Disclaimer: Hermantown’s Joey Pierce does not appear on this list.
How one of the state’s best defenseman doesn’t figure into this year’s Fab 50 is a long and heartbreaking story that ends with Hermantown being forced to play mostly its junior varsity in Tuesday’s Class 1A quarterfinal against Dodge County.
If the Hawks should somehow win (it seems the Herb Brooks quote: "Great moments are born from great opportunity" should be inserted here), there’s a possibility that Pierce, Aaron Pionk and the rest of Hermantown’s varsity players would be back in the lineup for Friday’s semifinals.
Rest assured the Hawks, seeded No. 1, have plenty of Fab 50-worthy players beyond the one who will play and is included in this list (no spoilers; scroll down to find out which superstar is suiting up).
The status of defending Class 2A champion Hill-Murray was in doubt at the time this list was published, but we went ahead and included the best of the Pioneers. Hoping for the best is a recurring theme in a completely unpredictable COVID-19 year.
As always, we’ve included players from all 16 teams. This year’s themes: coaches’ sons, unstoppable forward lines, Mr. Hockey finalist defensemen and sophomores, an army of high-impact sophomores.
Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato's Darby Halonen was a fuzzy cheeked freshman back in 2018 when the Dragons last qualified for the state tournament. File photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Mr. Irrelevant? No way. Appearing on this list, whether at the top or bottom, is like being nominated for an Oscar or winning a Nobel Price. Pretty heady stuff. And besides, Halonen has been a four-year mainstay for the Dragons (he was the starter as a freshman in 2018 when LDC last made the tourney), as essential to the program as the very ice it practices on. “Darby has been a rock back there,” Dragons coach Brice Berggren said. “He’s been awesome all season and especially in the playoffs.”
High-scoring, high-energy, high-comedy — Stevens contributes in all sorts of ways for the Flyers. His team-best 32 points (14 goals, 18 assists) are highly valued, but then so too is his light-hearted attitude in the locker room. “He’s the guy who cranks it up for us,” Little Falls coach Tony Couture said.
Thomas doesn’t have the name recognition of teammates Kyle Kukkonen or Henry Nelson. No, he just quietly goes about his business as a shutdown defenseman who adds some scoring pop. And when Thomas is on the ice business is good, exceptionally good. He has five goals and 19 assists and is a big reason why the Crimson have allowed just 29 goals, fourth fewest in the state.
Speaking of rocks, or glue guys or whatever label works best for irreplaceable players, yeah, Nagel is one of those. Overshadowed by more-acclaimed Division I-committed teammates Jackson Hallum and Jared Wright, Nagel has led a second forward line that for much of the season has been as equally potent as the the first unit. The tough-as-boot leather Nagel, who excels in all aspects of the game, shares the team lead in goals with 17.
Just win baby! If that mantra was used to measure goaltenders, the oft-overlooked and under-appreciated Larson would have a shelf full of awards and resume stuffed with accolades. All he’s done in the last two seasons is post a 29-5-1 record while helping the Huskies reach state tournaments for the first and second time in program history. Larson was superb in the section championship against Grand Rapids, stopping 33 of 35 shots in a 3-2 victory.
The Spuds are one of those programs that simply replaces departed standout seniors with youngsters who have comparable ability and boundless potential. A perfect example is the Gramer-for-Gramer swap. Luke Gramer scored 28 points as a standout senior defenseman last season. He was so good at both ends of the rink he would be irreplaceable for most programs. For Moorhead? Just plug in another Gramer, Joe, a sophomore with 16 points and penchant for physical play.
Bring on the young ’uns. Here’s another sophomore starring for one of the state’s blueblood programs. Lean and lanky, the 6-foot Gunderson has all the tools — speed, strength, shot, you name it — required in an elite-level forward. He’s a key cog on a Maple Grove No. 2 forward line that doesn’t get much attention despite dominating opponents all season. Gunderson enters the Tourney with 47 points, third most on a Crimson team loaded with superstars.
Pioneers forwards aren’t going to wow you with crazy high scoring totals. Not this deep and talented bunch, anyway. But they play responsible defense, hustle and grind from start to finish and score just enough. Godbout’s 26 points are third most on the team, and if a clutch goal is required he’s as likely as anyone to score it.
