Eden Prairie retains its top spot in the rankings, although No. 2 Minnetonka sure crept closer with its performance over the Thanksgiving weekend. But the defending Class AA state champions certainly did nothing to lose their ranking -- quite literally.
The Eagles will miss Mr. Hockey winner Nick Leddy on the blue line, but return much of the lineup that led them to the state title last winter. Last year’s precocious sophomore class is now an experienced junior unit that is ready to take the reins. The Eagles have firepower on the front line with junior Kyle Rau and seniors Mitch Rogge and Mike Erickson leading the way. Defensively, junior Dan Molenaar will be counted on to help compensate for Leddy’s loss. He’s certainly capable of big things and will be helped by the return of junior goaltender Andrew Ford, the unsung hero of last year’s state tournament run. Ford started all three state games while allowing just four goals. And don’t forget about senior goaltender Matt Halloran, who split time during the regular season and won 12 games.
The Skippers closed the gap on top-ranked Eden Prairie to a negligible amount with their performance at the Woodbury Tournament, when they routed perennial powers Duluth Marshall and Woodbury by a combined 15-1 score. In fact, Minnetonka was seriously considered as a co-No. 1 for the poll.
The Skippers are loaded with Division I college prospects in defensemen Andrew Prochno (2-7-9), Justin Holl (1-2-3) and Troy Hesketh and forward Max Gardiner (3-5-8), all of whom have already committed to big-time programs. Hesketh was also drafted in the third round of the NHL entry draft by Edmonton.
Thomas Schutt (4-0-4) is a sniper who compliments Gardiner well on the top line, while goaltender Jim Kruger (2-0-0, 0.50) faces few shots, but stops nearly every one (.966 save percentage). Kruger is an experienced anchor in nets, having started the past three years. It’s tough to pick out a weakness for the Skippers – just ask Marshall and Woodbury.
Jefferson kicked off a new campaign with a 7-1 victory over Rosemount, getting balanced scoring up and down the lineup. That’s a hallmark for coach Jeff Linquist’s team, which has a host of talented players with Division I potential. Ryan Siiro led the offensive outburst with two goals as the Jaguars ripped 59 shots on net. It won’t be the last time Jefferson posts that many shots, as in addition to a strong group of forwards, the Jaguars have offensive-minded defensemen such as Princeton-bound Joe Faust, Jeff Pauluk and Jake Perpich.
Justin Woodley (1-0-0, 1.00) took over in nets for graduated Brimsek Award winner Casey O’Connor and stopped nine of 10 shots. He’ll likely see more action as the season progresses, but it was a solid start in one of the few areas of inexperience for the Jaguars.
Breck begins its title defense with a strong road test at highly-regarded Mahtomedi this Tuesday. The Mustangs have lost to Mahtomedi four straight times over the past three seasons, although Breck hasn’t had a returning team quite this deep and talented during that stretch.
The Mustangs graduated their leading scorer (Joe Rehkamp) and top defenseman (Reid Herd), but return 20 letterwinners, including All-State goaltender John Russell. With five returning defensemen, Breck should be just as strong defensively as it is offensively. Three returning forwards tallied more than 20 goals last winter (Riley Borer, Tyson Fulton and Mike Morin).
The Cadets will likely start their season angry, as they missed the state tournament for the first time in four years last winter. They’ll also be hungry, as their first game isn’t until the following week, well after most programs have begun their seasons. Expect St. Thomas Academy to get off and running quite quickly, as the Cadets have as much returning talent as anyone in the state along with Breck.
Seniors Christian Isackson and Justin Crandall and junior AJ Reid combined for 68 goals and 155 points last winter. But the Cadets run several lines deep in scoring threats. Defensively, junior Taylor Fleming, senior Joe Graveline and sophomore Eric Schurhamer will support top goaltender Kurt Altrichter, who was in nets when the Cadets won the state title in 2008.
It may be that Benilde-St. Margaret’s is one of the top-five teams in Class AA this winter and yet never get a sniff of the state tournament. Such is the life in Section 6AA for Ken Pauly’s team, which has to contend with No. 1 Eden Prairie and No. 2 Minnetonka, as well as rising power Wayzata. The Red Knights will face as tough a test in the sections as any tournament in which they could participate.
Benilde was young last year, but still won 21 games and challenged Eden Prairie in the section semifinals. Now, with another year of experience, they’ll be even tougher.
Christian Horn is arguably the top sophomore sniper in the state and set a school record for goals by a freshman last winter. Brett Patterson is a great two-way forward and Will Nelson and Pat Steinhauser make for a formidable offensive unit. Defensively, the Red Knights are also strong in front of goaltender Jacob Meyers.
