Now, it's time to look at the race for top coach. Like Rookie of the Year, the Coach of the Year award is a simple vote for the participating media and other panelists. There isn't a first team, second team, and third team. Just one name.
Like Rookie of the Year, there might be a clear-cut choice for most, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right choice.
Dave Hakstol, North Dakota. This might not seem obvious to everyone. North Dakota, after all, won the MacNaughton and the Broadmoor last year, and the Fighting Sioux were a Shawn Hunwick head-stand away from the national title game against UMD.
But every year is different, especially when you lose as much as UND lost off last year's team (most notably, Matt Frattin, Chay Genoway, and Brad Malone, among others). Throw in a couple transfers and mix in a top prospect bolting for the CHL, and you have a team lacking a lot of depth going into the season.
All UND has endured this season are injuries to guys like Derek Forbort, Rocco Grimaldi, Brendan O'Donnell, and Derek Rodwell, and yet Hakstol has a team robbed of its depth within striking distance of third place in the league.
He might not win the award, but there's no question that Hakstol deserves consideration.
Don Lucia, Minnesota. "Blah!," you say. But who picked Minnesota to win the league? Lucia has found a way to get this program turned around and back from a couple of seriously mediocre seasons. Recruiting guys like Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau helps, and the emergence of Kent Patterson as a more consistent goaltender hasn't been a hindrance.
Lucia deserves credit, though. While some fans were trying to run him out of town, Lucia dumped John Hill for Mike Guentzel, who has made an immediate impact on the team's defensemen. Minnesota is not without its flaws, but is a deep team with scoring on all lines, a lethal power play, and a goalie good enough to win games if other parts of the team break down.
Mel Pearson, Michigan Tech. After a couple injury-riddled seasons that challenged the resolve of everyone involved with the program, it was time for Jamie Russell to go. No, you can't blame the rash of injuries on Russell, but instead it was all about making a change. Alum Pearson came aboard after intially deciding not to take the job while the Michigan team he was an assistant for advanced to the NCAA title game.
Pearson has benefited from a healthier team for sure, and players Russell recruited have made an impact. But Pearson also was able to engineer a quick and decisive change in the program's culture. It's that culture change that makes Pearson a top candidate for the award, even if it's easy to forget that the on-ice work has been done with players Pearson had no role in recruiting.
Russell is a good man, and I always enjoyed my interactions with him. I felt badly for what he went through the last two years, but it's also hard to argue with the school's decision to make a change, even given how much of what went wrong wasn't Russell's fault. It was just a miserable atmosphere around the program last year, and that atmosphere is incredibly different now.
Whether Tech steals home ice from Colorado College or not, Pearson is the leading candidate for this award. Despite the fact that Russell deserves a nod for bringing in the players Pearson is succeeding with, it's hard to overlook how hard Pearson had to work to change the culture in Houghton.
I think Hakstol has a slightly better case than Lucia. Expectations for UND might have been a touch on the high side going into the season, but they were high. And when you look at the way things have played out for UND, it's amazing they are in the position they are in. I just don't know that I'd take Hakstol over Pearson.
Michigan Tech won four games last season. Four. One less than five. Pearson's fifth win as Tech coach came on Oct. 28. Now, the Huskies are a point out of home ice with two games to play. If Pearson isn't the Coach of the Year, I'll be floored, though it's not for a lack of top candidates who could steal it from him.