The Case for the Hobey Baker Award

Zach Aston-Reese scores his 100th career Northeastern point. Photo via Northeastern Athletics

Providence — With the final weekend of the 2016-17 regular season in the books, the chatter regarding playoffs begins, and with it the closer examination of the candidates for the Hobey Baker Award. In mid-January, I looked at the Huskies’ Zach Aston-Reese, and compared him to his two closest competitors at the time for the Hobey Baker, Mike Vecchione of Union, and Tyler Kelleher of New Hampshire.  The same trio hold the spotlight now that the season has ended, and just as he was at the time of the previous article, Aston-Reese rests ahead of the pack in terms of Hobey Baker candidacy.

As it stands, Aston-Reese and Kelleher are tied for the national lead in scoring with 59 points. Aston-Reese has 29 goals and 30 assists, while Kelleher has 22 goals and 37 assists. Vecchione sits in third place with 58 points. He has scored 26 goals and dished out 32 assists. All three have played in all 34 games this season.

This is not just blind homer-ism favoring the Northeastern Husky. Similar to the article in January, I will examine the quality of opponents the three forwards have played, and compare their outputs against each other. I will also look at how they are scoring their points- even strength, powerplay, shorthanded, and empty net points are all looked at under the microscope. I’ll also discuss some individual points that don’t fit as nicely into tables if they don’t apply to all three players.

Opponents' Combined Winning Percentage
Aston-Reese Vecchione  Kelleher
Overall 47.20% (287 wins/608 games) 40.20% (259/645) 40.80% (299/732)
49.6% (115/232) 32.8% (72/232) 34.6% (123/356)

Simply put, Aston-Reese has faced better teams this season. His opponents include fourteen games against teams currently in the top 20 of the Pairwise rankings. By comparison, Kelleher also had fourteen (both he and ZAR had twelve such games in-conference), while Vecchione had only ten games against PWR Top 20 teams. Vecchione also got to feast on teams that won fewer than ten games in the regular season nine times. Kelleher had five games against that class of opponents. Aston-Reese had three. It is simply easier to score more points when you play worse teams, something Vecchione and Kelleher both had more of a luxury to do than Aston-Reese. The fact that Aston-Reese was able to keep pace with them while facing better teams is a serious testament to his abilities.

Opponents' Combined Save Percentage
Aston-Reese Vecchione  Kelleher
90.39% (17032/18842) 89.98% (17533/19485)  90.38% (20419/22593)

The save percentages each player faced are closer than the overall records, but still show that Aston-Reese and Kelleher faced better opposing goaltending than Vecchione did. Kelleher and Vecchione each got eight games against teams ranked in the bottom fifteen in save percentage, while Aston-Reese played seven. It’s notable that Vecchione played five games against three teams in the bottom five in save percentage (Brown x2, Niagara, Dartmouth x2), in which he put up six goals and five assists for eleven points. Nearly twenty percent of his season scoring came against three of the very worst goaltending teams in the country. Kelleher also played Brown once and scored 5 points and 4 power play points in that single game.

Looking at games aganst top goaltending, all three players faced similar opposition. Kelleher had one more game against teams in the top fifteen in save percentage (eight), followed by Aston-Reese and Vecchione (seven).

Breakdown of Points Scored
Aston-Reese Vecchione  Kelleher
Even Strength 28 26  25
Powerplay 26 21  30
Shorthanded 5 5  1
Empty Net 0 6  3

Clearly, each player prospered with the man advantage, Kelleher most of all. Aston-Reese was more effective than either of his competitiors when the odds were either even or stacked against him, as evidenced by having more even strength points than either of his rivals, and drawing even with Vecchione in shorthanded points four ahead of Kelleher. Aston-Reese did not, however, benefit from scoring any points into an empty net- something that aided to pad the stats of both Kelleher and Vecchione.

Further Thoughts and Points

– The value in Zach Aston-Reese as a player is not simply reflected on the scoresheet. He has drawn wide acclaim from coaches and scouts alike for his ability to play all 200 feet of the ice, playing on the powerplay and penalty kill, and being among the most dominant players on the ice. Appreciation of his talent in all zones can really only be gathered when viewing a Northeastern game unfortunately, as the college game lacks advanced stats to measure players’ effectiveness in non-traditional areas of statistics.

– Aston-Reese’s points-per-game average leads the nation (1.74) is currently higher than twelve of the last sixteen skaters to win the Hobey Baker Award. Only Gaudreau (2.0), Sejna (1.95), Miele (1.82) and Eichel (1.775) are higher.

– He also leads the NCAA in points scored (59), goals scored (29), is third in powerplay goals (13), and tied for first in shorthanded goals (four) with Vecchione and Boston University’s Clayton Keller. His 143 shots on goal are fourth in the nation and significantly higher than the 117 of Vecchione and 107 of Kelleher, both of whom are benefitting from shooting at a higher percentage than ZAR as a result of their empty net tallies.

– Some may make the argument that Aston-Reese’s points are augmented by playing alongside two other players who scored fifty points (Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura). However, contrary to perception, this isn’t the case. Either Sikura or Gaudette have only assisted on twelve of Aston-Reese’s goals, equaling 41.3%. Only one of these assists came at even strength. Similarly, Sikura and Gaudette have been recipients of only thirteen of Aston-Reese’s thirty assists (43.3%), with four coming at even strength. Aston-Reese has done the majority of his production without Gaudette and Sikura getting credit on the scoresheet, showing that he is not simply a product of his environment and riding his teammates’ coattails. He’s never been listed on the same even strength line with Gaudette this season, and while he was listed with Sikura a few times due to injury, Sikura never assisted on any of Aston-Reese’s even strength goals in those games. 23 of his 28 even strength tallies (82.1%) came without either of them. His production came while playing at both wing and center due to Husky injuries, and featured a revolving door of linemates that included Lincoln Griffin, Patrick Schule, John Picking, and Ryan Rosenthal, all of whom combine for only 16 points this season.

– Aston-Reese is the nation’s leader in hat tricks (three), multi-goal games (eight), and four-point games (four)

Closing Thoughts

Zach Aston-Reese deserves to win the Hobey Baker Award. Not only has he put up the highest point total in the nation, he has done so against tougher competition than either of his two closest competitors, both in terms of opponents’ records and save percentage. One of those competitors took advantage of multiple games against the worst goaltenders in the nation while also potting empty-net goals, while the other feasted on power plays against mediocre teams to drive his scoring and does not have the checking or defensive prowess that Aston-Reese exhibits night in and night out.

Zach Aston-Reese was dominant in all facets of the game- even strength, powerplay, shorthanded, and did not even get the luxury of padding his stats with empty net points. He is a complete hockey player that plays well in all three zones, along the boards, and in the open ice. He has progressively improved in his time at Northeastern, culminating this year with one of the best offensive seasons in Northeastern program history. There are no flaws in his game. He is the best goal-scorer in the NCAA this year, and deserves to be on the stage in Chicago accepting Northeastern’s first Hobey Baker Award.