Moorhead tops the Way-Too-Early rankings. Photo by ANTHONY SOUFFLE • firstname.lastname@example.org
With another memorable high school hockey season in the books, it's time for fans to start the dangerous game of looking ahead to next season. November is only eight months away after all.
As the title implies, these rankings are entirely too early and rosters will likely look much different when the season begins than they do now. This list was created assuming all players will be back with their high school teams next season. We all know that will not be the case because departures will happen, but that's the only way to do this list.
Feel free to direct your angry "My team should be higher!" and "Why isn't my favorite player on the Mr. Hockey list?" comments at the author in the comments section; that's to be expected when putting out lists of this nature.
From looking back at my list last season, there will be plenty of mistakes. Just know that this list was compiled for entertainment purposes only and is intended to get the conversation rolling on next season.
It's rare to see a team that most pundits believe will be better in a year playing for a state championship, but that was the case for this year's Moorhead squad. The top line of Carter Randklev, Jack Stetz and Cole O’Connell that combined for 158 points will be back. Joining them up front, Isaac Henkemer-Howe, Kyler Kleven and Parker Dronen are prime candidates to round out the top-6 forward group. North Dakota commit Ethan Frisch could partner with Parker Larson to form a formidable top defensive pair. Lance Leonard, the latest in a long line of excellent Moorhead goalies, will return and could work his way into the Frank Brimsek Award discussion. With no clear weaknesses and no obvious early departures, expect the Spuds to be the favorites in Class 2A next year.
Like most Edina teams, next year's Hornets should feature no shortage of high-end talent. An unfortunate symptom of having all that talent has been an extremely high number of early departures when compared to other teams. Sam Walker, Jett Jungels and Lewis Crosby will return to form a potent forward group. Walker is closing out this season with Lincoln in the USHL and it wouldn't be too surprising if he played there next year as well. With or without Walker, the Hornets should have no problem scoring goals. Edina will also return two Gopher commits on the back end in Ben Brinkman and Jake Boltmann. Boltmann is one of three Minnesota high school players on the US NTDP U17 team evaluation camp roster, along with Jake Hale of Minneapolis and Mike Koster of Chaska. The final roster for that team will be announced in April so that will be a situation worth monitoring. Even if Boltmann does make that team, he could turn down the invitation like Brinkman did last season. Garrett Mackay has a year of experience under his belt as the No. 1 goalie and will have a good chance to guide Edina to a Lake Conference championship and a state tournament berth.
On paper, next year's Duluth East team looks a lot like this season's Elk River team that returned a ton of senior talent and spent most of the regular season ranked in the top 5. The 'Hounds' season ended with a heartbreaking overtime section final loss to the eventual state champions from Grand Rapids, but the team returns almost 90 percent of its scoring, including leading scorers Ian Mageau, Garrett Worth and Ryder Donovan. Junior Luke LaMaster will be back for his fourth year of varsity hockey and will be the rock on defense. Goaltending will be a big question mark for Duluth East. Sophomore Lukan Hanson posted a .913 save percentage in limited action, but could have a hard time replacing Kirk Meierhoff. If Hanson can pick up where Meierhoff left off, the 'Hounds should take back the Section 7 crown from their rivals in orange.
Holy Family Catholic's defensive corps was considered one of the state's best this year, and three of the four players who logged heavy minutes in that group will be back. Anderson, a Mr. Hockey finalist and Minnesota-Duluth commit, is not easy to replace, but Peter Tabor led the group in scoring while James Marooney is committed to Ohio State and Brady Ziemer served as an alternate captain as a junior. And that's just the defense. Wisconsin commit and Fire forward Ben Almquist will be a serious Mr. Hockey candidate, and Jared Moe will be a Brimsek favorite. Like Edina, Holy Family Catholic could lose multiple players to junior teams. However, if all the pieces return for the Fire, they should be the favorite in Section 2.
Make no mistake, Stucker and Reim are huge losses, but next year's Cadets will be more than equipped to make up for it. It all starts with Atticus Kelly, who posted a .932 save percentage as a junior and will be manning the nets for a third year. Ray Christy is coming off of an impressive playoff run and will lead the offense along with 20-goal scorer Payton Matsui and talented sophomores Rob Christy and Brendan McFadden. Blake Holmes and the versatile Chase Foley should pick up the slack on defense. Expect the Cadets to roll through Section 3 again in the postseason.
