The Minnesota boy's high school season began on Monday. As is my annual tradition, I'll list my top candidates for the Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award, given annually to the state's top senior high school hockey player. Last year broke my streak of picking the eventual winner seven straight years. This year was a tough pick as well, with a few players having a good chance of winning the award.
The best player in the state isn't likely to take home the award. Eden Prairie's Casey Mittelstadt is a clear cut above everyone else in the state, and perhaps in the discussion for most dominant Minnesota high school hockey player in some time. The problem is that he is a junior, so he's not eligible for the award. There has been some talk of Mittelstadt possibly trying to accelerate his studies to graduate this year, which would make him eligible for the award, similar to when it was won by Nick Bjugstad and Aaron Ness.
If not Mittelstadt, the race is likely between three relatively similar players. All three players have bigger, pro-style frames. All three are committed to big college programs. All three spent the fall playing in the USHL before deciding to come back to their high school for their senior season--a digression on this turned long enough that I'll turn it into its' own story later this week--and all three are coming back with their tail between their legs a bit after not scoring much against at that higher level of competition. But all three have enormous potential and should be dominant at the high school, which should make for an interesting season.
Here are my picks as the top candidates for this year's Mr. Hockey Award:
1. Riley Tufte, Forward, Blaine High School(Committed to Minnesota Duluth)
Tufte is an incredible physical talent. He stands at 6'5" but with the offensive skills of a much smaller player. It's inevitable that he'll be compared to a former big standout forward from Blaine in Nick Bjugstad, though the similarities don't go far beyond height and jersey color. Tufte is more of a skater and puck-handler than Bjugstad ever was, though he doesn't possess Bjugstad's amazing shot or overall hockey sense. Tufte tends to not use his big frame as well as he could--he has yet to score at even strength in the USHL this year--but his perimeter-oriented play won't be as big an issue in the less physical world of high school hockey. Blaine won't be a particularly deep team this year, but Tufte, along with linemate Luke Notermann, will be good enough that they'll give Blaine a fighting chance against any team in the state. Tufte was rated a 'B' prospect by NHL Central Scouting, and currently projects to be drafted just outside the first round of the Draft.
2. Michael Graham, Forward, Eden Prairie High School(Committed to Notre Dame)
Graham is in a bit of a catch-22 this year as he will be sharing a line with the state's best player in Casey Mittelstadt. On the positive side, he'll have ample opportunity to rack up a lot of points on a team that will spend much of the year in the prime time spotlight. But at the same time, it may be difficult for Graham to stand out if he's considered the second-best player on his own line. NHL Central Scouting ranked Graham as a 'B' prospect in their preliminary rankings, and he's likely to be picked somewhere in the middle rounds of the Draft.
3. Mitchell Mattson, Forward, Grand Rapids High School(Committed to North Dakota)
Mattson is a big, lanky centerman that projects as an excellent pro prospect. Though he struggled to score in his early-season stint in the USHL, Mattson has the skill to put up big numbers at the high school level. Mattson returned to high school in part because the Thunderhawks have a chance to be one of the best team's in the state this year and make a run at a state championship. Mattson was rated a 'B' prospect by NHL Central Scouting. Though there has been some talk of him going as high as the first round of the Draft due to his massive upside, his lack of production in the USHL will likely push him towards the middle rounds of the Draft.
4. Casey Staum, Defenseman, Hill-Murray School(Committed to Nebraska Omaha)
Staum established himself as the top senior defenseman in the state with a strong performance in this fall's Elite League. He's a tremendously strong skater with quick feet, and he excels at moving the puck around the ice. He earned a full scholarship offer to Omaha this fall. NHL Central Scouting did not list him in their preliminary rankings, but with his upside, it wouldn't be a surprise if he worked his way up draft boards as the year progresses, similar to Will Borgen last season.
5. Will Garin, Forward, Holy Family Catholic(Committed to Connecticut)
Garin is a smart, crafty offensive player. After being on the borderline to play for Cedar Rapids in the USHL this year, Garin returned to Minnesota where he had a strong Elite League season. His vision and hockey sense make him a consistent threat to score. He'll be the primary scoring option for the Fire this season and should make them one of the more dangerous offenses in the state.
6. Chase Ellingson, Forward, Breck School(Uncommitted)
Ellingson is a small forward that is always buzzing around the puck and making plays. He's been a standout for Breck since his freshman season and should be one of state's top scorers this coming season. His lack of size has kept him from generating serious D-1 interest so far, and he's not an NHL Draft prospect, but he should be one of the state's most talented offensive players this year.
7. Tyler Jette, Defenseman, Farmington High School(Uncommitted)
Jette isn't a flashy player, but the big defender is a responsible, reliable defenseman with enough upside that he'll likely get some consideration from NHL teams this season. He handles the puck well for a defenseman his size. NHL Central Scouting rated him as a 'C' player in their preliminary rankings.
8. Max Johnson, Forward, Lakeville North High School(Committed to Bowling Green)
With the Poehling twins graduated, Johnson will move into a more primary scoring role for Lakeville North this season. Johnson mixes good speed with excellent strength to play a powerful game. The Panthers aren't likely to run the table again like they did last season, but they should be one of the state's top teams once again, with Johnson leading the way.
9. Ash Altmann, Forward, Duluth East High School(Uncommitted)
The Greyhounds have about four seniors that could legitimately end up as finalists for this award, though odds are no more than two actually make the list. I went with Altmann who is the most multi-dimensional player of the bunch. He has the quickness to skate around a defender with a slippery move or the strength to fend off a defender when driving the net. Altmann received a 'C' rating from NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings.
10. Zach Risteau, Forward, Benilde-St. Margaret's School(Uncommitted)
The final pick could go to any number of different players. My personal preference leans towards Risteau, who is a small, skilled forward, but always play with a bit of grit and edge to his game, which I think will serve him well as he moves on to the next level.
And as a bonus, a quick look at some other candidates for major postseason awards:
Reed Larson Award
Now in its' third season, the Reed Larson Award honors the state's top senior defenseman. Once again, open this award up to anybody, and hands down it goes to Hibbing junior Scott Perunovich, who is an older junior eligible for this summer's NHL Draft(and is skilled enough that I would seriously entertain drafting him, despite standing at 5'7"). Beyond that, I think Staum stands as the clear favorite, followed by Jette, White Bear Lake's Wyatt Newpower, St. Thomas Academy's Jason Smallidge, and Hermantown's Wyatt Aamodt all deserving consideration.
Frank Brimsek Award
The award for the state's top senior goalie is wide open once again this year, with nobody standing out as a clear-cut favorite. Prior Lake's Drew Scites, Stillwater's Josh Benson, and Eden Prairie's Shaun Durocher are among those that could be considered for the award.