Hill-Murray opened with a 5-2 victory over Burnsville, with David Bruchu netting a pair of third-period goals to seal the win. It was a good start for the Pioneers as they attempt to put last season’s tumult behind them. Despite dismissing several key players at midseason, coach Bill Lechner still led the young Pioneers to the state tournament, showing their talent and resilience.
Hill-Murray should be one of the strongest defensive teams in the state paced by seniors Chris Casto and Jordan Johnson and juniors J.D. Cotroneo and Kevin Schulze and uber freshman Zach LaValle in front of junior netminder Tim Shaughnessy. The offense may not have a true sniper like graduated Tyler Zepeda, but the forwards form a solid, hard-working group led by Ben Bahe, Jack Walsh, Kevin Becker and Willie Faust.
Blaine makes a big trek up to the northwest corner of the state to kick off its season, visiting Roseau in a classic Metro-Outstate battle Friday night. The Bengals have won the past for Section 6AA titles and look primed to do so again.
Mr. Hockey candidate Nick Bjugstad accelerated his schooling to graduate a year early and move on to the University of Minnesota, so he is actually a senior this year. Bjugstad, an honorable mention All-State pick, just might be a first-round NHL draft pick this coming summer, as he has everything scouts are looking for: skills, size, toughness and leadership. With Bjugstad jumping up a class, Blaine is loaded with senior leaders all over the ice – wingers Eric Scheid and Gavin Tufte, defensemen Tony Larson and Taylor Richart and goaltender Danny Harper.
How tough is it for Stars’ fans to wait for the season’s start? While virtually everyone will have at least one game (and some as many as five) under their belts by the middle of next week, Holy Angels doesn’t have its opener until Friday, Dec. 11.
The Stars haven’t been to the state tournament since winning the title in 2005, quite a dry spell for the hockey superpower. They’ve lost Mr. Hockey candidate Danny Mattson, but return a trio of Reilly brothers that should make the transition smooth. Senior twins Connor Reilly and Ryan Reilly combined for 44 goals last year and both have committed to the University of Minnesota. Sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly earned All-Missota honors as a freshman and complements his brothers well. None are physically imposing, but they certainly know how to play the game.
Warroad proved it should always to be considered an annual state contender last winter when it romped through much of the season behind a new crop of stars. The Warriors didn’t slow down until the Class A state title game last year, when they ran into John Russell and Breck. The great season was a bit of a surprise, as the Warriors graduated much of their scoring punch from the previous season and didn’t have an experienced varsity goaltender on their roster. But it didn’t slow them down one bit.
It may be more of the same this winter, although All-State forwards Brock Nelson (45-36-81) and Brett Hebel (22-36-58) and defenseman Carson Gray (6-22-28) are a great trio of veterans. But again, Warroad must replace many top players, as well as All-State goaltender Jason Goldsmith.
Well, that was certainly an impressive beginning for the Trojans. Wayzata opened its season by sweeping to the championship at its own Turkey Trot Tournament last weekend, beating Buffalo 8-0 in the first round and stopping Edina 4-2 in the title game. Junior Tony Cameranesi came up big, netting five goals in the two games. Scott Holm tallied two goals and an assist in the championship game victory over the Hornets.
Goaltender Andrew McIntyre answered more than a few questions in net, saving 30 of 32 shots in the two games. With the graduation of two-year starter Ty Simcoe, the goaltending job was open this winter – and it appears as if McIntyre is up to the task. He’ll get plenty of help from top defensive duo D.J. Jones and Lucas Whelan, who both have good size and skills.
The Cougars started strong last year, arguably peaking in January, and posted a 3-1-3 record against teams that qualified for the sate tournament. But injuries and other issues took their toll at the end of the year. Now, Centennial lost two of its three big guns on the first line from last year in MSU-Mankato’s Tyler Pitlick and Providence College’s Willie Hess, but do have Jordan Lovick and high-scoring seniors James Hughes and Jared Brunn and junior Riley Colvard returning.
The Cougars also have a strong returning defensive corps in front of junior netminder Brett Larsen, who gained valuable experience a year ago. Seniors Charlie Aus and Brett Stern lead the way on the blue line, combining for an outstanding plus-69 rating last season. Junior Jake Flynn is an up-and-coming defender.
Hermantown, which won the state title in 2007, fell shy in the Section 5A playoffs last winter, losing to St. Cloud Cathedral. The Hawks will again have a challenge from the Crusaders.
