Edina tops the Way-to-Early Top 10 rankings. Photo by Rick Orndorf
With the 2015-16 season in the books and the high school hockey doldrums setting in, it is only natural for fans to begin to look ahead to next season and wonder how their teams will stack up when games begin in November.
Ranking next season's top 10 teams in early March is a difficult task, one that would become even more complicated if potential early departures were factored in. With this in mind, the list was assembled assuming every non-senior will be back with their high school team next season.
Obviously, we do not live in an idealistic high school hockey utopia where every player plays out their entire high school career, but for the sake of the exercise, assuming no players will be leaving early was the best way to evaluate the teams. Naturally, things will change and rosters will look different when November rolls around, but here's one guy's attempt at ranking the Class 2A field.
Without further ado, here is the Way-Too-Early Top 10:
After suffering a "down year" this season, Edina should bounce back with a more typical Hornets squad. Edina coach Curt Giles and the Hornets will return their leading scorers in Sam Walker, Ben Copeland and Bram Scheerer. They also return two Gopher commits on the back end in Ben Brinkman and Clayton Phillips. Brinkman is considered one of the country's best players born in 2000 and received an invitation to the USA Hockey National Team Development Program evaluation camp in late March. The ninth-grader is a favorite to make that team, so his status will be worth monitoring. With or without Brinkman, the Hornets could have the most talented team in the state. Factor in a top 5-ranked bantam AA team, and the future looks bright yet again for Edina.
A loaded junior class will help the Ponies make up for the losses of Star Tribune All-Metro first-team goalie Josh Benson and Michigan Tech commit and Class 2A all-tournament team member Jackson Cates. The main cogs in the class are leading scorer Noah Cates, TJ Sagissor and Luke Manning, who all accounted for 145 points this season and should have no problem carrying the load on offense. In goal, there's no one better suited to fill Benson's large shoes than 6-foot-5 junior Seth Eisele. Eisele won all four of his starts and posted a .931 save percentage this season. Juniors Jesse Bjugstad and Jack Mapstone will provide stability on the back end.
The state champs used their depth to wear down teams throughout the state tournament, and thanks to that depth, they should not experience much of a dropoff next season, despite losing a talented group of seniors. The Trojans graduate two Division I-bound forwards in Senden and Duma, but bring back leading goal scorer Colin Schmidt, junior Tyler Stevens and state semifinal hero Griffin Ness. Defense will once again be the calling card for Wayzata. Five of the six defenders from their state championship lineup will return, including the top blue line pairing of Hank "The Hammer" Sorensen and Nebraska-Omaha commit Grant Anderson - a duo that could be the best in the state next season. The pair logged heavy minutes against top lines as the Trojans allowed only five goals in three state tournament games. Reid Waszczenko likely will take over the goaltending duties from Schilling; Waszczenko posted a .919 save percentage in limited action this season.
Despite losing playoff starter Shawn Durocher, goaltending should not be an area of concern for the state runner-up Eagles. Junior Nick Wiencek split time with Durocher during the regular season and posted a 9-4 record, including a 28-save shutout of Burnsville. Junior Nicky Leivermann returns on defense and could sneak into the Mr. Hockey conversation. The big issue when discussing Eden Prairie is the status of star forward Casey Mittelstadt. Mittelstadt finished with 80 points this season and had one of the best state tournament performances in recent memory, posting 12 points in three games. The Mr. Hockey award would be his to lose if he were to come back next season, but at this point, his return seems unlikely. Green Bay holds Mittelstadt's rights in the USHL, and there's even been speculation that he could accelerate his studies and join the Gophers next season. We saw Blaine's Riley Tufte come back for his senior season, win Mr. Hockey and solidify his NHL first-round draft status, so it wouldn't be unprecedented for Mittelstadt to return. Eden Prairie fans can hope he stays for his senior season, similar to past Eagles' greats Nick Leddy and Kyle Rau. For the sake of these rankings, we are working under the assumption that he will, but that could change quickly. Without No. 11, Eden Prairie would slide but stay in the top 10 thanks to Leivermann, Wiencek and talented forwards Nolan Sullivan and Hunter Johannes.
