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The Tourney's Fab 50 players

By Loren Nelson, 03/08/17, 2:00AM CST

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Counting down the best players in this year's field from both classes

David La Vaque has covered all but one state hockey tournament game since 2009 and has worked as a Star Tribune high school sports reporter since 2004. His favorite tournament experiences include cheering for alma mater St. Paul Johnson in 1991 and staying for most of the Apple Valley/Duluth East marathon semifinal game in 1996. Loren Nelson has covered every state tournament since 2009 as the national media editor for Sport Ngin. He attended many, many other Tourney games as a high schooler from the far northern reaches of Minnesota making the annual pilgrimage south to the old St. Paul Civic Center in the 1980s.



Luverne junior Kasyn Kruse is No. 50 on our list of top players to watch at this year's tourney. Photo by Loren Nelson, SportsEngine

Here's our primer for the top players to watch at this year's tourney, from 1 to 50. Or, in this case, from 50 to 1.

We made sure all 16 teams in the tourney were represented.

Picks are listed below in reverse order, just so you would have to scroll down to see who is at No. 1 (you'll never guess who).

50.

Kasyn Kruse

Luverne | Junior | Forward

College committment: Undecided

Part Tasmanian devil, part nitro-fueled dragster, Kruse is the sort of guy you hate playing against but love having on your team. He scores at a frenetic pace (33 goals), and his over-the-top celebrations are a sight to behold.

49.

Ben Ward

Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake | Junior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Money player? Well, high schoolers don't get paid (not that we know of, anyway) but Ward has registered a whopping 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists) in three section playoff games. He's failed to register at least one point in just one game this season.

48.

Jacob Halvorson

Northfield | Junior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Size and strength aren't an issue for the 6-1 power forward, who has racked up a team-best 25 goals. He's got superior skating ability, too. Stop Halvorson (good luck) and you most likely stop the Raiders.

47.

Nick Lund

East Grand Forks | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Quick tip: Don't give this kid room. Has the ability to turn defenders inside out and goaltenders upside down with a full playlist of moves. Leads the otherwise defensive-minded Green Wave with 24 goals.

46.

Garrett Pinoniemi

Delano | Freshman | Forward

College commitment: St. Cloud State

Best freshman in the state? Pinoniemi is most definitely in the discussion. And don't let the fuzzy cheeks and frail frame (145 pounds) fool you. He sees the ice and thinks the game like a snaggle-toothed veteran.

45.

Andrew Kruse

Delano | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Undecided

Perfectly happy to exchange body parts for victories, Kruse blocks shots as matter-of-factly as a chef cracks eggs. Return from a broken leg was a huge boost for the Tigers. 

44.

Casey Kallock

East Grand Forks | Junior | Defenseman

College commitment: Undecided

Opposing forwards beat Kallock one-on-one about as often as kangaroos are spotted in the Red River Valley. Has the skating ability to play at the next level. Will he be the latest in the pipeline of Green Wave stars who have signed on with North Dakota?

43.

Sam Malinski

Lakeville South | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Undecided

Sounds backwards, but offense most often is generated from the Cougars' defensemen, and Malinski's freelancing is one reason why. His 30 points are third most on the team.

 

42.

Michael Spethmann

St. Cloud Cathedral | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

The secret to shutting down Spethmann is . . . sorry, there is no such master plan. The bruising forward with the wicked shot has scored at least one point in all 28 of the Crusaders' games.

41.

Isaiah DiLaura

Lakeville South | Junior | Goaltending

College commitment: Undecided

Regular season statistics (1.89 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) were good; postseason stats (1.00, .939) are ridiculously good. Big (6-2, 203) and athletic enough to leave only slivers of open net at which to shoot.

40.

Nick Wiencek

Eden Prairie | Senior | Goaltender

College commitment: Undecided

Hockey Day TV game? Bring it on. Documentary cameras? Let them roll. Wiencek steps onto the state's big stage having been superb under pressure all year.

39.

Jake Van Halbeck

St. Cloud Cathedral | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Big-time scorer (29 goals) with eye-blurring speed. Has the "wow factor" that puts fans on their feet and defensemen on their heels whenever he touches the puck.

38.

Zach Stejskal

Grand Rapids | Junior | Goaltender

College commitment: Undecided

Was brilliant in stopping 45 shots in double overtime section final victory against Duluth East. At 6-4, fits comfortably in big-goalie era. Elite League regular split time during the season with Gabe Holum and isn't the guaranteed starter when the puck drops Thursday.

37.

Jackson Hjelle

Delano | Junior | Goaltender

College committment: Undecided

Brilliant left-toe save in section final against Breck helped secure the biggest victory in the program's history. Playoff jitters are a non-factor for Hjelle; he's got a 0.67 goals-against average and .969 save percentage in the postseason.  

36.

John Keranen

Delano | Senior | Forward

College committment: Undecided

The least heralded of the Tigers' power trio of 60-plus point scoring forwards, "all" Keranen does is center the top line and feed the Halonen cousins (Gabe and Brian) for mountains of goals.  

35.

