We introduced you to high school hockey’s Fab Five super fans earlier this week, now we up the ante with our annual Fab Fifty state tourney players to watch.
As usual, all 16 teams are represented — some more than others, of course. Themes have emerged: It’s a banner year for goaltenders, who dominate the list, and a big year for small school superstars.
Coaches’ sons are abundant, as are Mr. Hockey finalists. We offer a set of brothers and duo of cousins. Players who don’t have scholarships but should dot the list, too.
Our picks are listed in reverse order, and don’t you dare jump ahead to see who is No. 1 (Hint: In back-to-back years he declined offers to join USA Hockey’s prestigious National Team Development Program).
St. Cloud Cathedral junior defenseman Jon Bell showcased his sense of humor - and abundance of skill - at last year's state tournament. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Remember the kid who lost his footing during team introductions last year and slid past/underneath the cameraman like a runaway toboggan? Yep, that would be Mr. Bell. Not only did he handle himself with aplomb afterward, joking good-naturedly about the mishap with the media and on social media, he played some high-level hockey, too. He’s one of the state’s best junior defenseman and perhaps an even better baseball player — he’s received Division I college scholarship offers in both sports.
The top goal scorer with 18 on a Cougars team that at times can be offensively challenged, he’s a vital piece of their championship puzzle. Ahrenholz stands 6-foot-3, weights 200 pounds and has a bit of nasty in him. His zest for forechecking is a big part of why good things almost always happen when his line hits the ice. Has scored a stunning eight game-winning goals this season.
He’s fast. He’s crafty. He can move the puck. Man, can he move the puck. The 5-9, 145-pound Kilen’s 42 assists ranks second among Hawks players, and 10 of those came on the power play. He’s also scored eight power-play goals. Kilen is in his first season at Hermantown after transferring from Virginia/Mountain-Iron Buhl and has been a welcome addition as Blake Biondi’s setup man (more on Biondi later in this list).
They seemingly grow smart, skilled hockey players in Warroad as easily as the locals pluck walleye out of Lake of the Woods. We’re not sure if Foster is one of those ace walleye fisherman, but he is undoubtedly a Warroad-produced rink rat of the highest level. He’s been overshadowed by teammates Grant Slukynsky and Jayson Shaugabay for much of the season, but Foster has quietly amassed 54 points on 26 goals and 28 assists.
Why not go back-to-back with the Warriors’ Foster boys (cousins, not brothers). Warroad coach Jay Hardwick described his No. 1 goaltender as his best-kept secret. Well, the secret is out — Foster is scary good. He posted three straight shutouts in the section playoffs, a remarkable feat even if he didn’t see a ton of rubber (he stopped a combined 36 shots in the three games).
The early departure of star forward Tristan Broz left observers wondering who might step in and fill the role as Joe Miller’s ultra-talented sidekick. Hello, Jack Sabre! Remarkably consistent, Sabre has been held without a point in just five of 28 games. Ten of his 50 points have come on the power play.
On a team full of standout athletes and future Division I forward, Bogenholm, the defenseman, is labeled by Crusaders’ coach Derrick Brown as the team’s fastest player. “He’s an incredible skater,” Brown said. Bogenholm uses all that speed to routinely join the rush, as evidenced by his 27 points.
At times it appears all of Huskies’ forwards are feet-always-moving, hit-anything-that-moves, tireless, relentless clones produced from the same factory assembly line. But every so often you’ll see a bit of toe-dragging, puck-between-the-defenseman’s-legs razzle dazzle. Those moments usually belong to Jones, who leads Andover with 49 points, including 38 assists.
The star power forward’s return from an early season broken leg has provided a huge boost for the Zephyrs. An all-tournament selection last season, the 5-10, 162-pound Hagstrom also was a standout in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League in the fall and off to a great start to the high school season (three goals, three assists in his first six games) before breaking his fibula in a Dec. 10 game against Monticello. He’s scored five goals in his last six games and gives opposing defensemen fits with his combination of grit and skill.
An Elite League regular in the fall, Keranen is a standout skater who possesses above-average puck skills. He often serves as the triggerman on the Tigers’ power play, where he has notched five of his 14 assists. A skill player on a team loaded with muckers and grinders, Keranen isn’t afraid to stick his nose into the fray, too.
Blake's Ben Dexheimer, above, joins fellow senior Will Svenddal to form one of the state's top defensive pairings. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
One half of the Bears’ Thunder & Lightning defensive combo (joining senior stalwart Will Svenddal), Dexheimer possesses the speed and skating ability that allows him to inject himself in the offense in a blink of the eye. He’s scored 12 goals, including a hat trick against Hopkins in a section quarterfinal.