In normal circumstances it would seem strange that a player could score 50 points, including 28 goals in 21 games and go virtually unnoticed. Playing alongside Kyle Kukkonen is hardly normal circumstances. While Kukkonen receives semi loads full of attention, on and off the ice, Jacobs quietly scores goal after goal. And six of his goals have been game winners — impressive even though the Crimson have had only a few close games requiring clutch scoring.
Unless you’re a diehard Trojans fan, one of team’s parents, or part of the zany student section that dons wigs and helmets, you’ve probably never heard of Will Ingemann. If the Trojans can upend No. 2 seed Hill-Murray in Wednesday’s Class 2A quarterfinals (assuming the Pioneers are allowed to play), there’s no doubt the unflappable Ingemann will leave blocker, catching glove and goalie stick prints all over the game. He might even become a household name.
Gentry Academy's Alex Timmons is one of three finalists for the Frank Brimsek Award that goes to the state's top senior goaltender. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
The Stars have been so dominant this season Timmons could have comfortably spent most games sending text messages and making social media posts while in the crease and his sparking statistics would be none the worse for wear. But when called upon to make a clutch save or two — or five or six — as he was in a section final against Mahtomedi, Timmons came through in spectacular fashion. Other observers have seen enough to be fully impressed, too, as he’s one of three finalists for the Frank Brimsek Award that goes to the state’s top senior goaltender.
OK, so Donovan’s impressive stat line — 25 goals, 25 assists, 50 points — is in large part a byproduct of playing alongside the great Brody Lamb. But then, we wonder, how much does Lamb benefit from playing alongside Donovan the speed merchant? It’s all a moot point, given there’s no chance these best of friends will be split up. “They have a tremendous amount of chemistry,” Dodge County coach Nick Worden said. “(Donovan) is a high-energy player who’s really, really crafty.”
Law and Order for Andover means planting Law in front of the opposing goal during Huskies’ power plays and seeing how much abuse he can take. And how many goals Andover can score. The answer to both of those queries is lots and lots. While Law has been getting hacked and whacked, he also has managed to score four of Andover’s 53 power-play goals. Law and longtime D partner Weston Knox are also superb at holding the blue line and breaking up rushes in the neutral zone as they play well over half of every game.
At one point during the season rink workers might as well have parked a bulldozer in front of the goal, but only when Benson was about to shoot. The Dragons’ undisputed go-to guy for goals hit multiple posts during a run of bad luck that left him overwhelmed with frustration. But as Benson, a standout linebacker on the Dassel-Cokato football team, continued to shoot, good things suddenly happened. He scored, and scored and scored in LDC’s 4-3 section championship victory over Hutchinson, completing the hat trick with the winning goal with 5:16 left in the third period.
The kid who made the Flyers’ varsity as an eighth-grader isn’t all grown up yet, but Filippi is 6-foot-2 and getting stronger by the day. “He buckled down in the weight room this last year,” Little Falls coach Tony Couture said. Filippi, who leads the Flyers with 19 goals, has used his extra bulk to improve his shot. He also excels at football and baseball.
Offensive wizardry from a defenseman is always welcome. But there is an expectation from Green Wave coaches that some high-level defense will be played, too, between all those end-to-end rushes. Ausmus seems to have both ends of the rink figured out these days. “Where I have seen his game grow the most is defensively, his defensive awareness,” East Grand Forks coach Tyler Palmiscno said. Ausmus’ 33 points (9 goals, 24 assists) are second most on the team.
Trying to get Hoagland off the ice is as futile as shooing squirrels out of a bird feeder. “He’s kind of a die hard with his work ethic,” Northern Lakes coach Craig Larson said. “He’s the first one on the ice and the last one off every practice. He just loves the game.” One of the rare goaltenders who catches with his right hand, Hoagland’s “backwards” style has served him well. He ranks in a tie for seventh in the state with 14 wins and his .928 save percentage is good for 13th.
Here we go with another sophomore. And why not? Moorhead figured to be a team in transition this season, a team that would rely heavily on fresh faces with impeccable youth hockey credentials. How those players would fare against the big boys was the great unknown. Well, Bentz has done just fine for himself, leading the Spuds with 13 goals, including five on the power play.
