In all honesty, this could be the toughest decision I've had to make in seven years of calling games. In most years, you have a slam-dunk couple of players, with two or three more fighting for the third spot.
This year, however, there is really only one slam-dunk candidate for the first team, and the other two spots could realistically go to any of about eight players. It's insane how good this league is at the forward position this year.
Jack Connolly, UMD. The Hobey front-runner leads the league in scoring, both overall and when you only count conference games. He's seven points clear of teammate Travis Oleksuk for the league lead in all games (54-47), and seven points clear of Oleksuk, JT Brown, and Denver's Drew Shore in conference games (42-35). No reason not to have Connolly on the first team, unless you hate America or something.
The other top contenders
Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota. There aren't many holes in the big man's game this season. Bjugstad has developed into one of the best power forwards in college hockey, and he has the numbers to back up such statements. Bjugstad has 23 goals -- including some really big ones -- and 38 points in 33 games for the first-place Gophers. He's been probably the most important offensive player on a team that has experienced quite a resurgence this season.
JT Brown, UMD. Despite missing two games with an upper body injury, Brown has 20 goals and 42 points overall, and an impressive 17 goals and 35 points in 24 WCHA games. He's likely to leave UMD after this season, but man has he been impressive during his two-year stint, quickly becoming one of the best players in college hockey.
Brock Nelson, North Dakota. While the Fighting Sioux have experienced their share of struggles when it comes to keeping players healthy, Nelson has become a rock on the top line. Like Bjugstad, it's been fun to watch Nelson get better and better throughout the season, and he's been rewarded with a 22-goal season thus far, including 19 goals and 32 points in 26 league games. Nelson's ability to score from virtually anywhere -- especially from the faceoff dots in -- will be crucial to UND's playoff chances.
Travis Oleksuk, UMD. While Connolly is having one of the best seasons you'll find anywhere in college hockey this season, Oleksuk has quietly put together his finest collegiate season in his senior year. Oleksuk has career highs in goals (21), assists (26), and points (47), and is tied for second in WCHA play with 35 total points. He wins faceoffs, kills penalties, and is one of the players Scott Sandelin will not hesitate to put on the ice late in close games.
Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College. It's easy to forget him, because he missed games at the World Juniors, but Schwartz is again one of the league's best players. In 26 total games, the 2010 first-round pick (St. Louis) has 36 points, nearly a point and a half per game. He's averaging 1.35 points per game in WCHA play, ranking him in the top ten. What's most impressive to me is watching him compete. He's not going to make anyone forget Mike Testwuide, but Jaden Schwartz will stick his nose in the tough areas and do a lot of the little things to make plays.
Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College. Despite Jaden being a bigger name, Rylan might be a better candidate for the first team. He has 22 goals this season to lead his team, and like his younger brother, Rylan makes a lot of noise by going to the net and wreaking havoc. I like both players, but I'd probably take Rylan over Jaden, largely because he's been able to stay in the lineup, and he's made some big plays for his team over the course of the season as a result.
Drew Shore, Denver. Hard to argue with the way Shore's played this season. He's having a great year, with 45 points and 19 goals overall. He's tied for second with 35 points in league play, so he's produced against tough WCHA competition. He's another guy who will get ice time in all the tough situations, and there are a lot of big goals he's been a part of for DU.
Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin. You can forget some guys when they play on ninth-place teams, but that would be a real disservice to Zengerle. He's overshadowed as an elite player on his own team by Justin Schultz, and he's overshadowed as an elite passer in the WCHA by Connolly. He's forgotten about because he "only" has 11 goals, as if no one can read the next number on his scoring line (33 assists), a number that's just as important as any. Unless Badger players are getting all their goals on end-to-end rushes, Zengerle's a big part of the offense, and he's a very good player who deserves recognition.
Jason Zucker, Denver. I told you there was a long list. Zucker may not have enjoyed a great World Juniors, but he's come back and continued to play well for Denver. His 1.34 points per game rank him sixth in all games, and he's fourth in league games at 1.36. In all, Zucker has 18 goals in 25 WCHA games, and his speed makes him one of the most dangerous players in college hockey.