Kyler Yeo

Hill-Murray | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Has picked up a lifetime's worth of pro tips as the son of former Minnesota Wild and current St. Louis Blues coach Mike Yeo. And it shows. Using his superior vision and slick stickhandling, he routinely turns dead ends and multi-player pileups into prime scoring chances.

34.

Bradley Golant

Lakeville South | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

The mop-topped Golant is one of those "high-energy" guys who always keeps his feet moving and never misses an opportunity to crash and bang into the boards. He can score some too, as in a team-leading 17 goals (including two in the third period of the Cougars' 3-1 section final win over Lakeville North).

33.

Carter Randklev

Moorhead | Junior | Forward

College commitment: None

Streaky scorer who, luckily for the Spuds, is most often in full-blown scoring mode. Leads team with 30 goals, four of which have come in the postseason.

32.

Jack Kelly

Maple Grove | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Undecided

Sticks like flypaper to opposing forwards, making their lives miserables and their games ineffective (at best). Also a legitimate scoring and playmaking threat (nine of his 30 points have come on the power play).

31.

Willie Reim

St. Thomas Academy | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Talk about a finishing kick, Reim has gone from steady scorer to gamebreaker in the past month. In his last 11 games, including three in the section playoffs, Reim has 27 points.

30.

Ben Helgeson

Hill-Murray | Sophomore | Forward

College commitment: Wisconsin

Has the speed, power and size (6-1) to manhandle unsuspecting defensemen but can also play a finesse game if needed. Has the vision and imagination to make off-the-cuff plays look as if they were drawn up on a whiteboard.

29.

Tyler Watkins

Hermantown | Junior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Elusive second liner would be the go-to forward for many of the state's teams. Such is life at Hermantown, where a 19-goal, 25-assist season is merely a nice accomplishment.

28.

Ethan Haider

Maple Grove | Freshman | Goaltender

College commitment: Undecided

For real or a mirage? Haider split time in goal in the regular season, then went bonkers in the playoffs by stopping 76 of 80 shots and allowing just four goals. Despite his youth, or maybe because of it, we're betting on Haider handling the bright lights, TV cameras and 20,000 crowds just fine.

27.

Ethan Frisch

Moorhead | Sophomore | Defenseman

College commitment: North Dakota

Started skating as a 2-year-old (two of his aunts are professional figure skating coaches) and was wielding a stick by the age of 3. Now he anchors a Spuds defense that hasn't allowed a goal in three playoff games. 

26.

Luke Posner

Mahtomedi | Senior | Forward

College committment: Undecided

There's under-the-radar and then there's ultra-quick Posner, who, after being sidelined most of last season with a hamstring injury, emerged seemingly from nowhere to score 27 of the Zephyr's 78 regular season goals this season. 

25.

Jack Jensen

Eden Prairie | Sophomore | Forward

College commitment: Minnesota

After a slow start to the season, Jensen is akin to a freight train heading into the state tournament. He has scored at least one point in each of his last eight games, amassing 19 of his 40 points.

24.

John Stampohar

Grand Rapids | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Undecided

Always thinking offense, the puck-moving, freewheeling Stampohar has 14 goals and 19 assists. He's a mainstay on the power play (7 goals, 5 assists). Oh, and he can play some defense too, using his 6-1 frame to clear the front of the net and take command in the corners.

23.

Cole O'Connell

Moorhead | Junior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Playmaker. Goal scorer. Playmaker. Goal scorer. O'Connell has switched roles more often than a Broadway actor this season. No matter if he's dishing or sniping, defenseman always have difficulty dealing with 5-9 O'Connell's speed and shiftiness.

22.

Cade McEwen

Hermantown | Senior | Goaltender

College commitment: Undecided

A backup until this season, you could say McEwen has embraced the starting role. You could also say he has squeezed the stuffing out of it. He the state's regular season leader in wins (23) and save percentage (.939) and one of two finalists for the Brimsek Award that goes to the state's top senior goalie. 

21.

Colin Schmidt

Wayzata | Junior | Forward

College commitment: Minnesota

Corner battles with the 6-5, 220-pound Schmidt are anything but pleasurable experiences. Bumps and bruises are inevitable when squaring off against the not-so-gentle giant. He doesn't score a ton (10 goals, 15 assists) but then neither does any other Trojans player.

20.

Brock Bremer

Hill-Murray | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

If Wayzata's Schmidt is the tournament's Goliath, then meet this year's David. Bremer stands just 5-6, but he has the ability to take over games as he did for long stretches in the Pioneers' section final upset win over Stillwater. Leads the Pioneers with 46 points (22 goals, 24 assists).

19.

Jesse Jacques

Hermantown | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

In his third year as a varsity regular, Jacques has a habit of scoring clutch goals in big games. Which shouldn't come as a surprise, since he has a habit of scoring goals in most every game, too. He's racked up 143 career points, including 58 this season. 

18.

Hunter Johannes

Eden Prairie | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Run-ins with Johannes are not recommended. He stands 6-3, weighs 195 and makes a beeline for body contact the way moths are attracted to light. He has 17 goals, 29 assists and a team-leading 49 penalty minutes.

17.

