There was a time when Hobey Baker Award winners made a serious impact on NHL rosters.
Players named Paul Kariya, Ryan Miller, Chris Drury and Brendan Morrison.
These days? Not so much.
For the heart and soul leaders of college hockey teams in America, winning the Hobey Baker remains an illustrious honour, commemorating the World War I hero who played football and hockey for Princeton University. But the honour does not come with an automatic ticket to the NHL.
A cursory glance at the past 10 Hobey Baker winners, considered the top hockey player in the NCAA in a given year, would suggest only defencemen Matt Carle of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Jordan Leopold of the Buffalo Sabres have truly established themselves as impact players in the NHL.
Matt Gilroy, 27, the Ottawa Senators trade deadline acquisition and the 2009 Hobey Baker winner, is still looking for a steady NHL home after joining his third NHL team in three seasons. In his first home game for Ottawa on Friday, Gilroy warmed the hearts of Senators fans by picking up an assist on a first period goal by Milan Michalek and racing back to nix a breakaway by Chicago Blackhawks star winger Patrick Kane.
Another recent winner was also on the move at the trade deadline — 2010 Hobey Baker honoree Blake Geoffrion, trying to uphold the family name after being traded to the Montreal Canadiens from Nashville.
Why are Hobey Baker winners having a tougher time cracking the NHL as regulars?
NHL on NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, a former assistant coach at the NCAA level with St. Lawrence University, believes three things have happened regarding college hockey and its graduates to the pros.
Top players are leaving college early to turn pro.
2. Major junior leagues in Canada are keeping more of their prospects, in part because of education packages.
3. NCAA hockey is watered down somewhat through expansion.
Few NHL general managers have made more of a habit of acquiring U.S. college players through free agency or trade than the Senators Bryan Murray, the man who signed Chris Kunitz, Dustin Penner, Jesse Winchester, Bobby Butler, Stephane Da Costa and more as undrafted college free agents.
Murray agrees with McGuire on the first two points, and says he doesn’t see enough college games to know if Division One hockey has become diluted. Certainly as an organizational philosophy, the Senators continue to shake the tree for college prospects not already snapped up the NHL entry level draft. Assistant GM Tim Murray is out scouting a prospective free agent college player this weekend.
“They’re leaving earlier, no question,” Murray says, of the top prospects from the NCAA. “We’re talking this year about (signing) a freshman.”
They were also hot after a first year player a little more than a year ago, in defenceman Chris Tanev, a former Markham Waxer junior out of the Toronto area who played a year for the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers befoe the Vancouer Canucks snapped him up in the spring of 2010.
“Tanev, he probably would have had that opportunity (to win a Hobey Baker) somewhere in his career,” Murray says, “but he came out after his freshman year because, No. 1, there’s probably more opportunity in the NHL, sooner, and kids are more ready to play in the NHL.”
The Senators got into the Tanev hunt to the point of entertaining the prospect and his father for dinner.
“We thought we had him,” Murray said. “We felt if we could get him to come out, he could play for our team within a year. Now, he’s playing in Vancouver. Part time, not all the time yet, but those kinds of players are turning pro sooner.”
Lesser pro prospects tend to remain in college for the extent of their eligibility, often enjoying a fulfilling hockey experience in its own right, and whether they reach the NHL or not, they may be Hobey worthy.
As Murray says, along the way, that award winner was likely bypassed by a number of players that left the college system long before his eligibility expired.
NHL clubs understand they can be viewed as poachers, and so try to pick their spots. The vast majority of college are encouraged to remain in the system and develop. A smaller number are invited to take their development to a professional level, usually the AHL.
“I tell kids, if you can get a full ride, go to school, you will still have an opportunity to become a hockey player,” Murray says. “We have a few that stayed for four years. Ben Blood and guys like that. But they’ve stayed in because they needed the time to develop.”
Kyle Turris is a Senators player who was lured from college after one year, on a phone call by then-Phoenix Coyotes managing partner Wayne Gretzky.
With Turris in tow, the Senators will continue to pursue a college player this spring, Hobey Baker nominee or not, to add to their system. Found money, Murray believes.
“We traded away a second round pick to get Turris,” Murray says. “We think we can get that second round pick back as a free agent.”