Monday, February 27, 2012

WCHA Awards: Rookie of the Year

When I arrive at the National Hockey Center Friday night, there will be some paperwork waiting for me. It's going to be time for the WCHA awards ballot, and there will be some deliberating going on, at least for me.

Throughout the week, I'm going to take some time to look at what I think are the most intriguing races, presenting arguments for and against some of the top candidates for various honors. You're invited to join in with the comments, as well as the ol' Twitter and Facebook bit, which you can access on the left.

In this go round, we'll examine the top candidates for WCHA Rookie of the Year. Candidates will be listed alphabetically, largely because doing it any other way could imply a bias that doesn't exist, as I haven't really decided my vote on any of these awards yet.

The top contenders

Caleb Herbert, F, UMD. In a "normal" season, a freshman who earns a second-line role over more experienced players because of his speed and quick transition to the college game would be a much better bet for this award. Herbert's taken Kyle Schmidt's vacated spot at left wing on a line with Travis Oleksuk and JT Brown, and that line might be better than it was a year ago.

Herbert might not have Schmidt's smarts, but he has great speed, is a very determined player, and he compliments Oleksuk and Brown well, even though it's a different dynamic than what we saw last season. Watch him take the body, and it's easy to forget how much skill he possesses.

The problem for Herbert is that this is a numbers game, too, and his don't stack up. He's a clear No. 3 in my view, but I can't rate him any higher than that.

Joey LaLeggia, D, Denver. Somehow, LaLeggia's become almost a forgotten man in this race. This despite the fact that LaLeggia leads all WCHA rookies in scoring, and he's doing it as a defenseman. He's six points behind Wisconsin's Justin Schultz -- a legit Hobey candidate -- for top honors among all defensemen in the league.

LaLeggia has a lethal shot, and he's very dangerous with the puck on his stick. He plays for a highly-visible program, both in the league and nationally. Not that it matters much, but you can't even blame his high point total on power play production, as LaLeggia only has 14 of his 36 points on the power play.

So where's the buzz? I'm undecided on my vote, and LaLeggia's a big reason why.

Kyle Rau, F, Minnesota. You've probably heard the superlatives. Rau's scored a few big goals in his day. His points-per-game average is identical to LaLeggia, and six of his 16 goals have been game-winners, for a team that's been in a lot of close games this season.

There was considerable buzz about Rau from the start of the season, which went immensely well for him. He's got 27 points in 26 WCHA games, so it's not like he fattened up too much on Sacred Heart or Niagara or whatever.

(For the record, LaLeggia has 27 WCHA points, too, so that's not going to help separate the candidates.)

Rau's a beast around the net, isn't afraid to mix it up physically, and exudes confidence every time he's on the ice. It's not a factor for me, but I wonder how much his one-game suspension for an illegal check on Denver's Jason Zucker will matter in the voters' minds.


I believe -- no matter how I end up voting -- that Rau is going to win this award easily. I think the buzz has been too great, and when the vast majority of voters in this process are relying on -- yes -- buzz, it is often too hard to overcome that. The voters the WCHA employs for this process (myself included) are going off the few chances they have to see these teams in person (remember that Minnesota played only two games against most of the teams in the league, not four). For example, I only saw Rau play twice in person, and I happened to catch a couple other Gopher games on the DVR. UMD hasn't had an off weekend since Christmas break, so my chances to just sit around and watch hockey on television have been severely limited.

I'll do some more recon on these two players this week, but I look at this as a very tough decision. Rau's on the better team record-wise, and he's had some impact in the fact that his team is better. But Denver might not be in the race for home ice without guys like LaLeggia, who has been very steady and solid -- and sometimes dynamic -- on the blue line.

It's one of many close races for awards and honors, in my view. It'll be very interesting to see how it all breaks down once we get into the week of the WCHA Final Five. I'd love to hear from fans about how they feel this should break down. If you feel one player or another should be a lock to win this, explain yourself. I'm just not seeing either guy as a lock, and it's going to be a frustrating time trying to figure this one out.


Goon said...

That was a reasonable and thoughtful analysis and I agree with you, I think Rau will run away with the award. It was too bad that Rocco Grimaldi wasn’t healthy all season long.

Woody said...

I've seen nearly every game for the gophers this season. Rau can score from 6 inches, 8 inches and even 12 inches from the net. He can score on the forehand and he can score on the forehand. His greatest asset is that has been able to draw four, five minute majors. This hasn't happened in a few weeks, but it will during the playoffs. LaLeggia has as many points, and he's a defensemen that hasn't played on the first line all year with Bjustad.

vizoroo said...

This is a 2 man race. LaLeggia and Rau. Rau may have the buzz advantage having played high school hockey in Minn. and playing for the gophs.
LaLeggia wowed the folks in the BCHL last year and surprised the WCHA with his skills this year. Top scoring freshman, 2nd only to Schultz from the blue line--impressive credentials.
Joey Leggs gets my vote.

Btw, both of these young men don't have the prototypical NHL size. They succeed with talent, skill and hard work.