Where did this guy come from? Pinoniemi, a third-liner most of his career, scored two goals as a sophomore in 2018-19 and one last season. Now look at him. Delano’s goal-scoring leader with 16 developed an air of confidence over the summer and the feel-good vibe has carried through this season. “Something about him, probably maturity, changed over the summer,” Delano coach Gerrit van Bergen said. “He’s had a big smile on his face every day, laughing in the locker room, laughing on the ice.”
It’s the year of the sophomore! Really, there are a bunch of great ones this season (with, spoiler alert, many more to come on this list). The son of Andover assistant coach Bill Thoreson, Gavyn, a Bantam AA phenom last season, leads the Huskies with 40 assists, with 15 of those coming on the power play. Thoreson, who also has 14 goals, has used his superior ice vision and passing skills to serve as the perfect complement to Huskies superstar Garret Schifsky.
Senior defenseman Matthew Fleischhacker is Hill-Murray's second-leading scorer with 28 points. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
The Pioneers have allowed a grand total of 21 goals this season, and six of those came in a wild 6-5 overtime loss to St. Thomas Academy on Feb. 6. Playing airtight defense can become monotonous game after game, so it’s understandable that Hill-Murray’s defensemen at times feel the need to stretch their legs with the occasional foray into the offensive zone. Fleischhacker’s 28 points are second most on the team. And he’s scored a healthy seven goals, two of them on the power-play.
The kid they call “Chelly” has seven two-goal games but, surprisingly, no hat tricks among his team-best 21 goals. “You see his face and you are like, ‘Yup, he’s a Chelly,’ ” Northern Lakes coach Craig Larson said. “He’s a neat kid.” Kjelstrom was the starting quarterback for the Aitkin High School football team that went 6-1 last fall. He’s also a baseball standout. Larson said he’s constantly amazed by Kjelstrom’s hand-eye coordination.
Playing against Blaisdell is about as fun as hugging a flaming cactus. One of the state’s top shutdown D men, Blaisdell especially enjoys getting up-close and personal with scoring superstars. Waseca sophomore Kyle Ahlschlager was on pace to contend for the state scoring title until back-to-back late-season run-ins with Blaisdell. Dodge County beat Waseca a combined 10-0 in those two games. “With these better players, you can’t give them the time and space and you have to be physical everywhere,” Blaisdell said. “You can’t let them breathe, pretty much.”
The son of Flyers coach Tony Couture, himself a standout goaltender during his playing days at International Falls and in college at North Dakota, Dane has absorbed more than a few tricks and tips from his dad over the years. Dane stopped a combined 78 of 80 shots shots in section semifinal and final victories, improving his save percentage to .922. The section title game against Fergus Falls, which extended into double overtime, was especially harrowing for players, coaches and fans for both teams — but not for Couture, who might as well have been reading classic literature for all the emotion he showed.
Defenders can bump him. They can jostle him. They can knock him to the ice again and again and again. It doesn’t matter, really, what tactics are employed on Panzer. He’s not going to stop chasing the puck or causing his special brand of mayhem. “He’s a puck hound,” East Grand Forks coach Tyler Palmiscno said. A star in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League last fall, Panzer is third on the Green Wave in scoring with 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists).
If it seems as if every Stars player is incredibly fast, that’s because it’s most certainly true. But watch them long enough and certain players, blurry as they are because they are moving at mach speeds, stand out. Hall is one of those players. A mountain biking fanatic who has been ranked No. 1 in the nation for his age group, Hall not only has that extra set of jets, but regular 60-minute-or-longer bike rides have built his endurance to ridiculous levels. “That’s why he can take two-minute shifts,” Gentry Academy co-head coach Joe Cullen said with a chuckle. Hall, playing alongside sniper Nick Sajevic for much of the season, has 20 goals and 34 points.
You know those superpests defensemen hate playing against? The guys who never stop moving their feet and treat every corner battle as if were the most recent version of Wrestlemania? Yeah? Well, Holt is one of those. Holt’s unmatched work ethic combined with the quick release of his laser shots make him one of the most dangerous forwards in the state. How dangerous? He’s scored 18 goals and has 48 points to rank second on the Eagles in both categories.
