The Hobey Baker Award was given out over the weekend and University of Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Scott Perunovich claimed the trophy, which goes to college hockey's top men's player.
Perunovich, of course, recently signed his NHL entry-level contract with the St. Louis Blues, the team that drafted him 45th overall back in 2018. Also making the 'Hobey Hat Trick' finalist list were University of Maine goaltender Jeremy Swayman and University of North Dakota right winger Jordan Kawaguchi. All three are clearly talented individuals, but what kind of mark can they make at the next level? There is intrigue in all three. Let's take a look at their challenges in the coming years.
I won't spend too much time on Perunovich, since I did an entire blog on his derring-do when he signed with the Blues recently. But next season will be very interesting for the gifted puckmover. Yes, he torched the college scene for the past three years, winning two national championships and putting his Bulldogs in a position to win a third tournament (that was cancelled), but the Blues don't want to get too ahead of themselves when it comes to the undersized prospect. As detailed in this year's edition of Future Watch, the St. Louis braintrust wants to find out how Perunovich will fare once he gets to the pro ranks - and given how deep the Blues are on the back end, that will most likely mean the AHL to begin with. Now, plenty of sub-six foot defensemen have carved out nice careers in the NHL lately, but others have faltered. In that sense, Perunovich is almost like a goalie coming out of the junior/college ranks, according to the Blues: you don't know until you know. Nonetheless, there is a ton to like about the young man's game.
In Swayman, we have a goaltender with excellent size who has shown big jumps in his development over the past few years. A Boston Bruins draft pick who recently signed his NHL deal with the franchise, Swayman fell short of the Hobey this year, but did win the Mike Richter Award as NCAA hockey's top men's netminder - and well-deserved, too. Swayman was a rock for the Black Bears in his junior season, boasting a conference-best .939 save percentage and playing all but seven minutes the entire year.
Swayman first jumped onto the scene in 2017-18 as a freshman with Maine when he earned a surprise roster spot on Team USA's world junior squad. Sure, he had been decent in the USHL with Sioux Falls before that, but I don't know how many people thought he'd put up a .921 save percentage as a college freshman (maybe the Bruins, who snagged him in the fourth round that previous summer). This year was another big one for Swayman, who added a lot more quickness to his game, going from his sophomore campaign to his junior season.
Like Perunovich, Swayman will enter the pro ranks next year, likely in the AHL. It will mean a whole different schedule and lifestyle from college, but we've seen him take on challenges before. The Bruins need an heir apparent to Tuukka Rask eventually and while Swayman isn't alone - Daniel Vladar is coming off a pretty impressive season with the Providence Bruins, after all - he does have a fair shot at an NHL job in the coming years. Getting the proper seasoning in the AHL next year will be great for him.
As for Kawaguchi, he doesn't know which NHL team he'll play for yet. First, he's got unfinished business in Grand Forks with North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks didn't get a chance to go for the national title this year, so Kawaguchi - whom NHL scouts pegged as 50-50 to leave school early anyway - is coming back for his senior year of college. Undoubtedly he'll once again be one of the top scorers in the nation and North Dakota could very well win that title in 2020-21. Once Kawaguchi's campaign is done (title or not), he'll hit the free agent market.
Here's how one NHL described Kawaguchi to me a couple months ago when the season was still going:
“Crafty guy, not in the upper tier (of college free agents) just yet. Size is a drawback. The eye test says he doesn’t skate great, but look closer and it’s alright. He gets there, it’s just not economical. He’s always been a good player, this year he’s been great.”
Kawaguchi can add a lot to his resume in the next 12 months, perhaps even that elusive Hobey Baker Award and national title. Whatever happens, he'll be one to watch; just like Perunovich and Swayman.