Top-pair defender gets all the toughest assignments and thrives in one-on-one battles with elite forwards. He contributes more than a little in the offensive end, too, as evidenced by his nine goals and 16 assists.
Speed, creativity, a catchy nickname (“Playoff Siz”), Salzle brings a bit of everything to the Cougars. That includes goals. A mountain of goals. He’s scored 32 this season, including six in the section playoffs. He scored twice and had an assist in East’s 3-1 victory over Mankato West in the Class 1A, Section 1 championship.
The kid they call “Jozzy” is a natural born goal scorer. He’s amassed a team-best 33 of them this season, including a stunning eight in three section playoff games. He called winning the Class 1A, Section 3 championship, “The greatest moment of my life,” but is eager to make even better memories during Hutchinson’s first state tournament appearance in 10 years.
The 6-foot, 156-pound Henrickson can be streaky as a goal scorer, and he scored five in three section playoff games to bump his season total to 22. He’s not afraid to tangle with defenders in the corners or in front of the net, and he has the vision and passing ability to find jet-propelled linemate Brian Cornelius with stretch passes that result in breakaways. Henrickson leads the Moose with 46 points.
The son of former longtime Tigers coach Steve Brown, Adam has been hanging around the team since he was a toddler hiding in lockers or underneath chairs and desks in the coaches’ office. Also a standout football player, he brings a bit of the gridiron to the ice rink in the way he manhandles defenders. Leads the Tigers in goals with 21 and points with 40.
Liffrig joins Salzle as the second half of the Cougars irrepressible forward duo. A rare East player to be selected for the Elite League, Liffrig has all the tools — great speed and a 6-1 frame among them — to excel at the highest levels. He’s scored 72 points, including 31 goals, while playing one of the toughest schedules in Cougars history.
The loss of star forward Kyle Kukkonen to a season-ending injury after just seven games has forced the Crimson to adopt a score-by-committee approach. Nelson has shouldered his share of the load and then some. He led the team with 29 regular season points, 15 of them coming on a power play that clicked at an impressive 37.7 percent efficiency rate.
The Pioneers have produced a steady stream of tough, smart defensemen over the years, and Palodichuk fits that description to a T. He’s also got a playmaking flair to his game, as evidenced by his 33 assists.
This sniper doesn’t need much of an opening — perhaps a couple millimeters larger than the width of the puck, maybe less — to find the back of the net. A varsity regular since he was a freshman, Dulak has scored 61 career goals, including 26 this season.
The son of Gophers coach Bob Motzko, Mack grew up playing in the St. Cloud youth system and was a Cathedral standout before spending his junior season playing for Minnetonka. He’s back playing with his Pee Wee and Bantam buddies and loving every minute of it — and it shows. He emerged as something of a goal-scoring phenom in the second half of the season, registering three straight hat tricks and four in six games. He has 27 goals and 57 points.
Eden Prairie's Ben Steeves, left, celebrates with Jackson Blake after Blake scored his first varsity goal. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Forced to sit out varsity games for two-thirds of the season because of eligibility issues incurred from his return to Eden Prairie from Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault last winter, Blake was a junior varsity sensation before making one of the most anticipated varsity debuts in high school hockey history. He hasn’t disappointed, totaling six goals and 16 points in 10 varsity games. His quickness and lateral movement are eye-popping, but his lightning-quick release and playmaking abilities are even more jaw-dropping.
Plagued by shoulder injuries for much of the past couple of seasons, Warner at 70-percent health is better than 95 percent of the state’s full-strength players (percentages are estimates, of course). He was a beast at last year’s state tournament, when he led the Crusaders with four goals and four assists. The only C grade he gets is for his post-goal celebrations, subdued only because he’d rather not risk further injury by smashing himself into the glass or teammates.
Alternated starts for part of the season but has taken over as the No. 1 starter in the playoffs. His playoff numbers — .934 save percentage, 1.31 goals against average — are ridiculously good and pretty much the same as what he posted in the regular season (.926 save percentage, 1.82 goals against average). Sidenote: We haven’t determined a theme yet for this year’s Fab 50, but might this be the year of the goaltender?
