Maple Grove leads the Class 2A pack of top programs in the next installment of the Way-Too-Early Top-10 rankings for next season. Photo by Cheryl Myers, SportsEngine
We're just a few days removed from a state tournament that featured some unexpected dominance from east metro programs.
Now, five years into compiling these rankings, and fresh off some hits, misses and big whiffs from last year's list that include not being so high on eventual state champions Hill-Murray and Mahtomedi, it's time to take another stab at assembling the MN Hockey Hub's Way-Too-Early Top-10 rankings.
A favorite component in putting these together every year is the amount of discussion it generates, so please submit any questions, opinions and complaints in the comments section below and please keep the conversation civil.
As always, this list was created assuming all non-seniors will be back with their respective teams next season.
Next season should finally be the year Maple Grove transitions from a what-could-have-been team to a legitimate state title contender. Much was made of the Crimson earning a state tourney berth this year despite early departures who went to the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP), other key players who joined junior leagues, and star forward Kyle Kukkonen who was out with injury. For the first time since 2017, Maple Grove won't lose players to the NTDP, and Kukkonen should be fully recovered for his senior year. Notre Dame commit Henry Nelson will lead the backline with Cal Thomas, Ethan Elias and Ian Barbour. Forwards Sam Jacobs, Chris Kernan, Joshua Giuliani and Landen Gunderson will provide the offensive punch for a group that returns 85 percent of its scoring production. Goaltender Jack Wieneke will return as well. In what we can file as a good problem to have, coach Todd Bergland will also have to find room for a few players from an Osseo/Maple Grove Bantam AA team that's playing for a third-straight Bantam AA state championship this weekend. With all those ingredients, the Crimson seem more than capable of defending their Section 5 title and finally breaking through to win a state title.
Coming off of its second consecutive runner-up finish at the state tournament, Eden Prairie looks to enter next season much like it did this past season: with a lot of starpower. Five of the Eagles' six defenseman return with Luke Mittelstadt, Mason Langenbrunner, and Kam Langefels headlining the group. Carter Batchelder, Jackson Blake, Drew Holt, and Riku Brown will return to top-six forward roles looking to up their production to counteract the losses of Steeves and John Mittelstadt. This could be Eden Prairie's last chance at a long playoff run for the foreseeable future, so look for the Eagles to come out extra motivated next year.
State champion Hill-Murray returns a ton of talent but has some very large shoes to fill with Keopple, the Frank Brimsek award winner, and playoff hero Strobel graduating. A big story line to keep an eye on will be the future plans of sophomore dynamo Nick Pierre, who made the NTDP tryout camp roster after putting up 59 points in his third year of varsity. If Pierre leaves, the Pioneers could look similar to this year's Maple Grove team after they lost Kyle Kukkonen to injury; a very deep and talented team with no true star player that opponents can key on. Defensemen Joe Palodichuk, Matthew Fleischhacker, and Axel Begley will return, and when mixing in Wisconsin commit Dylan Godbout, Jared Jensen, Nate Hardy and Max Zupfer, there is a lot to like. The Pioneers should be the Section 4 favorite and firmly in the mix for another state title.
After consecutive years of spending their state tournament Friday experience at Mariucci Arena, the Cougars should bounce back with one of their strongest teams ever next season. Leading scorer Oelrich will be a big loss, but Lakeville South returns eight of its next nine leading scorers, as well as both of its goalies. Griffin Ludtke, a Nebraska-Omaha commit, fellow defenseman Jack Malinski, along with forwards Cade Ahrenholz, Jack Novak and Cam Boche, will be the backbone of the team. Throw in Eli Miller, Ashton Dahms, and Tanner Ludtke, who will all be sophomores next season, and a very strong incoming Bantam AA group, the Cougars should be clear favorites for a third-straight Section 1 title and they'll have a good chance to be playing all their tourney games at the Xcel Energy Center next season.
It's difficult to decide how much to factor in a previous year's Bantam AA success when determining these rankings. The 2019-20 Prior Lake team is a prime example of why those strong Bantam teams should be considered, as those bantam players stepped right into the varsity lineup while the Lakers rode an all-sophomore top line of Will Schumacher, Alex Bump, Sam Rice and goalie Trevor Boschee to the top seed in Section 2. It all fell apart in the section semifinals against Chaska, however, which is not uncommon for such a young team with the No. 1 seed target on their backs. With those sophomores, plus forward Matt Beaty, and defensemen Jackson Anderson, Aidan Emerson and Will Magnuson all returning, the Lakers should be ready to challenge Eden Prairie for section supremacy.
It took an unpredented penalty-shot goal off the stick of Gavin Best to dash Benilde-St. Margaret's' state tournament hopes as Best and his Blake team toppled the Red Knights 4-3 in overtime in the Section 6 final. Benilde-St. Margaret's began this past season as the popular pick to advance to the state tournament out of that section, and while they lose a group of key contributors, including Schweitzer, a Mr. Hockey finalist, the Red Knights return a bevy of talent. Carson Limesand has racked up 40 career wins in his three years as the Red Knights' starting goaltender and will be one of the best, most experienced goaltenders in the state as a senior next season. Colorado College commit Tristan Sarsland, James Callahan and Brady Yakesh will man the blue line, and forwards Adam Marshall, Jackson Bisson, Grant Ellings, Jonah Mortenson and Asher Connolly will be counted on for offensive contributions. Section 6 should once again be a dogfight with no truly dominant team, but could feature as many as five teams ranked in the top 15 in the state. When the dust settles, Benilde-St. Margaret's figures to be near the top of that heap trying to reach the state tournament for the first time since 2012 when it won it all.
