by Tim Kolehmainen, Editor of The Breakdown
Earlier, I looked at the best forward lines in the state, asking what's the best way to beat your opponent? Why, to score more goals, of course. But that isn't the full story. The other way to is to not allow your opponent to score. Just as many of the top teams in the state have great forward lines, they also have outstanding defensive corps. But no one stood out more than the Duluth East blueliners.
1. Duluth East’s Derek Forbort, Jake Williams, Joe Arbour, Al McLean, Jay Amato and Alex Holm
It doesn’t get any better than pitching three straight shutouts to open the season. Duluth East’s defensive corps is the best we’ve seen in the state in some time, featuring four players – Forbort, Williams, Arbour and McLean – who could be playing college hockey at top-shelf programs soon.
Forbort’s the only junior of the group and is arguably the best. He’s a huge physical specimen who has surprisingly good feet and agility – a deadly combination. North Dakota has taken notice, as has USA Hockey, which tabbed Forbort for their U17 National Select team.
Arbour also has good size and can contribute on offense, as he leads the Greyhounds’ blue liners in scoring (0-5-5). Williams and McLean sometimes are overshadowed by their more heralded teammates, but both are very good defensemen in their own right.
2. Bloomington Jefferson’s Joe Faust, Jeff Pauluk, Tim LaBombard, Jake Perpich and Connor Cline
Here’s a group than can add some instant offense to the Jaguars. Faust (3-9-12) actually leads Jefferson in scoring and Pauluk (2-6-8) isn’t all that far behind. All five of these defensemen gained plenty of varsity time last year and have used it as a springboard to a great start this winter. Jefferson is unbeaten at 5-0 and has allowed just seven goals in those five games.
Both Faust and LaBombard have decent size and skills, with Faust owning perhaps the heaviest shot on the team. Pauluk is a gifted puckhandler and offensive force.
3. St. Cloud Cathedral’s Nate Schmidt, Joe Nessler, Jon Rowe and Bret Schwinghammer
The Crusaders’ quartet gets plenty of ice time and its warranted by their talent. Junior Schmidt has already committed to the University of Minnesota, while Nessler, Rowe and Schwinghammer round out a group that’s both big and fast.
Schmidt’s a well-known commodity, having played on the USA Hockey U15, U16 and U17 Select teams in the past. He’s big, skilled and a force on the ice who worked on getting even stronger this offseason.
Cathedral coach Eric Johnson believes Nessler is extremely underrated and one of the best true defensemen in the state. Rowe has been a two-year captain selection, showing his leadership, while Schwinghammer filled in as a freshman last year and just continues to grow in his hockey skills.
4. Edina’s Max Everson, Patrick Regan, David Jarrett, Jake Heck, Brendan Baker and Matt VanVoorhis
The Hornets’ crew has some offensive potential, but with the firepower Edina has up front, more defensive responsibilities are required of them – and they have provided just that. In five games, several against the top teams in the state, they’ve allowed just 11 goals to score on new varsity netminders Johnny Ankeny and Michael Young.
Baker is a big body who knows how to use his size defensively, as do Regan and Jarett. Everson is a gifted offensive talent who is just beginning to learn to open up his game, while VanVoorhis is small, but has plenty of talent.
5. Hill-Murray’s Chris Casto, J.D. Cotroneo, Jordan Johnson, Jonathan Stadler, Alex Kelly and Duke Pieper
Coach Bill Lechner might just have himself another state champion on his hands this winter, with a well-balanced team, including a strong group of defensemen. They’re also well-balanced – the word of the day – with seniors like Stadler and Kelly, juniors Casto and Johnson and a top sophomore in Cotroneo, who leads all Pioneer defensemen in scoring (1-4-5) thus far. He’s a quiet, but forceful defender with good offensive skills.
Despite losing Brimsek award winner Joe Phillippi, Hill-Murray’s defensemen have helped new goaltender Tim Shaughnessy allow just four goals in four games.
6. Blaine’s Ryan Brockway, Tony Larson, Matt Blomquist, Taylor Richart and Jay Wagamon
Coach David Aus returned all of his top defensemen from last season and it’s shown in the Bengals’ great start – five straight victories and only six goals allowed. Each of the top four – seniors Brockway, Wagamon and Blomquist and junior Larson – have played in at least one state tournament game in their careers. Brockway (2-5-7) and Wagamon are tough, two-year letter winners, while Blomquist was All-NWSC last winter.