Grit. Heart. Hustle. Determination. We love the way this kid plays, which is pretty much a mirror image of how his dad, Mike, and uncle Mark went about their business as twin seniors on Hill-Murray’s 1991 state championship team. Charlie shares the team lead with 23 goals, has 48 points and teams with sophomore sidekick Nick Pierre to form one of the tourney’s most formidable duos. Hard to believe this kid doesn’t have a scholarship locked down. Yet.
The son of Huskies assistant coach Bill Thoreson, Gunnar, as you would expect, plays a cerebral game predicated on savvy playmaking and an attention to detail on defense. The second-line center boasts a sparkling plus/minus of plus 45 to go with his 16 goals and 26 assists.
He has the speed. He has the skill. Even better, he showcases his skill while skating at top speed. On a team full of good, gritty, hard-working players Hallum is all that but stands out because of his full array of attributes. On a Cadets team that is at times starved for goal scoring, the 6-foot, 183-pound Hallum usually finds a way to deliver. He has team bests of 18 goals and 37 points.
Another speed burner with a full toolbox of offensive skills, the 5-10, 165-pound Batchelder anchors the Eagles’ potent second line. His value is such that Eden Prairie’s offense fell into a bit of disarray when Batchelder sat out several games with a midseason shoulder injury. Remarkably consistent when in the lineup, he’s scored at least one point in all but four of 23 games.
Andover's Mitchell Wolfe has had plenty of reasons to celebrate this season as a high-scoring defenseman for the No. 1 Huskies. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Flash? Panache? Yes on both counts regarding the freewheeling Wolfe’s game. Oh, sure, he’s strong defensively, too, but let's talk about his contributions on offense. As a catalyst on the Huskies’ power play, he’s registered 19 of his 39 points with the man advantage.
The Year of the Goalie? We’ve arrived at another standout netminder in Aitken, who merely stopped 77 of 78 shots in three section playoff games. His season stats (.936 save percentage, 1.84 goals against average) are as spectacular as his play. Even better, Aitken is so beloved by his teammates they don’t hesitate to throw their bodies in front of 90 mph slapshots.
From now until forever, Best will be known as the guy who scored on a penalty shot in overtime to win a section championship. You can’t make this stuff up! Best’s historic goal — it’s believed to be the only time a section title game was decided in overtime by a penalty shot — is the cherry atop a resume that includes 19 goals and 31 points.
The Hermantown-to-Minnesota Duluth recruiting pipeline runs deep and strong, sort of like the two programs. Pierce, originally from Ely, is the latest Hawks standout headed to the Bulldogs, which is about as good a stamp of approval you can get as a high school player. He’s lined up as a defenseman this season but put up forward-like numbers (15 goals, 36 assists), the best of both worlds in the words of Van Halen (Sammy Hagar version).
Here’s another player that baffles us, not with his brilliantly steady and effective play, but his lack of a Division I commitment. The heavy hitting Svenddal is the Thunderbolt to Dexheimer’s Lighting — a defensive pairing that has repeatedly shut down some of the state’s most prolific lines and individuals this season. Svenddal has 21 points and, amazingly, just four penalty minutes.
The younger brother of teammate John Mittlestadt and former Eagles superstar Casey Mittelstadt, the No. 8 overall selection in the NHL draft by the Buffalo Sabres, the 5-11, 185-pound Luke might someday be the best of the bunch. For now, he’s an ultra smart defender who makes all the right passes, gets shots to the net through traffic and runs Eden Prairie’s top power play unit.
Where would the Spuds be without Triggs? It’s a fair question, given that he’s scored 34 goals this season, more than twice as many as Moorhead’s next highest scorer. The 5-11, 185 pound bulldozer crashes the net with abandon but has more than enough skill to score from long range, too. His nine game-winning goals speak volumes of his importance.
Warroad's Jayson Shaugabay is the state's top freshman scorer with 64 points. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Maybe, just maybe, he’s the best freshman in the state. That’s an argument for another day, but the ultra-skilled Shaugabay most definitely is in the class of the metro’s top ninth graders, players such as Jimmy Snuggerud of Chaska, Jimmy Clark of Edina and Charlie Stramel of Rosemount. Shaugabay’s point totals (he’s at 64 points entering the tourney) projected over a four-year career would put him in rarefied all-time company.
If there was a Most Improved award, we’d give it to Mittelstadt without hesitation. It’s not like he had many glaring shortcomings as a junior, but Mittelstadt seems to have found a higher gear in the offseason. That improved speed, along with a wicked shot and unmatched work ethic, make him a crucial cog on one of the state’s top forward lines (he pairs with Jackson Blake and Ben Steeves).
