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Patrick Donnelly | | October 7, 2022

Way-too-early Hobey Baker Award watchlist for men's college hockey

The top college hockey storylines for 2022-23

With the 2022-23 men's college hockey season still in its infancy, it's a perfect time to try to predict who the year's top performers might be. 

Of course, these early season picks will undoubtedly pan out in six months. 

Some players have already gotten off to strong starts, while others haven't quite heated up yet through the first handful of games. 

Last season saw Denver take home its ninth national championship, while a number of stellar individual campaigns led to a tight race for the Hobey Baker Award with several worthy nominees. In the end, Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay won the hardware with Minnesota's Ben Meyers and Denver's Bobby Brink coming in as the runners-up.

Men's college hockey's most prestigious award was created in 1981, honoring the late Hobey Baker, a Hockey Hall of Famer and former Princeton standout considered to be the one of the first great American skaters. It is annually awarded to the top player in Division I. 

WHAT TO KNOW: Click or tap here for 5 men's hockey storylines to watch this season

Here are the players who could have the best shot at winning the Hobey in 2023:

Luke Hughes, Michigan | Defenseman | Sophomore

Hughes frequently stole the headlines on an absolutely stacked Michigan team last season.

The fourth overall pick to the New Jersey Devils in 2021, Hughes put up 39 points as a freshman last season, a single-season program record for a first-year Wolverine, leading all Division I defensemen in points and goals (17, the most ever by a freshman defenseman) en route to being a top-10 finalist for the Hobey. He has a real chance to be the best of the three Hughes brothers, even with Jack and Quinn already blossoming into NHL stars themselves. 

On top of his scoring prowess, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound blue-liner has the mobility, vision and play-making ability to fully take control of games. Hughes may have been able to turn pro after an outstanding season last year, but returning for his sophomore season could pay off in a big way for both him and the Wolverines.

Matthew Knies, Minnesota | Forward | Sophomore

Minnesota collectively breathed a sigh of relief after Knies determined he would return for his sophomore season instead of signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Knies is a powerful forward that commands attention when he's on the ice, putting up 33 points (15g, 18a) in 33 games as a freshman last season while also suiting up with the United States at the Olympics in Beijing. The Phoenix, Arizona, native got better as the season went on last year, finishing with three goals and an assist in three NCAA tournament games. He should make another leap in his development this season.

A unanimous selection to the preseason All-Big Ten First Team, Knies is already off to a strong start with two goals and an assist through the first two games of the year. 

RANKINGS: Click or tap here for the latest USCHO Division I men's poll

Devon Levi, Northeastern | Goaltender | Sophomore

It's been talked about plenty, but Devon Levi was otherworldly in net for Northeastern last year.

He recored the second-best save percentage in Division I history (.952) and had the most shutouts (10) in a single season for the Huskies on top of his 22-9-1 record and 1.54 goals against average (GAA). The Buffalo Sabres prospect was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey and racked up other awards, earning National Rookie of the Year, Hockey East Goalie and Rookie of the Year as well as the Mike Richter Award, annually given to the nation's top netminder. After all that, it was odd to see him left out of the Hobey Hat Trick. 

The Canadian Olympian was arguably the biggest reason for Northeastern finishing atop Hockey East in the regular season and qualifying for the tournament, and he'll lead a core that should keep the Huskies near the top of the rankings again. 

Matthew Coronato, Harvard | Forward | Sophomore

Another super sophomore to make the list, Coronato had quite the debut season for the Crimson in 2021-22.

The 2021 first-rounder to the Calgary Flames had 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points in 34 games. Coronato is a gifted goal scorer who has shown jumps in his development each season, going back to his days in the USHL. If he keeps trending the way he has the past few seasons, he should surpass last season's goal total with ease on a Harvard team with considerable expectations.

He'll look to find the same connection with setup man Sean Farrell as the Crimson make another push in the national conversation. 

HISTORY: Every Division I men's hockey champion since 1948

Yaniv Perets, Quinnipiac | Goaltender | Sophomore

Perets sort of fell into Levi's shadow last season, but make no mistake, the Quinnipiac netminder had a tremendous season of his own.