The Thunderhawks were probably the toughest team to rank on this list. In the past, star players at Grand Rapids have always stuck around for their senior seasons (White, Peterson, Bischoff, Adams, Mattson, Miller), but none were coming off of a state championship run. Zach Stejskal is already playing with Bloomington in the USHL and doesn't have much left to prove at the high school level. Luckily, fellow junior Gabe Holum will be back and has plenty of big-game experience. It's easy to forget that Holum was the main starter for the 'Hawks a year ago and split time with Stejskal during the regular season this year. Grand Rapids could have the two best forwards in the state in Gavin Hain and Blake McLaughlin, but my concern is that they lack scoring depth, will be thin on defense, and that Section 7 will be filled with tough competition. Sound familiar? I had the same concerns this season and look how that turned out. Go ahead and prove me wrong again, Thunderhawks.
In last year's Way-Too-Early Top 10 article, I wrote Minnetonka was two years away from making a push for a state title, and here we are. They are still young, but the talent is there to make a deep run. Freshman Denver commit Bobby Brink broke out in a big way in his first year of varsity action, leading the Skippers with 30 points. He will be joined up front by Minnesota-Duluth commit Luke Loheit, sophomore Jack Bayless, and juniors Joe Molenaar, Matt Koethe and Ryan Elder. Sophomore defenseman Grant Docter took a big step forward in his second season, racking up 21 points. He will be joined on the blue line by Minnesota commit Clay Hanus, who missed this season with an injury. Sophomore goalie Charlie Glockner should step in to replace Muller.
Centennial's junior forward quartet of Lucas McGregor, Hayden Brickner, Carter Wagner and Jack Menne combined for 69 goals and 76 assists and are a big reason why the Cougars have a spot in the top 10. William Francis and Robert Carlson are among the group of defensemen that will attempt to replace the offense that Kranz provided from the back end. Travis Allen is back and will compete with Bryce Crowley once again for the starting goaltender job. Maple Grove has been a thorn in Centennial's side at section time and Blaine should bounce back to relevancy after going through a rebuilding year, but the Cougars will enter next season as the Section 5 favorites.
Could next year be when the Bears finally flip the script in the storied White Bear Lake/Hill-Murray rivalry? Long considered the best rivalry in the metro area, it has been a bit too one-sided recently to retain that title. That could change next season with the Bears bringing back their top three scorers in Max Jennrich, Chase Hamstad and Austin Carroll. White Bear Lake also boasts the state's best Bantam AA team to bolster the talent returning at the varsity level. The future looks bright and the section looks winnable for a program that is starved for success.
One thing I've learned over the years is to never bet against a Bill Lechner-coached Hill-Murray team. The Pioneers lose a lot of talent and don't look as strong on paper, but that is often when Lechner does his best work. Wisconsin commit Ben Helgeson will be the focal point of the offense and could be joined on the top line by Mike Fleischhacker and Joseph Quast. Joey Petronack will provide stability on defense and look for freshman Brett Oberle to take a big step forward in his second year of varsity hockey. Freshman Wyatt Vint may have the unenviable task of replacing Begley, this year's top senior goaltender.
14. Eden Prairie
15. Maple Grove
16. Lakeville South
17. Lakeville North
18. Cretin-Derham Hall
19. Elk River
Teams on the rise: Chaska, Andover, Duluth Marshall, St. Louis Park, Eastview
3. St. Cloud Cathedral
6. East Grand Forks
7. Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake
8. St. Paul Academy
Gavin Hain, Grand Rapids
Blake McLaughlin, Grand Rapids
Ben Almquist, Holy Family Catholic
Sam Walker, Edina
Dev McCabe, St. Paul Academy
Carter Randklev, Moorhead
Chase Hartje, Bemidji
Grant Anderson, Wayzata
Tyler Watkins, Hermantown
Colin Schmidt, Wayzata
Others: Lucas McGregor (Centennial), Blake Brandt (Lakeville North), Luke Loheit (Minnetonka), James Marooney (Holy Family Catholic), Ian Mageau (Duluth East), Garrett Worth (Duluth East)
Jared Moe, Holy Family Catholic
Zach Stejskal, Grand Rapids
Others: Lance Leonard (Moorhead), Atticus Kelly (St. Thomas Academy), Isaiah DiLaura (Lakeville South), Gabe Holum (Grand Rapids)