Ryan Walters’ campaign for the Hobey Baker Award is gaining steam.
UNO’s junior forward, the national leader with 13 goals and 33 points, has long since surpassed his career highs in both categories with nearly half the season left.
One of 77 nominees for college hockey’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, the 6-foot, 196 pounder from Rosemount, Minn., has become an every-game threat for the 13th-ranked Mavericks.
“You can’t give him a whole lot as a goaltender, or he’s going to find a way to get the puck in the net,” University of Nebraska at Omaha coach Dean Blais said.
CBSSports.com “Hobey Baker Award Watch” blog ranked Walters as the No. 2 contender before last weekend, when he recorded four points (1 goal, 3 assists) in an 8-4 win Friday and added another assist as the Mavs completed the sweep of Colorado College on Saturday.
The blog is a collaboration between blogger Chris Peters and CBS Sports Network analyst Dave Starman.
“The Mavericks need to right the ship a little bit and Walters will have to be a big part of making that happen,” the blog said before the Colorado College series. “The stats are certainly going to give Walters a chance, but making an impact on his team’s record will carry more weight with Hobey voters.”
UNO moved into first place in the WCHA with the sweep, gathering momentum for this weekend’s series at No. 9 Denver.
Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau is considered the Hobey Baker favorite, both by CBS Sports and among Internet fan voting. Walters was ranked seventh by fans through Wednesday afternoon, though their votes are only 1 percent of the total. Ten finalists for the award are named March 21.
Walters has a chance to be one of them.
“He’s got a little bit of everything,” Blais said. “His speed is OK — he’s not slow by any means. But it’s more about being in position, being in the right place at the right time. He’s strong enough and skilled enough — he’s got a real good shot.
Walters has scored all 13 of his goals and has recorded 17 of his 20 assists in the last 16 games.
As Walters’ success has increased, he’s seeing more focus from opponents. But, at the same time, his confidence continues to grow.
“It works out about the same,” Walters said. “The players I’ve played with have really helped out. We’re playing well together, which leads to the success of the team, to the lines I’m playing on, and to myself. It’s a credit to them, and I hope it keeps going.”
For 14 games, Walters skated alongside center Dominic Zombo, with Josh Archibald at the right wing. That’s when the Mavs took off, going 7-0 in November while Walters earned national player of the month honors.
“He’s incredibly skilled, and he’s a big, strong kid, and he knows how to use it,” Zombo said.
Because of injuries, Blais broke up the Walters-Zombo-Archibald line last week, moving Archibald to center a line alongside Walters and Zahn Raubenheimer.
The points just kept coming.
Not only did Walters pick up five points, Archibald had a Friday-night hat trick as part of a four-goal weekend.
“He works hard and sees the ice real well,” Archibald said. “It doesn’t matter who he’s playing with, he always works well with others. He can always find you on the ice, no matter where he is or no matter where you are.”
Walters’ numbers stand out, too, because they are coming while playing a WCHA schedule and not in one of Division I’s lesser leagues.
He gets his chances to stay sharp in practices, working against one of the country’s best group of defensemen.
“I can’t think of anyone I’ve gone against this year who I thought was better than him,” UNO defenseman Jaycob Megna said. “It’s hard to compare, obviously, but he’s definitely right up there.
“He’s always a tough cover, whether it’s 1-on-1s or 3-on-2s. You have to be aware of where he is at all times.”
Originally a Minnesota commitment who looked elsewhere when the Gophers asked him to play more junior hockey after 2½ seasons in the United States Hockey League, Walters had a solid freshman season with 11 goals and 12 assists on an NCAA tournament team. Relied upon more on a young team as a sophomore, he was inconsistent while posting 10 goals and 15 assists.
“He’s always been a scorer,” Blais said. “It’s not lucky that he got in the position that he’s in. He got there by hard work, and now he’s working at both ends of the rink — where the first two years, at times, he wasn’t.
“It used to be two good shifts, two bad shifts, one good period, one bad period. Now he’s one of our most consistent guys.”
Said Zombo: “He’s taken over. When he’s on the ice and there’s a chance, we’re going to score. Other teams have to be aware of him — I’m sure they all are now. The second half of the year, teams figure things out, but he’s still putting points on the board. He deserves it.”
Walters has become the Mavs’ best Hobey Baker contender since Scott Parse was a finalist in 2006 and 2007.
Now he’s under the microscope.
“I’ve seen others not handle it, start looking for offense instead of working for it, guys thinking about scoring instead of thinking about team,” Blais said.
Walters said the extra attention won’t change his approach.
“I got a smile out of it,” he said. “I’m glad people are supportive of it, but I’ve just got to stay focused on the games that are coming up.”
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