Griffin Ness

Wayzata | Junior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Call him Mr. March. Or Kid Clutch. Or whatever other corny nickname you can come up with. Fact is, Ness is building himself a reputation as a game-changing scorer. How clutch is he? Well, last year his state tournament breakaway goal against Stillwater helped send the Trojans to the championship game. This year, in the section final, he scored twice in a 3-1 upset over Edina.

16.

Nolan Sullivan

Eden Prairie | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Another hulking, high-scoring, hard-hitting Eden Prairie forward. Well, Sullivan stands 5-11 and weighs 195, so hulking may be a stretch. But he plays a man's game, as his statistics attest (17 goals, 22 assists, 31 penalty minutes).

15.

Sam Huff

Maple Grove | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Undecided

Big-time scorer who had a 10-point game (2 goals, 8 assists) this season in a 14-0 rout of Osseo. An equal-opportunity threat, he puts up numbers against the toughest opponents, too. He scored twice in a section final upset of Centennial and has 22 goals and 44 assists this season. 

14.

Grant Anderson

Wayzata | Junior | Defenseman

College commitment: Nebraska Omaha

Anchors the Trojans' usually stingy defensive corps, quarterbacks the power play, takes the body, moves the puck and, who knows, sharpens his teammates' skates? The do-it-all Anderson has six goals and 17 assists.

13.

Josh Ess

Lakeville South | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Wisconsin

The always calm-under-fire Ess seemingly never makes a bad play. He moves the puck out of the zone with ease, either through precision passing or lugging it up the ice himself. He's also an offensive catalyst, leading the Cougars in scoring with 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists).

12.

Brian Halonen

Delano | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Michigan Tech

Played a starring role in the feel-good drama "The Rise of Delano." He has shredded opposing defenses and lit up opposing goaltenders to the tune of 40 goals, 44 assists. All while showing a commitment to defense.

11.

Blake McLaughlin

Grand Rapids | Junior | Forward

College commitment: Minnesota

A battle-tested forechecker, a shooter with uncanny accuracy, an above average skater -- McLaughlin has as wide-ranging a skillset as anyone in the tournament. He also has a knack for getting under the players' skin and, in that agitator role, can sometimes take costly penalties.  

10.

Lance Leonard

Moorhead | Junior | Goaltender

College commitment: Undecided

Lance Leonard. Remember that name. It might be one that forever is etched in state tournament lore. Or not. If the 6-3 Leonard can continue his recent stellar play (three section playoff games, three shutouts), we like the Spuds' chances of reaching the championship game. 

9.

Robbie Stucker

St. Thomas Academy | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Undecided

Like golf's Best Players Without A Major (Sergio Garcia comes to mind), Stucker just might be Minnesota high school hockey's Best Player Not College Committed. Not yet anyway. Stucker mixes ample doses of toughness and scoring ability, making him a coveted next-level player. 

8.

Gavin Hain

Grand Rapids | Junior | Forward

College commitment: North Dakota

There's something to be said about being the top goal scorer (27) on a team with two other forward committed to Division I colleges. But Hain's game is more than just putting the puck in the net. He's responsible defensively and not afraid to mix it up along the boards or in the corners.

7.

Dylan Samberg

Hermantown | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Minnesota-Duluth

A top pro prospect because of his size (6-3, 190) and skating ability, Samberg is what Hawks coach Bruce Plante likes to call a "high-ender." "Right now he can kind of handle anybody, he’s the big man on the rink," Plante said.

6.

Ryan Sandelin

Hermantown | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Minnesota State

A 4.0 student, Sandelin can outsmart opposing defenses with the knowledge that only comes from hanging around rinks nonstop -- from toddler to teenager. Sandelin's father, Scott, is the head men's hockey coach at Minnesota-Duluth.

5.

Jake Begley

Hill-Murray | Senior | Goaltender

College commitment: Undecided 

One of two Brimsek Award (top senior goaltender) finalists, Begley has backstopped the rise of a Pioneers team that has exceeded expectations pretty much all season. Can he lead Hill-Murray to the program's fourth state championship? 

4.

Nicky Leivermann

Eden Prairie | Senior | Defenseman

College commitment: Notre Dame

Can be excused for his penchant for jumping into the offensive play, considering last year he set a state boys' lacrosse tournament record for scoring eight goals in a single game. 

3.

Ben Meyers

Delano | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Maine

In his fourth season of putting up monster scoring numbers, Meyers has 107 points this season, sharing 10th place on the all-time single scoring list with former Red Wing great Johnny Pohl (1997-98).

2.

Micah Miller

Grand Rapids | Senior | Forward

College commitment: St. Cloud State

An electrifying talent, Miller can shoot and stickhandle at top speed. And top speed is about as fast as any player in the state. He introduced himself to a statewide audience at last year's state tournament with his impressive play. Figures to be a dominant player at this year's tourney as well.

1.

Casey Mittelstadt

Eden Prairie | Senior | Forward

College commitment: Minnesota

Perhaps you have heard of him. Could have played at the University of Minnesota this year. Or played junior hockey. Or done pretty much anything he wanted. What the Mighty Casey wants most is a state championship.

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