The Minnesota high school hockey season gets started fairly soon. Tryouts are under way and games start in a couple of weeks. That means it's time to start up the high school hockey coverage again.
We'll start things off with my annual Mr. Hockey Watch List. It's my annual list of 10--or in this year's case 11, since I decided to add a name late, and didn't want to take anyone off--players who are candidates for the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award, given annually to the state's top senior hockey player. The award is voted on by college coaches and scouts, so it's often more about who has the most talent, as opposed to who has the best stats.
The favorite coming into this year is Blaine's Nick Bjugstad, who should technically be a junior, but is accelerating his schooling to finish high school this year, and thanks to the precedent set by Roseau's Aaron Ness, he is eligible for the award. But there are a lot of really strong players this year. It should be an excellent year for high school hockey.
The whole list is after the jump.
- Nick Bjugstad-Blaine High School-Committed to Minnesota
It's tough to really call Nick Bjugstad a late-bloomer. Not when he was scoring goals for his team in the state tournament sectional finals as a 9th grader. And not when he's finishing high school a year early to play for the University of Minnesota next season. But last fall, Bjugstad was 5'10" 155 lbs. and while he may have been on the radar of some pro teams, he certainly wasn't considered a can't-miss-prospect. Now, Bjugstad is 6'4" 185 lbs and has drawn the attention of every NHL team as a potential first round draft pick.
He's always been gifted with a world-class shot, but his newfound size has turned him into a stronger skater and a physical force. He should be the top pro prospect in the state of Minnesota, and he should be the leader of a talented Blaine team that is likely to make another trip to the state tournament.
- Caleb Herbert-Bloomington Jefferson-Committed to Minnesota-Duluth
Bloomington Jefferson returns a lot of key players from an excellent squad last season, and should once again be among the top handful of teams in the state. Caleb Herbert may not be the most prized NHL prospect in the state, but he should score a ton of goals and be a leader on a top-notch team, which is sure to draw him a lot of attention for Mr. Hockey.
Herbert's best assets are his offensive instincts and lightning quick release on his shot. He led the Upper Midwest Elite League in scoring this fall, and finish among the top scorers in the state during the high school season could give him a shot at winning the award.
- Brock Nelson-Warroad High School-Committed to North Dakota
At the end of last season, Brock Nelson may have been lower on this list, despite helping lead his Warroad Warriors to the state tournament. But Nelson had an exceptional fall Elite League, which helped him earn a commitment to North Dakota, and catch the attention of many scouts to becoming a rising prospect for the NHL Draft.
There are a couple things working against Nelson. First, his power forward style of play works more effectively with a playmaker helping set him up. Nelson isn't the type of player to skate end-to-end around five guys and score a goal. Second, fair or not, he's not going to get nearly the attention of a Bjugstad or Herbert playing in the northwest corner of the state. But while the average hockey fan or media member may not follow him much up there, there will definitely be a lot of scouts that make the trip up to Warroad and they'll recognize what a quality hockey player he is.
- Joey Benik-St. Francis HS-Committed to St. Cloud
Much like Ben Hanowski last season, there's yet another St. Cloud recruit that is bound to put up amazing numbers against questionable competition, and be a source of discussion and debate all season long. But Benik doesn't have nearly the pedigree outside of high school hockey that Hanowski did, that helped proved Hanowski was one of the state's best.
Benik definitely has talent, but his style of play with his high school team-long shifts, rarely treading into his own defensive zone-are bound to put up huge numbers that will impress people who read about him in newspapers(or online, nobody reads newspapers anymore), but it will also probably leave those that actually get out to watch him play unimpressed.
- Anyone from Minnetonka High School
More specifically, Max Gardiner(Minnesota), Troy Hesketh(Wisconsin), Andrew Prochno(St. Cloud), and Justin Holl(Minnesota). All four are future WCHA players, and three are potential NHL draft picks, while Hesketh was already drafted in the third round of last year's draft. The problem is: how do you separate them? With that many good players, especially on the blueline, it's probably going to be hard for one player to stand out that much above the others to be considered for the Mr. Hockey. Too many good players is a nice problem to have, and I'm sure all four would much rather earn a trip to the state tournament together than win an individual award.
- Mark Alt-Cretin-Derham Hall-Committed to Minnesota
Mark Alt might be the best athlete playing high school hockey in the state. The big, smooth-skating defenseman was also a star quarterback for his high school, and a marginal Division I college football prospect. But there are also some question marks about his hockey sense.
Players his size that skate like he does don't come around very often, which is sure to have scouts intrigued, and if he plays well, he might have an outside shot at even winning the award, but odds are, he's not quite polished enough yet to be seriously considered.
- Max Gaede-Woodbury HS-Committed to Minnesota State
Gaede is a unique player in that his two strongest skills are grinding along the boards, and making excellent passes to teammates. He's not guaranteed to be an NHL draft pick this summer, but he's at least played well enough to pique the interest of scouts, while his Woodbury team is starting to become a powerhouse in the eastern suburbs.
- Adam Knochenmus-Roseau-Uncommitted
One of my favorite players to watch, Adam Knochenmus has just about everything you could want in a hockey player except ideal size. He is always the hardest working player on the ice, and despite his size, is absolutely fearless. He's extremely unselfish and is really good at getting his teammates the puck in great position.
Knochenmus really isn't on the NHL radar right now, which probably kills any chance of him having a shot at the award, but he definitely deserves recognition as one of the state's best.
- Cal Decowski-Andover High School-Uncommitted
Decowski is one of the best kept secrets in the state of Minnesota. Like Knochenmus, he's a small player that is off the NHL's radar, and the school he plays for isn't a powerhouse in high school hockey, so that probably eliminates him from much consideration, but he's as talented and exciting a player to watch as nearly anyone in the state. He's a shifty offensive player that can stickhandle around any defender and create great scoring chances from next to nothing.
- Christian Isackson-St. Thomas Academy-Committed to Minnesota
Isackson never got big enough, or fast enough to become the top-notch player some thought he might be when he was younger, but he's still exceptionally smart with the puck and should put up a ton of points on a very good St. Thomas team this year. Linemate Justin Crandall may also end up being considered for the award.
- Chris Casto-Hill-Murray-Uncommitted
Casto is like a slightly smaller, more polished version of Mark Alt. He's very effective in all three zones of the ice. It's tough to pick out one area where he's great, but he does everything pretty well. Casto should be the leader of a Hill-Murray team that is always strong, but probably still a year away from making a more serious run at things.