I'm Chris Dilks, writer of SB Nation's Western College Hockey, and avid Minnesota high school hockey follower. Over the summer, the gang here at Hockey Wilderness asked if I'd be interested in putting together a weekly high school hockey post, and since the audience here is a little more Minnesota-based than my own, I agreed.
The high school season kicks off today, and it should be another exciting year of hockey. Here are some of the top teams in the state that will be looking to bring home a state championship.
After the jump, a Top ten list, Mr. Hockey talk, and other information you'll need for the upcoming season.
The Top Ten
1. Duluth East
Duluth East was one magical swipe by Kyle Rau away from a state title last year. Rau has graduated, but the Greyhounds return almost everyone from last year's team, and are improved in goal. Last year's team had an amazingly deep group of sophomores that should be ready to make a very significant impact this year as juniors, making Duluth East the deepest team in the state.
2. Benilde-St. Margaret's
Benilde might be the only team capable of matching Duluth East's impressive depth. The Red Knights will be led by three small, very quick junior forwards in Grant Besse, Dan Labosky, and TJ Moore who should score a lot of goals this year.
Eagan isn't considered a traditional hockey power, but they have a remarkably strong senior class this year with three top forwards in Michael Zajac, Will Merchant, and Nick Kuchera, and two top defensemen in Eli May and Sam Wolfe.
Hill-Murray lost a number of players over the summer, causing some people to write them off as a state title contender, but the Pioneers are never without talent. Jake Guentzel might be the state's best junior
The Hornets always seem to be a state title contender. This year's team is very young, but there is a lot of talent on the roster, and Edina seems to do better when they rely on their team depth, rather than riding one top line.
The Skippers aren't quite as deep as section rivals Benilde, but their first line should be among the best in the state.
7. Maple Grove
Maple Grove has had an eye on this year ever since their current crop of seniors helped lead the Crimson to the sectional finals as sophomores. They return most of a roster that knocked off some of the top teams in the state last season.
8. Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids came very close to upsetting Duluth East in their sectional finals last year, and they could prove to be a threat again. The Thunderhawks always have a tough, physical team that plays excellent defense.
Burnsville is a team that always seems to be very strong, despite not getting much attention. Nobody considered them a top team at the beginning of last season, but they went on to take Edina down to the wire in the sectional finals, and moved 5 players on to junior hockey. They're a well-coached team that could give any team in the state a good game.
This year's Blaine team has a different look than previous teams, which have been to six straight state tournaments. The Bengals normally rely heavily on senior leadership, but this year's team will have to rely on some very talented underclassmen to continue their tournament streak.
While last year, it seemed as though all of the state's top teams were consolidated in the southwestern Twin Cities suburbs, this year, six of the eight sections in the state are represented among the top seven teams in the state, and it's not difficult to imagine any of the top seven being capable of winning the three games in a row necessary to win a state title.
Here's some other story lines heading into the season.
Mr. Hockey/NHL Draft
I wrote a post on the 10 candidates for this year's Mr. Hockey award, although it seems to be a one-horse race this year. This year may be one of the weakest in history when it comes to the NHL Draft for Minnesota high school players, but I still took a look at some of this year's prospects.
While only three senior players have made commitments to play college hockey so far, five juniors already have college commitments in hand. Cousins Vinni Lettieri of Minnetonka and Louie Nanne of Edina, along with Michael Brodzinski of Blaine, have committed to play for Minnesota. Maple Grove's Jordan Gross committed to play for Notre Dame after high school, and Hibbing's Adam Johnson has committed to play for Minnesota-Duluth.
Burnsville sophomore Tyler Sheehy has yet to play a high school hockey game, but has already drawn more attention than most players. He scored 14 goals in this fall's Elite League, which was tied for 5th in the league, and after the Elite League, he played two games for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL, and has already made some unofficial visits to colleges.
The small private school of Holy Family Catholic is a virtual unknown in the high school hockey world, but opted this year to make the jump up to Class AA, in part because they are expecting big things from an extremely talented group of young players, led by perhaps the state's best freshman in Shane Gersich. Gersich will miss some time this January when he travels to Austria to play for Team USA at the Winter Youth Olympic Games.(Edina's Jack Walker and Benilde's Jack Glover will join him)
Holy Family's gamble to move up to the big division is particularly brave because it means playing in Section 6AA, which is home to traditional powerhouses Benilde, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, and Wayzata.
The MSHSL requires players to sit out a year if they switch high schools via open enrollment, but players that move residence can transfer penalty free, and there were a few key transfers this summer.
Hill-Murray lost two senior defensemen to other schools. Jonah Johnson will play for Benilde this year, while Andrew Herlofsky is playing for Anoka. Duluth East picked up one of the state's better goalies when Paige Skoog moved in from Forest Lake. And Minnetonka added a very fast, talented forward in Connor Thie from Hopkins.
Games of the Week (November 25th-December 1st)
Bemidji and Grand Rapids were supposed to face off on Saturday in a match-up of two of the strongest teams in the northern part of the state, but a large percentage of Bemidji's hockey team is also part of the football team, which is scheduled to play in the Metrodome for the Class AAAA state championship this weekend. As a result, this game has been postponed and will be played later.
Turkey Trot featuring #5 Edina, #7 Maple Grove, Wayzata, and Buffalo, November 25th and 26th, Plymouth Ice Center
Assuming no upsets on the first day, this tournament sets up nicely for a big match-up between Edina and Maple Grove in the tournament championship.
#2 Benilde-St. Margaret's at #4 Hill-Murray, December 1st, Aldrich Arena
Technically, both of these schools are small enough that they could play in Class A if they wanted to. This will be a good early season test to see if Hill-Murray can still compete with the very best despite a number of defections this summer.