Hermantown has great scoring depth, paced by UMD-bound Adam Krause (26-33-59) and Cody Christopherson (25-24-49). Nine returning Hawks tallied double-digit points last year, including top defensemen Jeff Paczynski, Jared Kolquist and Chad Bannor. Along with Connor Hady and Brian LeBlanc, Hermantown may be even stronger on defense than on offense. Paczynski is a great two-way defenseman who adds offensive punch from the blue line, while Bannor and Hady are rugged defenders. Kolquist and LeBlanc are both sophomores who show great potential.
The Eagles peppered Eastview goaltender Ryan O’Shea with 46 shots, emerging with a tight 2-1 victory in the season opener last Saturday night in the battle of crosstown rivals. Apple Valley actually trailed 1-0 until the 9:05 mark of the third period when Kris Goodman tied it. With 11 seconds remaining, Trent Heuer netted the game-winner to allow the Eagles to escape with the victory.
Scoring shouldn’t be an issue going forward, however, as super sophomore A.J. Michaelson and senior Chris Fischer will key the attack, which could be buoyed by freshman sensation Hudson Fasching. Junior goaltender Aaron Gretz is also an experienced and talented netminder who will welcome the return of sophomore defenseman Derek Smith, who missed the opener.
Tony Sarsland has a team that should challenge Duluth East for the Section 7AA title this winter, although it should be quite a battle between the two powerhouse programs. Elk River gets the early nod over the Greyhounds based on its returning experience on the forward lines (Chad Hennum, Levi Lutz and Ben Jaremko combined for 48 goals last winter), its defensive corps (Ryan Jaremko) and sophomore goaltender Anders Franke, who really came on as the season progressed and played in the offseason with the Minnesota Advance 15 team. Now a year more experienced, the Elks look like the favorites.
East suffered big departures from last year’s team, including four players who earned All-State honorable mention. Included among those players is Mr. Hockey candidate Max Tardy and defenseman Derek Forbort, who left a year early to play for the USNTDP. But there is never a rebuilding year at East – only a quick reloading. In 56 years of hockey, East never has had a losing record. Coach Mike Randolph won’t suffer a first this winter.
Youngsters will have to step into big roles, paced by experienced senior forwards Jayce Paulseth and Kyle Lutzka and defenseman Andy Welinski.
Welinski is the only returning regular on defense from last year’s sextet, which combined with the graduation of All-State goaltender Matt Cooper could leave the Greyhounds scrambling defensively early in the season. But they’ll put it together quickly.
One of these years, the Spuds are going to win their first title. In a huge surprise, Moorhead romped all the way to the state title game last winter before falling to Eden Prairie – the seventh time they’ve lost the state championship game. They weren’t expected to get that far, but did behind a senior-laden defensive corps and quick forwards Alex Altenbernd, Jordan Doschadis and Trent Johnson. Now coach Dave Morinville will have to reload with a new defensive corps, although he does return All-State goaltender Logan Marks and sophomore Michael Bitzer, who is just as talented in nets.
The offense may have to carry the way early, and it’s a capable unit with returnees Braden Rahman, Quin Buckellew, Kyle Kraemer and Tyler Larson, who was rated by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau this past offseason.
Most everyone expected the Hornets to take a step back after the graduation of such a potent senior class and the first weekend hasn’t dispelled that notion. Make no mistake, Edina is still plenty talented, but it may take a bit of time for coach Curt Giles to mold that talent into a team.
Charlie Taft netted the game-winner in the season opener against Maple Grove and will be counted on to pick up plenty of offensive slack, along with Michael Sit and others. Johnny Ankeny should be solid in nets, while defenseman Max Everson has great bloodlines and will be a steady force this winter.
The Royals got to the championship of their opening tournament last weekend by beating Tartan 4-1, but then ran into the powerful Minnetonka Skippers, falling 9-1. It was a tough gauge for Woodbury, which clearly is one of the top teams in the state but was routed by the Skippers. Is Minnetonka that good?
All-State forward Max Gaede (3-1-4) leads the way on offense along with Tyler Nowicki and Connor Delaney. Walker Hyland and Andrew Herbert are experienced defensemen, while senior Mike Ness will likely break the school’s career goaltending victories record this season for coach Wes Bolin’s squad.
Every hockey fan knows the story in South St. Paul. No one aside from Roseau has been a more frequent guest at the state tournament than the Packers, who have made 28 visits to state but have yet to win a title. With the changing demographics in the community, hockey withered a bit near the stockyards with only one visit since 1996. But things have been looking up for the Packers.
South St. Paul have a terrific, experienced goaltender in junior Adam Wilcox, who has recently committed to the University of Minnesota. He’ll be tested, however, as South St. Paul will be very young on defense after losing Mr. Hockey candidate Zach Palmquist to graduation. Offensively, the Packers should be very good with a young group of veteran forwards, inlcuding Jesse Poznikowich and Austyn Young.