Eden Prairie's Mason Bergh, right, was a role player last season as a sophomore. This season he is one of the few Eagles players with significant varsity experience. Photo by Helen Nelson
Lee Smith has been through the rebuilding process before, but even he admits this one might be his most difficult.
Gone are the names of Kyle Rau, Curt Rau, Mark Rath, David Rath, Nick Seeler, Dan Molenaar and Andrew Ford -- among others.
Fueled by arguably the strongest senior class Eden Prairie has ever had, the Eagles tore through the high school hockey ranks like a heat-seeking missile, accounting for multiple section championships and two state titles.
Take last year’s state championship run as a shining example of just how effective the Eagles' senior class was.
During the three games in St. Paul (quarterfinals, semifinals and championship games), the Eagles scored 13 goals and had 21 assists.
Two of those points came from underclassmen.
Those points, a goal and an assist, were scored by then-sophomores Andrew Knudsen and Mason Bergh during Eden Prairie's quarterfinal win over Lakeville North.
The other 32 points all came from the senior class, including seven points (five goals, two assists) from Kyle Rau, six points from Seeler (four goals, two assists) and four each from both Mark and David Rath.
Although on paper the cupboard may not be entirely bare, Smith and his Eagles coaching staff have some restocking to do.
“We’ve probably have never been more raw in the sense of game experience,” Smith said. “We kept some veterans on last year’s team and sacrificed some youth because we knew we had to go all in; you only come across a team like that a few times in your coaching career. We left ourselves a little thin in terms of varsity experience.”
Go for it they did. The Eagles rolled through the season, finishing with an overall record of 21-5-2. In addition to a Kyle Rau's Mr. Hockey award, several of the Eagles (all seniors) received postseason accolades for their efforts.
Now Smith and his staff begin the journey of plugging holes while continuing to play a top-notch schedule in one of the toughest conferences (Lake) and sections (6AA) in the state.
“It’s hard to compare the Raus and Raths to this new group of kids," Smith said. "Andrew Knudsen and Mason Bergh have made significant strides. Last year they were role players, and I think this season they have the ability to become elite players with their speed and skill; and they’ve become more powerful.
"Brad Boldenow is a shutdown two-way center who has the ability to take over games. We have some kids who were successful last year on JV and some new kids who are up from Bantams.
“We like to play high tempo, transition hockey. Those are huge elements of our game. We have to have kids who can skate, kids who play fast and think fast. I think we have those kids on our roster.”
It’s a puzzle that Smith and his staff have put together 346 times. In his 19th season, Smith holds a career mark of 346-124-25.
He’s been down this rink before. Heading into the 2008-09 season, despite having 10 sophomores throughout its line-up, Eden Prairie won its first state title. Those sophomores, including Kyle Rau, turned seniors two years later and won the program’s second state title.
“I think you can make some comparisons between the two teams," Smith said. "In 2009, we brought kids into the program that liked to play with one another and were very unselfish. I think the best thing about that group was we were able to get better as the year went on.
"We picked up a lot of energy from losses early on in the season, those losses motivated us. With this group, we kept the same schedule as last year so our schedule is not going to be very giving; we’re not going to gain a lot of confidence right away. We wanted to keep it that way so the kids get a feel of playing for the section title every night. We are going to take our lumps, but if we can improve from our early losses and get better each night like that team did, I think we’ll be alright.”
Trial by fire will certainly be the phrase of the month for the Eagles.
After kicking off the season against Bloomington Jefferson, Eden Prairie will lock horns with powerhouse programs such as Eagan, Edina, Grand Rapids, Burnsville and Moorhead. All six of those teams finished last season ranked in the top 16 in class AA.
“As coaches we are going to have to be patient and do more coaching on the fly,” Smith said. “We’re not even close to being the favorite like we were last year. We have a long way to go to reach that level, but we have a ton of talent and have kids who are used to winning, they have proven they can do it.”
Experience behind the bench matched with raw talent on the ice has worked before. The Eagles are hoping that combination will strike gold one more time.