Larson is extremely strong (he squats more than 400 pounds) and has great skating ability.
7. Maple Grove’s Wally Cosette, Rick Norenberg, Joe Gaustad, Kyle Coyne and Alex Veldhuis
The Crimson may be off to a surprising start, but it shouldn’t be that much of a shock considering the talent Maple Grove has on the blue line. Cosette (2-3-5 and an amazing +19 after just six games) is a senior captain and the anchor of the defensive corps. Coach Gary Stefano called Cosette a “physical, stay-at-home defenseman with good vision and offensive abilities.” Last year, he led the NWSC in plus-minus and is well on his way to doing so again.
Juniors Norenberg and Coyne and senior Gaustad all returned with good experience. Gaustad is a three-year letter winner. Combined, this quintet already has a +42 rating and has given up six goals in six games – and remain unbeaten at 5-0-1.
8. Benilde’s Patrick Duda, Sam Anderson, Patrick Daly, David Tranvik, Gunnar Knutson and Pat Borer
Benilde coach Ken Pauly can go deep into his blueline corps – in addition to these half-dozen, the Red Knights also play young Jake Horton, Chase Minarik, Ryan Palm and Dan Kuenzi on defense.
Duda (3-6-9) leads Benilde in scoring after moving back to defense this winter – he hasn’t left his offensive mindset behind. Daly was part of the Red Knights’ four-man rotation last year as a freshman and leads the team in plus-minus this winter at +8. Borer is a three-year letter winner and has great skating ability and quickness. He’s a top senior and picked up All-North Suburban honors last winter.
9. Minnetonka’s Troy Hesketh, Andrew Prochno, Jake Rossman, Justin Holl and Joe Schuldt
Giving up just six goals in four games will get your defense noticed. So will the talent displayed by the Skippers strong blue line crew, despite the loss of NHL draft pick Jake Gardiner from the fold. Prochno, Hesketh and Holl anchor this group and all three are among the top defensemen in the state. Prochno is a great skater and puck handler from the blue line, Hesketh is a tough player who is always in the right position and Holl is an offensive-minded defenseman who is learning to make good decisions on when to rush the puck.
Best of all for Minnetonka? All three are juniors.
10. Eden Prairie’s Nick Leddy, Chase Loken, Corey Willey, Curt Rau and Dan Molenaar
With Leddy alone, the Eagles might have cracked our top-10. The senior has committed to the University of Minnesota and can control a game both defensively and offensively. Coach Lee Smith calls him “dynamic and very responsible defensively, even with his offensive talent.”
But Leddy (2-5-7) isn’t alone among top Eden Prairie blueliners. Smith converted Loken from forward and is impressed with his agility early on and Willey is a solid senior defenseman. Molenaar moved up from the perennially strong Eden Prairie bantam As and has quickly showed an offensive flair, with a 2-5-7 line in his first four varsity games.
Centennial (Joe Schmitz, Brett Stern, Kyle Stutz, Charlie Aus, Cory Colvard, Chris Kueppers, Jake Flynn)
Rochester Lourdes (Brandyn Chezick, Pete Spratte, Rory Vesel, Matt Roth, Charlie Hexum, Dan Johnson, Nick Wylam, Zach Burns and Sam Slightam)
Mahtomedi (Ben Marshall, Mike McDonald, Jordan Dittberner, David Rose and Blake Martin)
International Falls (Will Corrin, Travis Phillipe, Brandon Richards, Jeff Hofius and Matt Youso)
Warroad (Eric Milbridge, Tai Larson, Michael Pieper and Carson Gray)
Buffalo (Cole Meyer, Zach Blaisdell, Buzz Tryggeseth and Mik Ortenblad)
Little Falls (Izaak Berglund, Logan Kalis, Jordan Gosiak, Joe Rydeen, Mitch Schulte, Hunter Hanowski and Peter Suska)
Northern Lakes (Collin Burke, Ben Kepner, Derik Midthun, Justin Miska, Kyle Hicks and Joey Decent
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