The Minnesota high school hockey season kicks off later this week. Here's a look at my ranking of the top ten teams in the state for this season.
1. Benilde-St. Margaret's
The running joke this summer was: which team made the bigger splash in free agency over the summer: the Minnesota Wild, who added Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to their lineup, or BSM, who added forward Spencer Naas and defenseman Johnny Austin from Blake? Given that Naas and Austin are actually going to step foot on the ice this year, I think it's safe to say who won.
What separates the Red Knights from the rest of high school is a depth at forward that no team can match. Mr. Hockey favorite Grant Besse, alongside seniors Dan Labosky and T.J. Moore, and Spencer Naas could all play on the top line of any team in the state. Logic dictates that at least one, if not two of them, will have to play on the second line for BSM. Even the best teams struggle to come up with more than one shutdown defensive pairing, which will make for a lot of mismatches for that second line to capitalize on. In last year's tough section final, it was the third line play of talented youngsters Zach Hale and Chase Jungels that ultimately made the difference for Benilde, and while those guys may move up the depth chart a little due to graduation, they've got a new class of talented youngsters like Alec Baer and Mark Kaske behind them to fill that role.
Their defense isn't as strong comparatively, especially since they have to replace Jake Horton, who played every other shift for them in tight situations, and Jack Glover and Ryan Collins who left for the NTDP over the summer. Sophomore Ben Newhouse was dependable as a freshman last year, and reminds me a bit of former BSM great Chris Student. Patrick Graham gives them another big, reliable defender as well. Goaltending is a bit of a question mark after last year's starter Justin Quale left the team due to some discipline issues, but they should be decent enough in goal that it won't hold them back from a run at a second straight championship.
Newcomer to Watch: Alec Baer scored 32 points last as an 8th grader for St. Louis Park before transferring across town to Benilde. Over the summer, he scored 7 goals at the Vancouver Giants rookie camp and was listed by the Giants.
2. Eden Prairie
Last year, I thought the Eagles were a bit overrated all year, and some late season injuries led to a shocking quarterfinal upset to Robbinsdale Armstrong in their sectional tournament. What has changed since then? A number of their key players have had great summers. Mason Bergh was a standout at the state's Select 17 tryout. Hunter Warner had a great tryout camp with the Waterloo Blackhawks and earned a scholarship to Minnesota State. Luc Snuggerud and Steven Spinner were excellent in the Elite League and both earned scholarships to Nebraska-Omaha. This was a team that was a little young last year as they rebuilt after losing a lot off their state championship team, but with a year of experience under their belt, they should be very tough to beat this year.
Newcomer to Watch: Junior Colton Schmidt transferred to the Eagles from New Prague, where he scored 34 points last year.
The Hornets return the best individual player in the state in Connor Hurley, and have perhaps the best defensive pairing in Parker Reno and Matt Nelson. Their dominance at the youth levels--they won last year's Bantam A championship, along with championships at every other youth level--will give them a lot of depth as well. But like last season, they're just a little too young, and they lost just a little too much, be it to other junior leagues or to area private schools to be the top team in the state.
Newcomer to Watch: Sophomore Matt Masterman was a key component on the team that won a Bantam A state championship last year, and should be able to contribute immediately for the Hornets this year.
4. Duluth East
Last year definitely seemed to be Duluth East's shot. After losing their top line to graduation, and Conner Valesano to the USHL, the Greyhounds don't have nearly the team that they did last season, but they still return a pretty solid bunch. They've got some talented, hard-working forwards in Ryan Lundgren, Jack Forbort and Alex Toscano, but the real strength of this team will be their defense. Meirs Moore, Phil Beaulieu, and Andrew Kerr lead a talented and experienced defense, and Dylan Parker makes them extremely strong in goal.
Newcomer to Watch: Sophomore Bryton Lutzka is the only underclassmen listed on Duluth East's roster. He was drafted in the SIJHL's '96 draft last year.
5. Grand Rapids
The Thunderhawks start the season just a slight notch behind their big rivals, but this should be a close race all season long in one of the deepest sections in the state. Grand Rapids got a huge boost when NHL draft pick Jake Bischoff chose to return for his senior season. They've also got a potential future NHL draft pick in forward Avery Peterson. Add in a strong goalie in Hunter Shepard , and they've got the makings of an excellent team.
Newcomer to Watch: Jake Bischoff's younger brother, freshman Jonah Bischoff plays forward and should be a very speedy, exciting player to watch.
The Skippers have a lot of offense to replace off of last year's team, losing top seniors Sam Rothstein and Erik Baskin to graduation and Vinni Lettieri to the USHL. Forwards like Connor Thie and Jack Ramsey will have to really step up to fill that void. Defenseman Tommy Vannelli made the jump to an elite player over the summer, while Jimmy Schuldt has improved greatly heading into his senior year as well. The Skippers are always a deep, well-coached team.
Newcomer to Watch: Sophomore defenseman John Schuldt is already bigger than both of his older brothers, both of whom have commitments to play D-I hockey, and could end up being the most talented of the three.
A lot of people expected the Wildcats to really drop off this year after losing their top three forwards, top two defensemen, and starting goalie, four of whom made Division I college commitments. That's a lot to overcome for a team that basically rode two lines and four defensemen in tough games all last year.
But those departures will only open up ice time for a new generation of extremely talented players. Their second line from last season: NHL Draft prospect Zach Glienke, Cullen Willox, and Will Peterson are all back this year, and they got a big addition in forward Jack Jenson from St. Thomas Academy.. On the blue line, they've got two up-and-coming juniors with very high ceilings in Nick Wolff and Tom Muck. And in goal, Andrew Lindgren has shown flashes of someday being as good as his older brother Charlie.
Newcomer to Watch: Freshman Jesse Gabrielle is a Canadian, by way of the Osseo-Maple Grove bantam program that was the first Minnesota high school player drafted in last spring's WHL bantam draft, going 100th overall to the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The Pioneers were looking like they would be one of the favorites this year, until both Jake Guentzel and Blake Heinrich left for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. The cupboard is never completely bare for the Pioneers though. Senior Zach Lavalle and Willie Brown are both extremely dangerous scoring threats. Last year, the Pioneers were very young on defense, with only Blake Heinrich starting the season with any varsity experience. All those new defensemen are a year older now and should be that much better. The Pioneers are also very strong in goal with senior John Dugas.
Newcomer to Watch: Though he's only an 8th grader, Joey Anderson has already drawn rave reviews for his play, and has been touted as one of the best players in the country in his age group. It's unclear how much of a role he'll play at the varsity level this year, but he's a player to keep an eye on for the future.
The Bengals will be led this year by a very deep, very talented junior class. Though only 11th graders, Tyler Cline, Alex Copa, and Ian Scheid are all veteran players, entering their third year of varsity play, and already having played huge roles for their team. Forwards like Brandon Notermann, Joey Lau, Easton Brodzinski, and Dallas Gerads will also play a big role. They're probably a year away from competing with the best teams in high school hockey, assuming they can keep this group together, but they should be more than good enough to regain their title as Section 5AA champs after falling to Maple Grove last year.
Newcomer to Watch: Junior goalie Andrew Houle will take over the starting gig from Nick Malvin who graduated last year.
Andover is an up-and-coming program that seems to get deeper and better every year. Their strength starts in goal, where they've got arguably the best goalie in the state in junior Chase Perry. They return a lot of good players from a team that was tough to play last year, and the group of newcomers they're adding from last year's state tournament bantam team should make them even better.
Newcomer to Watch: Freshman Zach Sitarz is a big, talented forward that was one of the best Bantam A players in the state last year.