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By Alex Annun
With the NCAA hockey season just a few weeks away commitments for future recruitment classes have for the most part been taken care of and the focus is on the current crop of players and how quickly they can mesh together and make an impact for their teams as the quest for the Frozen Four begins. The teams that make it that far into the season can often point to certain players that have helped them get that far, and that is what we are going to dive into today – who are some of the players that could find themselves on the Hobey Baker Top Ten Finalists List come early spring? Most of the players nominated last year have moved on to the next phase of their hockey careers opening up plenty of spots for fresh faces, but some of the standout players from last year remain and will look to improve upon what they did last year. Let’s start off with some of the players who featured as finalists last year before moving on to players looking to take the next step and earn those honors.
Devon Levi – Goalie, Northeastern University (Buffalo Sabres)
While technically a sophomore last year, Devon Levi missed his freshman year due to injury and showed up in a big way in his first season for the Huskies. Levi compiled a record of 22-9-1 with a 1.54 GAA and .952% save percentage and 10 shutouts en route to winning Goalie of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Northeastern’s first ever regular season Hockey East title. It could be argued that he was deserving of the Hobey Baker Award last year as well after Dryden McKay won it despite not winning Goalie of the Year, but Levi has a chance to prove he is deserving of the prestigious award in his second season with the Huskies. The Buffalo Sabres prospect has had success at every level of the game and he will look to continue to build upon that with a Northeastern team that will see some new and talented faces get added to the roster while the returning players all have another year of development and maturity under their belts. Levi has shown some incredible mobility in the crease and while he sometimes may find himself out of position due to excessive movement he has shown time and time again to be able to make remarkable desperation saves and he is capable of stealing games for his team.
Yaniv Perets – Goalie, Quinnipiac University (Free Agent)
Another finalist for both Goalie of the Year and the Hobey Baker Award is Yaniv Perets, a sophomore for Quinnipiac University who led the country in both GAA with a 1.17 as well as shutouts with 11 and added a .939% save percentage on top of that. As a freshman Yaniv was excellent for a Quinnipiac team that was in and out of the top 10 rankings throughout the season and struggled to find an abundance of offensive success, making his stellar play in net that much more important. Perets was the cornerstone of the Bobcats team and was relied upon heavily and was able to deliver high quality performances on a consistent basis to give them a chance to win every night. Perets set the ECAC record for longest shutout streak at 369 consecutive minutes, as well as setting the record for goals against average, shutouts, and save percentage en route to the Bobcats winning the conference. Another season like that could certainly be on the cards and if he is able to replicate that then Perets should expect to hear his name among the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
Luke Hughes – Defense, University of Michigan (New Jersey Devils)
Perhaps the early favorite to come away with the award, Luke Hughes is a returning blue liner for the Wolverines who just had an outstanding freshman season which saw him lead all defenders in scoring with 39 points in 41 games. Hughes also broke the freshman defenseman scoring record with 17 goals in a season, another feather in his cap for an excellent season on a highly gifted back line that included Owen Power. Luke Hughes gets to be the face of that blue line this season and in a leadership position as one of the alternate captains. This season will be a big one for Hughes as he looks to build upon his game from last season while refining some of his defensive skills as he sets his sights on making the New Jersey Devils roster as early as this spring. Hughes’ mobility is the cornerstone of his game as he is one of the best skaters in the country. His ability to create plays using his agility to leave forecheckers in the dust and quickly attack in transition make him such a dangerous threat on the puck. Hughes looks to lead another talented Wolverine group and with their sights set on a National Title he will need to be a key player for them just as he was last season.
Scott Morrow – Defense, University of Massachusetts (Carolina Hurricanes)
After a strong freshman season with the Minutemen and some turnover around the league, Scott Morrow could find his way onto the list of Hobey Baker Finalists. 33 points in 37 games for a first year defenseman is impressive, but it is even more impressive when the only player that had more points on your team is a Hobey Baker Finalist – and a forward. Morrow asserted himself as a key piece to the offensive scheme for UMass and he and Ryan Ufko did a lot of heavy lifting from the blue line and look to do so again this season. Playing for Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep team from the age of 16, Morrow is no stranger to playing against older and stronger competition and he has found offensive success at every level and only gets better with each passing year as his numbers in high school reflect. His vision is excellent and he does a great job of finding his teammates in scoring areas, and his point shot is able to generate serious power behind it with seemingly minimal effort forcing the defense to be smart when closing him down or allowing him to hold the puck. Morrow should be poised to put together another strong campaign while potentially being the most important player on his team.
Sean Behrens – Defense, University of Denver (Colorado Avalanche)
The reigning champion Denver Pioneers are not returning with the same firepower after losing key players like Cole Guttman, Carter Savoie, or 2022 Hobey Baker winner Bobby Brink. That said, the Pioneers should still be a force to be reckoned with as they have incoming talents like Aidan Thompson and Rieger Lorenz to add to their returning forward group of Carter Mazur, Jack Devine, and Massimo Rizzo. Sean Behrens is coming off a solid first season with Denver after tallying 29 points in 37 games, and while he only notched 3 goals his shot is accurate and powerful so it can be expected for him to put a few more in the net this season given power play options like Brink and Savoie are no longer there. This new look Pioneer offense can expect the same chance creation from the point from Behrens and his ability to take the puck down low and stick handle around the opposition means he can get into the soft spots of the defense and inject offense on his own without having to rely upon his teammates to create for him.