Many teams would love to have a rebuilding year like the one the Edina experienced this season, which included a top-10 ranking for much of the season but eventually ended in the Hornets bowing out of the section playoffs to a loaded Blake team. Edina played a defensive game this past season but should see an uptick in scoring next year with forwards Jackson Borst, Jimmy Clark, and Willi Johnson back for another season. Clark, however, did get an invite to the NTDP camp, so Hornets coach Curt Giles will be hoping to see him back in Hornet green come November. Gopher commit Nick Williams and Wyatt Wurst will anchor the defense, while Louden Hogg is a good early pick to be a Frank Brimsek award finalist in his third year as the team's starting goalie.
Closing out the run on Section 6 teams is Wayzata, which played a difficult schedule this past season to finish with a 14-10-2 record. The Trojans, however, did get victories over Hill-Murray, Eden Prairie and Blake. The Trojans will bring back their three leading scorers in Gavin O'Connell, Jake Keller and Jake Schneider. O'Connell and the Jakes will be joined by forwards Dylan Lewis and Drew Streeter, and defenseman Tucker Ness who will gear up for another year in coach Pat O'Leary's system. So where is the weakness, you may ask? Well, Bonello, the team's graduating goaltender, played every minute between the pipes this year so the team's new starting goalie will be completely untested. Assuming someone in the program can provide some quality minutes in net, Wayzata should be in the thick of things in the Lake Conference standings and in Section 6.
A very young Roseau team fell just short of a state tournament berth this season, losing 3-2 to Moorhead in the section final after blowing out a tough St. Michael-Albertville team in a section semifinal. Max Strand and Gavin Gunderson combined for 86 points and will join Paul Huglen, Judd Ginther and Kellen Murphy to form a lethal stable of forwards. With defensemen Thor Byfuglien and Isaac Wensloff leading a position group that only loses one senior to graduation, and Andrew Tuttle returning for another year as the team's starting goalie, the Rams should finally have the firepower and experience to knock off Moorhead in Section 8 for their first state tournament trip since 2014.
Grand Rapids begins the offseason with two clear objectives: find a goalie and get Jack Peart back to Grand Rapids for his senior year. Clafton, a Frank Brimsek award finalist, graduates after two years of stellar play as the starting goaltender for the Thunderhawks. Peart, a St. Cloud State commit playing with Fargo in the USHL, will need to return if Grand Rapids wants to have a season reminiscent of its state title run in 2017. Braeden Holcomb, Joey DelGreco, Hunter Bischoff, Easton Young, John Bonner and Hayden Demars round out the group of returning impact players for the resurgent Thunderhawks. With Andover losing nearly its entire team to graduation, and fellow Section 7 stalwarts Duluth East, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, and Elk River preparing for potentially lean years, the Thunderhawks' path back to St. Paul next season is a little clearer than usual.
11. Cretin-Derham Hall
12. St. Thomas Academy
Just missed the cut: Blaine, Holy Family Catholic, White Bear Lake, Lakeville North, Hastings, Totino-Grace
2. East Grand Forks
6. Duluth Denfeld
7. St. Cloud Cathedral
8. Gentry Academy
9. Little Falls
Just missed the cut: Alexandria, Dodge County, Thief River Falls, Breck, St. Paul Johnson
Listed in alphabetical order.
Jackson Hallum, St. Thomas Academy
Kyle Kukkonen, Maple Grove
Luke Levandowski, Rosemount
Griffin Ludtke, Lakeville South
Joe Miller, Blake
Luke Mittelstadt, Eden Prairie
Henry Nelson, Maple Grove
Jack Peart, Grand Rapids
Joey Pierce, Hermantown
Jake Ratzlaff, Rosemount
Others: Cade Ahrenholz (Lakeville South), Carter Batchelder (Eden Prairie), Chase Beacom (Bloomington Kennedy), Jon Bell (St. Cloud Cathedral), Jackson Borst (Edina), Beau Courneya (Breck), Christian Galatz (Cloquet-Esko-Carlton), Mason Langenbrunner (Eden Prairie), Layten Liffrig (Mankato East), Kade Nielsen (Burnsville), Joe Palodichuk (Hill-Murray), Landon Parker (East Grand Forks), Lleyton Roed (White Bear Lake), Noah Tussey (Stillwater), Nick Williams (Edina)
Listed in alphabetical order.
Louden Hogg, Edina
Carson Limesand, Benilde-St. Margaret's
Aksel Reid, Blake
Others: Dane Couture (Little Falls), Dylan Halliwill (Holy Family Catholic), Zach Hayes (Hopkins), Will Larson (Andover), Grant Martin (St. Cloud Cathedral), Jacob Snyder (Duluth Denfeld), Cody Ticen (Lakeville South), Andrew Tuttle (Roseau), Jack Wieneke (Maple Grove)
Tag(s): Home Central Lakes Alexandria Granite Ridge Little Falls St. Cloud Cathedral IMAC Blake Breck Dodge County Duluth East Grand Rapids St. Paul Johnson Gentry Academy Lake Eden Prairie Edina Hopkins Minnetonka Wayzata Lake Superior Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Duluth Denfeld Hermantown Mariucci East Grand Forks Moorhead Roseau Thief River Falls Warroad Metro East Hastings Hill-Murray Mahtomedi St. Thomas Academy Metro West Chaska Benilde-St. Margaret's STMA Northwest Suburban Andover Blaine Centennial Elk River/Zimmerman Maple Grove Totino-Grace South Suburban Burnsville Lakeville North Lakeville South Prior Lake Rosemount Suburban East Cretin-Derham Hall Stillwater White Bear Lake Wright County Delano Holy Family Orono