This year, Elk River's roster featured only three seniors, and the leading scorer among the trio finished seventh on the team in goals. With 88 percent of the team's scoring returning, it is hard to imagine the Elks not taking a huge step forward. Leading scorer Max Michaelis will join fellow 30-point scorers Jax Murray, Jensen Zerban, Nate Horn and freshman Jack Perbix, a Notre Dame commit, to form one of the deepest forward groups in the state. Perbix's older brother Nick and fellow junior Benton Maass both served as captains this season and will bring experience and leadership to the defensive core. Junior goalie Benny Meyers will be back after winning 15 games this year. All the pieces are in place for a deep playoff run, but the Elks will have to find a way to topple traditional Section 7 powers Duluth East and Grand Rapids to reach the state tournament for the first time in 12 years.
The Pioneers return a scary amount of talent next season. Junior goalie Jake Begley and his sparkling .927 save percentage will man the net. Up front, leading scorer Marko Reifenberger will pair with Brock Bremer and future stars Dylan Mills and Ben Helgeson. On defense, the Pioneers featured two seniors this season, but the duo of Mr. Hockey finalist Staum and Sean Ryan will be difficult to replace. Assuming the remaining Pioneer defensemen pick up where Staum and Ryan left off, Hill-Murray should be a serious threat to grab the Section 4 title back from Stillwater.
The Cadets suffered an embarrassing 7-1 loss to Burnsville in the Section 3 championship, but will have the roster needed to reverse their fate next season. Seven of their 10 leading scorers will be back, led by sophomores Ray Christy, Payton Matsui and Chase Foley. Both goalies return, including sophomore starter Atticus Kelly, who posted a .942 save percentage in the regular season before hitting a rough patch in the section playoffs. Juniors Robbie Stucker and Jackson Shogren will anchor the blue line.
Lakeville North could have a serious Mr. Hockey contender in Ryan Poehling, should he return. Poehling put up 61 points in the season after he won a state tournament playing on a line with his brothers. The junior was taken first overall by Lincoln in the USHL entry draft and is playing out the rest of this season with the Stars. It is safe to assume Lincoln will make a strong push for his services next year, but Lakeville North fans will hope he follows in his brothers' footsteps and stays for his senior season. Joining him will be talented junior Henry Enebak, who finished with 51 points this season, and defenseman and Michigan Tech commit Keaton Pehrson. Junior goaltender Buzz Eigner will be back and looks to improve on his .887 save percentage from this season. The Panthers should be considered the favorites in Section 1, but to reach the state tournament, they will have to find a way to beat Farmington (gulp) and what should be a much-improved Lakeville South squad.
Few teams can lose a player with 136 career points, a second who was leading goal scorer on the season and third who was a Mr. Hockey finalist without missing a beat the next season. That is the situation the Thunderhawks face following the graduation of Bischoff, Adams and Mattson, yet Grand Rapids looks strong heading into next year. A potential line of Gavin Hain, Micah Miller and Blake McLaughlin is a big reason why. Miller was one of the most dynamic players in the state tournament, while Hain and McLaughlin opened eyes as sophomores in top-6 forward roles. Hain, a North Dakota commit, and McLaughlin, a Minnesota commit, both received USNTDP evaluation camp invites, so one - or both - joining the U-17 team could throw a wrench into things. However, with rock solid blueliner John Stampohar and impressive sophomore goalies Gabe Holum and Zach Stejskal, the Thunderhawks should be playing for another Section 7 championship at Amsoil Arena next February.
The Skippers lose a large amount of skill up front, but have a talented young core that should ease the rebuilding process. Joe Molenaar, TJ Rogers and Jack Bowman will lead the way on offense, while junior Zach VanSant should provide a steadying presence on defense. Sophomore K'Andre Miller made the switch from forward to defense this season and thrived. Miller is a star in the making, but is a risk to leave for the USNTDP after receiving an invite to the evaluation camp. Ninth-grader Grant Docter also impressed in his first varsity action. With the state's top Bantam AA team waiting in the wings, Minnetonka should make some noise but is likely a year away from making a real push at a state title.
11. Holy Family Catholic
12. Benilde-St. Margaret's
14. Lakeville South
16. Maple Grove
17. Duluth East
19. Prior Lake
1. Casey Mittelstadt, Eden Prairie
2. Ryan Poehling, Lakeville North
3. Scott Perunovich, Hibbing
4. Matt Anderson, Holy Family Catholic
5. Noah Cates, Stillwater