Adam Fantilli – Forward, University of Michigan (2023 NHL Draft)
One of the players who could really come in and make a splash is projected 2023 top-3 pick, Adam Fantilli. The incoming class for the Wolverines is immensely talented with Rutger McGroarty, Frank Nazar, and Gavin Brindley joining Mackie Samoskevich, Luke Hughes and plenty more. Fantilli is coming off his second season with the Chicago Steel which saw him put up 74 points in 54 games as a 17 year old. An immense talent and one who is not afraid to play a physical game either, he seems to be a perfect fit for NCAA hockey and with the talent surrounding him he should be able to put together a great debut season. The Wolverines are a young team after seeing the likes of Beniers, Johnson, Brisson, Bordeleau, Blankenburg and Johnson turn pro, but they should still be a high-octane offensive team capable of outscoring their opponents on a nightly basis, as well as being able to rely on the solid play of Erik Portillo in goal. He offers everything you could ask for from your center: great playmaking, physical play, a heck of a wrist shot, and a solid face-off win percentage. As a player who would have first overall potential in many NHL Drafts, it should be no surprise if he is excellent in his first campaign and wins the Hobey Baker in the process.
Connor Kurth – Forward, University of Minnesota (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Connor Kurth just finished up his second USHL season with Dubuque and posted 81 points in 62 games. At ages 17 and 18 he racked up 122 points in 114 regular season games for the Fighting Saints. Kurth has a great shot with a quick release that he uses as he knifes his way through traffic and into openings that allow him to quickly fire off shots. He has a solid frame to him and is able to utilize it to fight through players and get to the front of the net and get dangerous chances from out front. Minnesota lost their top scorer in Ben Meyers, Jackson Lacombe, and Sammie Walker but are replacing them with Jimmy Snuggerud and Logan Cooley while adding Ryan Chesley and Luke Middelstadt to the blue line. You could argue this team may even be better than last year and Kurth is going to be able to operate with his speed and skill playing alongside some really talented and skilled players in Minneapolis. The sixth round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning could be ready to make an impact in his first season with the Golden Gophers.
Jackson Blake – Forward, University of North Dakota – (Carolina Hurricanes)
After exploding onto the scene in 2020-21 at Eden Prairie High with 58 points in 19 games, Blake put up 77 points in 61 games in his first full USHL season with the Chicago Steel. A 50 assist season highlights his playmaking ability as he has nifty puck handling that allows him to excel in tight and work out of difficult situations and feather passes into tight windows. He does a great job keeping his head on a swivel prior to receiving the puck to make sure his options are mapped out before he is put under pressure and that gives him a leg up on the defense. While a playmaker first and foremost, he is an adept shooter of the puck and is no stranger to putting it in the back of the net. Blake is going to be lining up alongside some fellow USHL standouts that will be mentioned later, so the talent will be there for him to be able to show that he can perform without being on the powerhouse Chicago Steel.
Dylan James – Forward, University of North Dakota (Detroit Red Wings)
Dylan James had himself an exceptional rookie season with the Sioux City Musketeers and was an integral part of their Clark Cup winning team after he compiled 61 points in 62 regular season games. The USHL rookie of the year was an effective player at both ends of the ice, using his size well along the boards in puck battles and to force his way past the opposition with the puck. He has soft hands and a large frame that enable him to out-muscle the opposition and afford him some extra time on the puck to make a play. He may not be as offensively inclined as some of the other names on this list but his defensive contributions as a forward should not be discounted and his effort and ability to break up passes and close down players on the point go a long way to helping his team out and making him an asset to his team. He can produce offense as well as work hard to shut down the opposition on defense and that versatility could earn him a nod on the shortlist at the end of the season.
Owen McLaughlin – Forward, University of North Dakota (Philadelphia Flyers)
Owen McLaughlin will be joining fellow Musketeer and Clark Cup Champion Dylan James as a Fighting Hawk where they can hope to bring their personal success along with them. McLaughlin was the leading scorer for Sioux City with 72 points in 62 games during his first full season in the USHL. A 7th round pick in 2021 for the Philadelphia Flyers, McLaughlin has developed nicely and brings a dual threat offense to the ice as he finished just shy of 30 goals and potted 44 assists. He is a little light for his size and if he fills out a little bit he can be even stronger on the puck than he is already, but he uses the full length of his stick to get great power behind his shots and he does well to drive to the net to look for rebounds to tuck away. An intelligent player who lurks around the offensive zone, North Dakota will have some strong talent together at forward and if he plays alongside a playmaker like Jackson Blake then the pair can really form a lethal pair that could threaten defenses across the country.