Penn State has had a Division I hockey program for exactly three years.
In year one, they didn’t have a division. In year two, they had the Big Ten, but struggled adjusting to a stronger schedule.
In year three, they have a winning team, and a true Hobey Baker Award finalist.
That’s right — just about two-thirds through its second season in Pegula Ice Arena, Penn State is in second place in the Big Ten, and Casey Bailey is one of the best players in the nation.
Along with linemate Taylor Holstrom, Bailey is one of several nominees for the initial Hobey Baker nominees, but I’m here to make the case that he deserves a chance to be a true finalist for the award.
Bailey’s coach, Guy Gadowsky, is in his fourth year as the Nittany Lions' head man, and has already acknowledged that the line of Bailey, Holstrom, and David Goodwin is among the best he’s ever coached. Gadowsky cited that the elite play of those three has contributed to the success that all three of them have seen on the scoreboard.
Gadowsky has heard the chatter around Bailey, who’s now listed in the fan-voting stage of the Hobey Baker voting. The coach said he thinks that Bailey deserves to proceed further into the process.
"He scores goals, but he's so much more than a goal scorer," Gadowsky said. "His play without the puck is great. He has great instincts for scoring goals, but he has equally as great instincts for finding lanes and sealing walls, as well as doing things without the puck. He's a real instinctual hockey player, but he uses that all over the ice —not just to score goals."
I’m not here to talk about some of the other nominees —Gadowsky mentioned Jack Eichel of Boston University and Zach Hyman of Michigan by name — but rather why Bailey has a case to truly be taken seriously as both the best player in college hockey, and a legitimate prospect to play at the next level.
The Alaskan forward has taken the league by storm this season, totaling 18 goals and 29 points — both easily already career highs — while also adding 11 assists, which is on pace to top his career high of 13. Those numbers are only though the first 24 games of the season, and will look even better by the time the tournament comes around.
Bailey’s team-leading 18 goals rank third in the NCAA, but more importantly, have all come at big moments for his team. He’s consistently come up with the big goal in the big moment, and consistently begun rallies with his scoring touch.
The 23-year-old forward hasn’t had the smoothest drive in his three years at Penn State. After a promising final year in Greenberg Ice Pavilion, Bailey struggled to adapt to the new conference and new arena a season ago. He figured it out near the end of the season, and with improved strength and conditioning has continued to improve to this day.
I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but Bailey’s pattern in his three season reminds me of another well known character in hockey circles, one that I’m sure you’ve heard of. This person, first and foremost, is in the NHL. Just like Bailey, in his first season on a new team, he flashed promise in a limited amount of games, before disappointing in year two. In year three, he’s made all the adjustments, and is just currently tearing the league up.
Who am I thinking of? None other than Rick Nash of the New York Rangers.
Yes, it might be a bit excessive to compare a third-year college hockey player to the NHL’s leading goal-scorer this season, but the pattern is there. And as a player, while Bailey might not exactly have the puck-handling skills that Nash possesses, they certainly share the aggressive mentality and powerful shot that is necessary for any offensive force. And that’s exactly what both players have been for their respective teams.
Nash was a former No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft, and Bailey certainly won’t be that. But he has a chance, I believe, to eventually be a Nash-lite type player. They have similar frames (Nash is 6-foot-4, 213 pounds, while Bailey is 6-foot-3 and 205), and use their big bodies for similar positive purposes. They’re both just as effective away from the puck as they are with it. It might seem an excessive comparison at first, but Nash and Bailey are more similar than one might initially suspect.
The lynchpin in the Nittany Lions’ turnaround this season, Bailey has been key to the success that nearly every pundit that was at least a few years away, but instead has arrived ahead of schedule. Does Gadowsky think Bailey could take the award?
"I certainly think he's a big reason for why we are having positive results," the coach said. "So, I think he's got a great chance."
The forward remains humble, but still hears the talk that’s beginning to surround his outstanding play on the ice.
"It's not really my main focus right now, but it's definitely something I'm acknowledging," Bailey said. "It's kind of in the back of my head. I'm not putting too much emphasis on it. There are so many good players in the NCAA, just to be in the conversation is an honor"