This Minnesota high school hockey season kicks off on Thursday, so before the season starts, let's take a look at who will be some of the top teams in the state this year.
It's perhaps a sign of the times in high school hockey, but once again, the list is dominated by Twin Cities mega-suburbs and private schools. Grand Rapids is the only school from outside the Twin Cities metro area to crack the top ten, and just barely at that. There are some fine northern schools this year, but as you look at their rosters, there just isn't the depth necessary to compete with the rest of the top ten. With the way metro-area schools, especially private ones, are now able to consolidate the best players in the area, we may be past the days of those out-state northern teams being able to compete with the best on a regular basis.
Here's a look at this year's preseason top ten:
The Hornets are the defending state champions, and look ready to make another run at the state title. A lot of people will look at all the talent Edina lost off last year's state championship team, and bump them down a couple spots, but Edina's program is so deep, and has been so successful in recent years, that they shouldn't have much trouble making up for those losses.
Newcomer to Watch: Lots of focus will be placed on sophomore forwards Keiffer Bellows and Garrett Wait, both of whom should be candidates for the NTDP program, but the most important newcomer might be defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf, who will be a key piece on Edina's blue line; an area that could be a weak point for the Hornets.
The Trojans surprised a lot of people last year when their tough defensive style of hockey helped them win the state's toughest section and earn a trip to the state tournament. The Trojans will have to replace goalie Aaron Dingmann, who played an important role in their defensive scheme, but have a very good goalie in junior Vaughn Ahrens ready to step in to the starter's role.
The offense will be led by two of the most talented young goal scorers in the state in Wisconsin recruit Matthew Freytag and Max Zimmer. Last year's team also has a very deep group of solid 11th graders that are now seniors and should make Wayzata a very difficult team to play against.
Newcomer to Watch: Sophomore forward Luke Paterson is a forward with good speed and offensive abilities. He might struggle a bit against the tough schedule Wayzata plays this year, but has a ton of upside for the future.
3. St. Thomas Academy
Ignoring for a minute the embarrassing, shameful way that St. Thomas Academy chose to build their program, there's no denying that the Cadets have an impressive roster.
This year's team should have a little different look though. After losing a good chunk of their talented blue line from last year, this year, the Cadets will have to rely more on a skilled group of high-scoring forwards. Luckily, they have the best forward in the state in Tommy Novak back, along with a good core of talented, young forwards like Christiano Versich and Alec Broetzmann. Returning defensemen Seamus Donahue and Zach Weier should provide stability on defense as well.
Newcomer to Watch: Sophomore Dylan McDonald is a small but very fast, skilled forward that should provide some scoring depth to the Cadets beyond their impressive top line.
The Pioneers lost one third of what would have been the state's best line when senior Willie Brown was removed from the team a week before the start of the season, but the remaining duo of Mitch Slattery and Joey Anderson is more than strong enough to carry the Pioneers.
Even after losing their top two defenseman to graduation last year, the Pioneers have a very strong group of defensemen returning with the likes of Logan Sharp, Jacob Olson, and Davis Zarembinski returning, and adding some top tier young talent like Casey Staum and Mikey Anderson. If incoming transfer Sean Wendlandt can provide solid goal tending, the Pioneers should be a state title contender.
Newcomer to Watch: Last year, it was Joey Anderson that made a name for himself as an eighth grader that had an immediate impact at the high school level. This year, his younger brother Mikey, who plays defense, could do the same thing. Anderson is a bruising, physical defenseman that is considered one of the best in his age group.
5. Benilde-St. Margaret's
The Red Knights lost their high-flying top line from last season, but that will open up a lot of ice time for a talented group of young forwards that played under them, like Zach Hale and Mark Kaske to potentially have breakout seasons.
On the blue line, Johnny Austin will once again likely play half the game, while small speedy defenseman like Ben Newhouse and Jerry Calengor should help Benilde play an uptempo style of hockey and make their deep group of forwards all the better.
Newcomer to Watch: Forward Carter Roo scored 46 points last season at Totino-Grace HS as a sophomore, and has transferred to Benilde for this year.
This is the season Blaine has had their eyes on for a couple years now. They've got a rare group of players that are exceptionally talented and made their high school team at a young age, but all chose to stay in high school through their senior season. The end result is one of the most experienced teams in the state. Forwards Tyler Cline, Joey Lau, and Brandon Notermann and defensemen Alex Copa and Ian Scheid all played in the Elite League this fall, and they all have two to three full seasons of varsity hockey under their belt.
Last year, the Bengals ran into a hot goalie and were upset in the sectional semifinal. This year, if they can survive their section, this may be their best shot at a state title for many years to come.
Newcomer to Watch: Though he's just a sophomore, forward Riley Tufte is the biggest player on Blaine's team, standing at 6'3". His size and soft hands give him the potential to be a very effective power forward at the high school level and beyond.
7. Eden Prairie
Last season started with high expectations for Eden Prairie, but the Eagles struggled all year long to a very disappointing record. The good news is that most of the key parts of last year's team, sans senior forward Mason Bergh and defenseman Hunter Warner, who left early for the USHL, are back this year to try and set things right.
Leading the way is the best forward/defenseman duo in the state in fellow Nebraska-Omaha recruits Steven Spinner and Luc Snuggerud. The offense provided by those two should be enough to keep Eden Prairie competitive against anybody. If they get a little more help behind them this year, they could turn a lot of those close losses last year into wins this year.
Newcomer to Watch: With Eden Prairie being such a big school, it can be tough for younger players to crack the lineup. Last year, Michael Graham made a huge impact for Eden Prairie as a freshman, and this year, after playing in the Elite League, could be ready to take the next step to being a dominant player as a sophomore.
8. Holy Family Catholic
When Holy Family made the decision to move up to Class AA two years ago, it was with this season in mind. They may have lost their star of their talented, young nucleus in Shane Gersich, but otherwise their group of excellent young players are now juniors and seniors. The senior pair of Dylan Woolf and Ryan Swanson give them a nice physical edge on the blue line, and the trio of Will Garin, John Peterson, and Joey Marooney give them some high-powered offense to work with.
The Fire play in the toughest, deepest section in the state, but with all that they have returning, there's no reason that they can't surprise some people and make a run to the state tournament.
Newcomer to Watch: Freshman goalie Dayton Rasmussen played some varsity hockey last year as an eighth grader, and should still be the back-up behind senior goalie Derek LaCombe, but he's a very big goalie that has already drawn some attention from higher levels of hockey and bears watching.
9. Elk River
The Elks aren't flashy or exciting, but they play a very tough defensive style, backstopped by an excellent goalie in Mac Berglove. Junior Jake Jaremko is their most exciting offensive threat, while seniors Andrew Zerban and Chase Springman can also put the puck in the net.
Newcomer to Watch: Sophomore defenseman Matt Kiersted is one of the best young offensive defensemen in the state. He's got an uncanny knack for scoring goals from the blue line, and should help boost Elk River's offense.
10. Grand Rapids
The Thunderhawks aren't a very deep team this year, but they've got one of the favorites to take home the Mr. Hockey Award in Avery Peterson, and they've got the best goalie in the state in Hunter Shepard. Those two alone are good enough to carry Grand Rapids to a pretty strong season. The defense might be a weak point for their team, but Shepard should be good enough to carry them.
Newcomer to Watch: Sophomore forward Mitchell Mattson is a tall, lanky kid that could develop into a big-time player as he matures and fills out a little more.
Honorable Mention: Eastview, Duluth East, East Grand Forks, Eagan, Hermantown, Centennial, Roseau, Prior Lake
For more high school coverage, be sure to check out our High School Hockey section.