Goalies on great teams can get as lonely as lighthouse operators. For long stretches there’s not much to do, except watch from afar. While it would be easy to say Wieneke is overlooked and appreciated, that’s not really the case. He is one of three finalists for the Frank Brimsek Award that goes to the state’s top senior goaltender. As for being under appreciated, Wieneke’s teammates know his big-game capabilities, such as the 33 save performance he made in a late-season 3-2 victory at Andover. Wienke’s 18 wins are tops in the state, and his 1.39 goals against average is ninth best.
With standout senior Jake Keller unavailable for the state tournament with a broken collarbone, that means the Trojans are down to just one of their two Jakes. No worries, the rocket-powered Schneider, who leads Wayzata in goals (16) and points (28), will simply have to carry a bit more of the scoring load for a team that already relies heavily on its stingy defense and superb goaltending.
Senior forward Adam Brown has helped Delano reach three consecutive state tournaments. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
It’s impossible for a single player to simply will his team to victory. Or is it? If any player has the sheer determination — and size, speed and strength to go with it — to do incredible things, it is Brown. The son of former Delano coach Steve Brown, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Adam, also a football standout, leads the Tigers with 32 points. He’s scored 56 goals and 127 points in his four-year varsity career.
Defensemen eager to body check the slippery Furuseth would have an easier time wrapping their hands around an electric eel. Furuseth, who could stickhandle his way out of a cardboard box, is another star among Stars players. His 39 points are second most on the team and he anchors one of two (and often three) high-scoring Gentry Academy forward lines.
Sometimes it seems as though the lanky Langenbrunner is all elbows and knees, but he’s got some silky and smooth to him, too. The 6-2, 165-pound Langenbrunner, a fifth-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in October, is a key member of the Eagles’ Fifth Dimension group that has the ability to dominate games at any instant. He has four goals and 25 assists this season and, as a key member of Eden Prairie’s special teams unit, has registered 13 of his assists on the power play, a team high.
When Ludtke starts stickhandling at top speed the puck becomes nothing more than a black blur, his gloves double as mini tornadoes and stealing the puck from him is as futile as trying to rob Fort Knox. Ludtke’s emergence as a consistent scoring threat and skilled playmaker have allowed his forward line that includes seniors Cade Ahrenholz and Cam Boche, to be regarded by some as the best in the state. Ludtke’s 45 points are second most on the team.
He’s big. He’s athletic. He’s as cool as an Antarctic penguin. What more could you want in your goaltender? Sparkling Stats? He’s got those, too. The 6-3, 165-pound Erickson’s miniscule 1.18 goals against average is second-best in the state, and his .937 save percentage ranks fifth.
Blocking shots, slamming bodies, moving the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and efficiently … playing defense for the Trojans comes with a long list of prerequisites. Peters checks all the boxes and then some, considering he chips in a significant amount of scoring (4 goals, 16 assists).
For the uninitiated, it’s easy to confuse Wright for more acclaimed linemate Jackson Hallum. And at times the best buddies do indeed look like clones, given their similar speed, playmaking and scoring abilities. Wright, who has 15 goals and 21 assists, has been held without a point in just three games this season, impressive considering his dedication to defense is beyond reproach.
Always a physical force, Ahrenholz just keeps adding components to his already considerable game. Smooth skating? Check. Above average quickness? Check. Impeccable playmaking? Check. The straw that stirs Lakeville South’s dominant LAB line (Ludke, Ahrenholz, Cam Boche), Ahrenholz has 19 goals and 16 assists.
If Parker plays in the state tournament like he did in the Section 8A championship (1 goal, 4 assists in a 5-4 double overtime victory over Warroad), and there’s no reason to suggest he won’t, the Green Wave will be an exceedingly difficult team to beat. He’s scored 21 goals and added 21 assists for East Grand Forks this season, and would be at or top of any list of the state’s best players who haven't committed to a Division I program.
"Sarge" would be a perfectly fitting nickname for Sajevic, because every time he touches the ice he’s in charge. In charge of setting up plays, in charge of finishing plays, in charge of controlling all aspects of the game. His dragstrip speed and wicked shot allow him to be such a dominant player. He has team highs of 21 goals and 41 points.