A top-10 finalist himself last season, the Quebec native led the nation in GAA (1.17, a single-season record) and shutouts (11) last season to go along with a .939 save percentage, leading the Bobcats to an ECAC regular season title and an NCAA tournament berth. Like Levi, he gives his team confidence and a chance to win every time he's in the crease.

He was the backbone of a QU group that had some offensive inconsistency last season, winning conference Player and Goalie of the Year honors. The junior will once again be one of the pillars of the Bobcats.

Riese Gaber, North Dakota | Forward | Junior

Few players took as big of a step forward last season as Gaber.

After putting up 21 points (11g, 10a) in 29 games during his freshman season with the Fighting Hawks, the 5-foot-8, 163-pound winger had a breakout year as a sophomore in 2021-22 with 15 goals and 22 assists for 37 points in 34 games. Gaber has one of the best and most deceptive shots at the collegiate level, and is able to beat goaltenders cleanly. 

He'll be the center of the North Dakota offense as the Fighting Hawks look to bounce back from last year's first round upset at the hands of Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament. 

Mike Benning, Denver | Defenseman | Junior

Count Benning among those looking to build on breakout seasons in 2021-22. 

The right-shot blue-liner was almost a point per game player last season with 38 points (15 goals and 23 assists) in 41 games. Benning led the defense for the Pioneers, playing all situations and earning All-NCHC second team honors. The cherry on top of it all was notching the game-deciding goal in the national championship against Minnesota State en route to being named the Frozen Four's Most Outstanding Player. 

With as much forward talent as Denver lost, Benning will likely have to carry more of the load offensively from the backend. He and defense partner Sean Behrens will be two of the biggest reasons that the Pioneers could repeat as champions this season.

CHAMPIONS: How Denver took down Minnesota State to win the 2022 national championship

Logan Cooley, Minnesota | Forward | Freshman

Cooley comes into the NCAA with an enormous amount of expectations on his shoulders.

The third overall pick to the Arizona Coyotes in the most recent NHL Draft was selected to the All-Big Ten Second Team without playing a shift in the NCAA. So far, however, the hype has been real as the Pittsburgh native has four points (2g, 2a) through two games to start the season. He was well over a point per game with the U.S. development program last season, and faired well in exhibitions against Division I teams.

A freshman hasn't won the award since Jack Eichel had an all-world season with Boston University in 2014-15. In fact, just two freshmen have ever won it, Eichel and Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Kariya (Maine, 1993). But as one of the headliners of a strong freshman class across the nation, Cooley might just have the tools to be in the conversation.

Aidan McDonough, Northeastern | Forward | Senior

Levi stole a lot of the headlines at Northeastern last season, but McDonough was arguably just as important to the Huskies' success.

The senior captain finished second in the nation with 25 goals, leading all returners this season. McDonough passed up an opportunity to sign an NHL deal to take one more run with Northeastern after last year's breakout 39-point, All-American campaign that saw him set career-highs in goals and points. The Milton, Massachusetts, native is a talented, powerful goal scorer with a great release.

Levi will have to make the saves, while McDonough will have to fill the net to help Northeastern meet their high expectations.

Zach Metsa, Quinnipiac | Defenseman | Graduate

Kind of like McDonough, Metsa quietly had a phenomenal 2021-22 season in the shadow of his star goaltender, Perets.

The undrafted free agent set career-bests across the board last season with 10 goals, 27 assists and 37 points in 42 games, helping the Bobcats to the national quarterfinals. Metsa has a wealth of experience on the blue line as a strong puck-mover, facilitating a lot of Quinnipiac's offense both at even strength and on the power play. He has steadily improved his production each season of his career, and could be in line for another step this season as he looks to secure a pro contract after the year. 

The Bobcats will lean on Metsa as they try to cope with some key departures on their defense, so keep an eye on how he responds to the increased opportunity and duties. 

Honorable mentions: Brock Faber (Minnesota, junior defenseman), Brendan Furry (Minnesota State, senior forward), Adam Fantilli (Michigan, freshman forward), Josh Doan (Arizona State, sophomore forward), Scott Morrow (UMass, sophomore defenseman), A.J. Vanderbeck (Northern Michigan, senior forward), Sean Behrens (Denver, sophomore defenseman), Ryan Tverberg (UConn, junior forward)

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