Year- Mike Collins (Merrimack)
Rookie of the Year- Jon Gillies (Providence)
Coach of the Year- Mark Dennehy (Merrimack)

First Team
F- Mike Collins (Merrimack)
F- Johnny Gaudreau (BC)
F- Steven Whitney (BC)
D- Jordan Heywood (Merrimack)
D- Trevor van Riemsdyk (UNH)
G- Jon Gillies (Providence)

Second Team
F- Branden Gracel (UMass)
F- Pat Mullane (BC)
F- Kevin Roy (Northeastern)
D- Michael Matheson (BC)
D- Chad Ruhwedel (Lowell)
G- Sam Marotta (Merrimack)

Rookie Team
F- Ryan McGrath (Lowell)
F- Danny O’Regan (BU)
F- Kevin Roy (Northeastern)
D- Matt Grzelcyk (BU)
D- Michael Matheson (BC)
G- Jon Gillies (Providence)

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