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Zach Pekale | NCAA.com | September 12, 2019

An early look at 3 players who could win the Hobey Baker Award

Minnesota Duluth wins back-to-back hockey titles

With the return of college hockey inching closer, take note of three notable departures from a season ago.

Defensemen Cale Makar (Massachusetts), Adam Fox (Harvard) and Jimmy Schuldt (St. Cloud State) all signed with NHL teams in the offseason. This blue-line triumvirate was better known around the college hockey spectrum as finalists for the Hobey Baker award — given to the top overall player in Division I men's hockey. Makar won the award in 2019 as a sophomore.

VICTORY LAP: Cale Makar wins 2019 Hobey Baker Award

The absence of the 2019 finalists make way for new contenders to take home the hardware. Here are three names to keep an eye on in 2019-20.

Alex Limoges – Penn State

Limoges took massive strides between his freshman and sophomore years at University Park. After finishing eighth on the team in points in 2017-18, Limoges was vaulted onto the Nittany Lions' top line — a move that paid tremendous dividends.

He became the catalyst of Penn State's offense, a unit that managed 177 goals last season at a rate of more than 4.5 per game. The next closest team, St. Cloud State, scored 21 less goals and averaged one-half goal fewer.

Limoges registered 16 multi-point games, setting  the program-record for single-season points (50) and goals (23). His 27 assists were the second-most in a single-season in Penn State's history while his plus-23 was sixth.

But for possible breakthrough, Limoges and Penn State will likely need to reach the NCAA tournament. The most recent finalists all competed in the postseason, a tournament the Nittany Lions fell just short of last year.

Penn State won 22 games a year ago. Despite a sub-.500 record in league play, Limoges's nine points in the Big Ten tournament propelled PSU to the cusp of a postseason berth. However, Notre Dame kept him pointless in a 3-2 loss and Ohio State garnered an at-large bid for the conference, leaving the Nittany Lions on the outside looking in.

Limoges got his name into Penn State's record book as a sophomore. As a junior, similar production in addition to a postseason appearance might warrant an even greater honor.

Mitchell Chaffee – Massachusetts

Massachusetts came within a game of the program's first-ever national championship in 2019, ultimately falling to Minnesota Duluth in the finals. Gone from a year ago are Hobey Baker winner Cale Makar and Jacob Pritchard, the top-two point producers for the Minutemen. 

However, Mitchell Chaffee returns after a 42-point season and can expect to be the go-to offensive threat for UMass in 2019-20. Chaffee — a first-line right winger — and Makar were both named ACHA First-Team All-Americans to culminate the team's best season in program history.

The Minutemen won 31 games last year, a program record and a far cry from the 5-29-2 mark in coach Greg Carvel's first season.

Improvements by Chaffee among others aided the program's swift turnaround. The rising junior nearly doubled his point total from 24 to 42 with a dozen multi-point games.

Like Limoges, Chaffee's plus/minus took a staggering turn for the better. He was -5 as a freshman before finishing his sophomore campaign at +23. To elevate his case for the Hobey Baker this season, Chaffee's postseason performances will likely need a boost.

His lone point in the NCAA tournament came in the Minutemen's Frozen Four win over Denver. By comparison, Makar registered a point in three of four postseason games.

THE AWARD, EXPLAINED: The history of the Hobey Baker Award

Last season, UMass was a bit of a surprise. If the Minutemen replicate their team success with Chaffee leading the charge, it'll be hard not to include the junior's name in the Hobey Baker conversation.

Scott Perunovich – Minnesota Duluth

With all three 2019 finalists residing on the blue line, it only feels right to include a defenseman on our preseason watch list. What better place to look than the defending national champions.

Minnesota Duluth allowed under two goals per game last season, the third-lowest mark in Division I and Perunovich was key to the success of the Bulldog's stifling defense and their second consecutive title.

Statistically, his numbers were lower than his freshman year. The 2018 second-round draft pick took a dip in his goal production in addition to his plus/minus. Perunovich tallied 11 goals as a freshman, down to three as a sophomore while his plus-22 dropped to plus-10.

NHL FUTURE: Where will each first-round pick play college hockey?

However, he was still recognized as the top offensive defenseman in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and was named an All-American for the second time in as many years.  

Should Perunovich rediscover the goal-scoring ability that made him one of the most tantalizing two-way defenders as a freshman, not only will Minnesota Duluth compete for a third consecutive national championship, but another defender might come away with the Hobey Baker Award.

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