Mittelstadt, a Mr. Hockey finalist with nine goals and 21 assists, is in the midst if one of his finest seasons. And that’s a mouthful, given that he’s been starring for the Eagles for three seasons, the first two of which have ended in the state championship game. Remarkably consistent, he scored 28 points as a sophomore, 28 points as a junior and has 30 points this season, with 32 of his career points coming on the power play.
Deemed too sick to play in last year’s championship game (perhaps in a sign of the craziness to come) Palodichuk, another Mr. Hockey finalist, has been a picture of health this season. He’s one of those rare dual-dominant players, meaning he plays both shutdown defense and often leads the charge offensively, too. He’s the Pioneers top scorer with 33 points (9 goals, 24 points).
Maple Grove defenseman Henry Nelson is a finalist for the Mr. Hockey award. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
The run on defensemen/Mr. Hockey finalists continues with Nelson, whose appetite for offense is insatiable. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t play some serious defense, too. Tangling with Nelson in the corners is about as fun as wrestling with a jaguar. In something of a surprise, Nelson has scored just seven of his 43 points on power plays.
How can a team that loses 15 seniors, all of them superb players, remain a powerhouse? The answer starts with Schifsky, who just might be the state’s best underrated/unknown/unheralded player. Schifsky’s 28 goals are almost twice as many as any other Huskies player. Schifsky cemented his Mr. MVP status by scoring all three goals in Andover’s 3-2 upset victory against Grand Rapids in the Section 7AA title game.
Boche has always been a good player. Bordering on great. So it seems weird to tag a player with Boche’s bona fides as, arguably, the most improved in the state. But the label fits, statistically speaking, as Boche has gone from a three-goal sophomore season to nine-goal junior season to 24-goal senior campaign. The Mr. Hockey finalist has all the skills, and he plays with a certain confidence or swagger that fits his dominance.
Blake’s ice vision or awareness is such that, really, he doesn’t need vision at all. He could whip behind-the-back passes to teammates blindfolded, if so required. Blake draws defenders like moths to a streetlight, and then threads impossible passes to open linemates. A mini mite could score a dozen goals playing alongside the Eagles’ superstar. He’s got 17 goals and 30 assists despite missing the first five games of the season while playing junior hockey in the USHL.
One beneficiary of all those Blake passes is Batchelder, a Mr. Hockey finalist who leads the Eagles with 28 goals. The speedy, shifty, craft (pick an adjective, any adjective) Batchelder with the puck on his stick in scoring position isn’t guaranteed to produce a goal, but who would bet against him?
Anyone who knows anything about Hallum knows that he’s fast. Not just regular fast. But fast as in fast. Hallum’s jeresey-flapping-in-the-breeze speed is reminiscent of that of former Edina twin turbo Sammy Walker. A third-round pick by the Vegas Golden Knights in October’s NHL Draft, Hallum leads the Cadets with 24 assists and 41 points. His 17 goals are tied for the team lead. He’s also a Mr. Hockey finalist.
We present the last, and best, of the super sophs. How good is Plante? We’re about to find out, as he’ll hit the ice with Hermantown’s junior varsity (most of the rest of the Hawks' varsity players are in COVID-19 quarantine) in an attempt to engineer what would be one of the most unusual and talked about upsets in state tournament history.
Dodge County junior Brody Lamb is the state scoring leader with 76 points. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Some opposing coaches believe Lamb, still growing into his body, is only going to get better. Significantly better. Others say he has the type of toughness and grit rarely seen in such a pure scorer. Speaking of scoring, Lamb leads the state with 42 goals and 76 points and conjures images of another southern Minnesota scoring phenom in Rochester John Marshall’s legendary Scott Lecy.
Maple Grove's Kyle Kukkonen is the state's No. 2 scorer with 72 points and a leading candidate to win the Mr. Hockey award. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
He’s a Mr. Hockey candidate, of course. And so much more. If Kukkonen is going good, and he always is, so are the Crimson. Of the ice, in practice, during games — everything Maple Grove does revolves around its fiercely determined superstar. After missing most of last season with a broken leg, Kukkonen (second in the state with 72 points) will settle for nothing less than a state title. Good luck trying to stop him.