Tryouts are under way for yet another Minnesota high school hockey season. This high school season may not have the glamor of some recent years in terms of first round draft picks, future WCHA players, and potential NHL stars, but there are still some strong teams, which should make for an extremely interesting hockey season.
We'll start things off with the top ten ranking. Edina ended last year as the top team in the state, and starts at number one again in my mind. This team is so deep and has no real holes, but any of the other top four teams are so good that they could easily be interchangeable.
- Eden Prairie
- Apple Valley
- Duluth East
- St. Thomas Academy
- Benilde-St. Margaret's
- Maple Grove
Honorable Mention: Burnsville, Bloomington Jefferson, Holy Angels, Moorhead, Brainerd, Cretin-Derham Hall, Breck, Roseau, Elk River, St. Cloud Tech
Next up are five questions about this year's high school season that intrigue me, and what I think the answers will end up being.
- Will there be a changing of the guard in the Metro area?
One of the great things about high school hockey is that there tends to be more ebb and flow in terms of which teams have strong years. Last year, it was Apple Valley surprising east side powers Woodbury and Cretin-Derham Hall to make the state tournament, where they impressed with their loads of young talent. This year, the pressure will be on them to repeat that performance and show that they be one of the best teams in the state throughout the entire year.
Meanwhile, on the west side of the Twin Cities, Wayzata has spent the past couple years, as a talented, but young team that took a backseat to absolutely loaded Minnetonka, Benilde and Eden Prairie teams. This year, Wayzata looks to be the team loaded with talented upperclassmen that is ready to make a run at the state title.
Blaine has held a stranglehold on Section 5AA for years, but after losing an incredibly deep and talented class of players to graduation last year, they'll have to deal with a Maple Grove team that returns a ton of talent from a young team that tested Blaine in last year's section final.
- Will the small school title reside in Minneapolis or St. Paul?
Past readers are likely familiar with my frustration with the Class A state title being dominated by Twin Cities-area private schools that are unwilling to play up a division like Hill-Murray and Benilde chose to. (And to a lesser extent, when private schools from the three largest non-metro cities, Duluth, Rochester, and St. Cloud make the Class A tournament)
This year should be no exception. Breck lost a great senior class that won two straight titles, and it's impossible to replace that kind of talent, but it's certainly easier for Breck than most Class A schools, given that they can draw from the entirety of the western suburbs.
But the heavy favorite in Class A should be St. Thomas Academy. The Cadets were upset in their section two straight years by a Mahtomedi team led by Ben Marshall, but with Marshall gone to the USHL, and a St. Thomas team led by three great seniors in AJ Reid, Zach Schroeder, and Taylor Fleming, as well as a number of other talented young players, there likely won't be another school in Class A that can close to matching the talent St. Thomas has.
- Who will be this year's Joey Benik or Tanner Lane?
Benik and Lane were two players that played for small schools in the middle of nowhere, but drew attention because they put up huge point totals during the high school season.
While not exactly off-the-radar, Delano's Tyler Heinonen is one of the state's most talented players, and will likely have a huge season playing against Delano's schedule. The state's leading returning scorer is Eden Prairie's Kyle Rau, something I'm sure most could have guessed, but likely few would guess that the next highest returning scorer is Park Rapids junior Sam Coborn, who had 70 points last year. Though this year, he'll be without older brother Tucker, who contributed 65 points last year. Duluth Central/Denfeld sophomore Levi Talarico should have a big year. And finally, a darkhorse may be Chisago Lakes' Cory Lushanko, who had 18 points in ten games last year, including a hat trick against Benilde before suffering a season-ending injury.
- Is this the year for some beleaguered sections to make an impact at the State Tournament?
Section 1 in Class AA and Sections 1 and 3 in Class A have traditionally been doormats at the state tournament. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to change this year.
In 1AA, the story is pretty much the same as it has been. The two metro-area area schools lucky enough to be designated as "in the southern part of the state" should be the heavy favorites, and Burnsville is stuck as the third or fourth best team in their section, and misses an almost guaranteed trip to the state tournament based on ten miles of geography.
Lakeville North would have been an interesting team this year, but junior superstars Brady Skjei and Nate Arentz both left for greener pastures. The Lakeville schools' biggest competition, Rochester Century, also had a rough summer, a top forward in Drew Anderson and defenseman, Connor Faupel to AAA hockey, and losing standout goalie Brock Kautz to the NAHL.
Section 1A has produced some decent teams in recent years, and is usually one of the most competitive sections in all of Class A, but also usually comes up short in the state tournament. This year in Section 1A, the story is more about who didn't come back. Top forward for Red Wing, Jake Oborsky, transferred to Benilde-St. Margaret's. Faribault lost defenseman Brandon Parker. And New Prague lost their top defenseman Darren Lapic-and theoretically could have had senior Seth Ambroz as well.
Section 3A has been painful to watch ever since the last redistricting of sections, and a new drawing of the sections can't come quickly enough. It would be much better if they were absorbed back into Section 1 like they used to be, and another state tournament bid went elsewhere in the state.
- Is the high school hockey system in Minnesota broken beyond repair?
Minnesota has always taken great pride in its ability to provide a system that allowed their very best players to develop without having to leave the state. But this summer saw an unprecedented number of players leave to play junior hockey, play with the NTDP, or join AAA programs to play more games against a better level of competition. Meanwhile, budget and educational funding issues have brought about discussion of possibly shortening an already short schedule for the high school season.
At what point do more of the top players and their parents start looking around and realizing they might be better off with more of a AAA system that allows them to play more games with and against the best players? It would be a shame to lose the tradition and history of high school hockey, but it's a system that doesn't seem to be doing much benefit to the players.