As we’ve mentioned before, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which Huskies forwards are which, but Kron stands out because of his patience with the puck and superior ice vision. He’s been slowed by a variety of injuries this season but can be lethal leading Andover’s top line when healthy. Point totals (15 goals, 26 assists) are impressive given that he was sidelined for four games.
Dardis posted three straight shutouts in mid-December, turned aside an astounding 57 shots in a 3-2 triumph over Hill-Murray on Jan. 11 and allowed just two goals on 68 shots in the three section playoff victories. Yeah, you could Dardis has had a decent season. Oh, did we mention he’s posted seven shutouts, tied with Andover’s Will Larson for the most in the state (rhetorical question).
The run on goalies continues. Keopple looks resplendent in his green pads emblazoned with Hill-Murray’s logo, but the custom graphics don’t make saves by themselves. Keopple’s technically sound play just makes it look that way. His .934 save percentage and 1.62 goals against average place him among the state’s leaders.
A one-man breakout machine, the Mr. Hockey finalist barely breaks a sweat defending elite forwards. Not really, but Gramer sure makes the hardest of work look easy. He chips in offensively, too, to the tune of seven goals and 25 assists.
Sidelined by a shoulder injury for much of the season, Smith has, incredibly, amassed 30 points in just 11 games. Goals often come in bunches for Smith, who has two hat tricks, one four goal game and one in which he scored five. The four-goal game came in a section final, an 8-1 thrashing of Alexandria. He turned down an offer to join USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program to stay in high school.
Wind him up and watch him go. Pierre can wow fans and burn defenders and goaltenders in a multitude of ways, most often with his speed or blistering shot. His third-period goal, a shorthander, allowed the Pioneers to slip past White Bear Lake in the Class 2A, Section 4 final and etched his name in the annals of one of the state’s greatest rivalries. He has 23 goals and 52 points.
They say great goaltending is the great equalizer. We’re not exactly sure what that means, but suffice it to say the Spuds get great goaltending from Hodges, widely considered the best in the state. Moorhead has played in eight state championship games, losing them all. If they get that far with Hodges in goal, a real possibility, we like the odds of one of the state’s most notable streaks coming to an end.
OK, we’ll state the obvious: How does this kid not have a college commitment? He scores with timepiece regularity, sets up plays with the same frequency and hustles his heart out night after night. The Mr. Hockey finalist has 85 points, the fourth most in the state.
Hmmm, looks like we’re in the midst of a run on Class 1A Mr. Hockey finalists. Like Perbix, Slukynsky’s point totals are in the stratosphere — 34 goals, 55 assists for 89 points, the second most in the state. “As he goes, usually that’s the way the team goes,” Warriors coach Jay Hardwick said.
Shut Miller down, the thinking goes, and you can beat the Bears. The only problem with that game plan is the part about shutting Miller down. He’s been held without a point just four times this season, with all those games ending Blake losses. Miller is a lock as a Mr. Hockey finalist next season, but for now he ranks among the top handful or so juniors in the state. He has 28 goals and 71 points to lead the Bears.
The New Hampshire kid who came to Minnesota this summer by way of Michigan (it’s complicated) scored a hat trick in his first varsity game, the first his his five three-goal games in the regular season. Steeves deadly accurate shot allows him to score from most anywhere — put him in the parking lot and he’s good for a couple goals. The Mr. Hockey finalist has 33 goals to lead the Eagles.
NHL scouts have been lining up on the top rail at rinks with regularity to watch the Huskies’ uber athletic defenseman and Mr. Hockey finalist. What they see is one of the state’s best skaters who has the speed and athletic ability to take over games in a heartbeat. Comparisons? How about Nick Leddy from Eden Prairie in 2009 or Ryan McDonagh from Cretin-Derham Hall in 2007 — current NHLers who won state titles and Mr. Hockey awards.
Blake Biondi of Hermantown is one of the leading candidates to win this year's Mr. Hockey award. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Probably saw this pick coming, right? NHL scouts love him. So do the locals in Hermantown. Hawks coach Pat Andrews adores the Mr. Hockey finalist with 43 goals and 45 assists (he ranks third in the state with 88 points) more than anyone. “He’s not just a goal scorer, he is a playmaker,” Andrews said. “He is our bread and butter.” Biondi is nothing more than a rink rat at heart. “I think being with friends on the outdoor rinks, for sure I’ll never forget that,” Biondi said. “That’s where I think I became the player I am today.” Consider Biondi must-see TV this week. In person is an even better experience.