The Upper Midwest High School Elite League made its annual venture north to Duluth this weekend, and the four participating teams were treated to an absolutely miserable fall day, with driving rain and 50 MPH winds whipping up off Lake Superior. Sometimes it seems like there is no such thing as neutral weather in Duluth: either it is something out of a dream, or it makes you wonder why on earth humans inhabit this corner of the earth. This, perhaps, is the reason Duluthians are so happy to retreat to hockey rinks, as I did for both Saturday sessions. It was a good sneak preview at some of the players on the teams that will be gracing my rankings once the high school season starts in November. Some notes on each of the teams:
Team Southwest is anchored by a bunch of Edina players, and they were all in on the act on Saturday. Dylan Malmquist was his usual flashy self, and his absence from the lineup in the second game of the day showed up clearly in Southwest’s offensive output; Miguel Fidler and Cullen Munson brought a physical, two-way game to the table. Tyler Nanne has moved back to defense, a sensible move given Edina’s losses on the blue line from last season’s state champions, and he looked every bit the star offensive defenseman with his superb skating, though he took an ugly five-minute major near the end of the second game. The rest of the Southwest defense had good size, though was not beyond a few lapses. Among the forwards, Johnny Panvica flashed good speed and a decent scoring touch, Joseph Marooney of Holy Family Catholic had some slick moves off of faceoffs, and the Prior Lake pair of Will Reedy and Jack Murphy had some good moments. Elk River goalie Maclean Berglove had a strong weekend that included a shutout in the Sunday session, which I did not attend.
A five-goal game is usually a good way to turn some heads, and Benilde-St. Margaret’s’ Spencer Naas showed off his sniping abilities against Team North, abusing North goalie Gabe Heifort high to the glove side. Unlike some other teams, Northwest seemed to have a set power play unit; I’m really not a big fan of that in a league that is supposed to be for development and showcasing of everyone, not just one line, but I sure don’t blame the players for that, and Naas deserves credit for taking advantage. Edgy Elk River forward Chase Springman was a force on the forecheck throughout, Wayzata’s Max Zimmer worked well with Naas, and Calvin Spencer was a decent player who I hadn’t seen before. On defense, Johnny Austin showed good chemistry with his Benilde teammate Naas on the power play, while Travis Brown of Rogers and Chandler Lindstrand of Wayzata had solid defensive games. Wayzata’s Vaughan Ahrens probably had the best goaltending performance on the day.
Team Great Plains
Sorry, North Dakota; comments are on Minnesota players only.
Great Plains came into the weekend in the Elite League cellar, but while they may not have the top-end talent of some of the other teams, a 2-0-1 showing proved they certainly aren’t on some level below the rest of the league. Will Borgen of Moorhead looked to be the most complete member of the Great Plains defensive corps, and showed good chemistry when paired with fellow potato Alex Mehnert. Unfortunately, the Roseau players didn’t make the trip; I was hoping to measure some of the Rams’ stars against their counterparts at Moorhead and Brainerd in an effort to handicap the 8AA playoff race. The numerous Warroad players all had some quality flashes, suggesting we’re in for a great race between the Warriors and East Grand Forks in 8A, and Thief River Falls can’t be counted out either, as Prowlers had good showings from Isak Bergland and goaltender Tanner Holmes. I got my first look at Luverne sophomore Toby Sengvonxay, who impressed me with his poise; I figured a hyped prospect from a weak hockey corner of the state might look a bit unpolished, but there was none of that from the kid with the best last name in high school hockey. Speaking of good names, 6’3” Will Hammer of St. Cloud Cathedral was Great Plains’ most dangerous forward, and teammate Tommy Hall proved most adept at balancing a puck atop his helmet.
St. Thomas Academy’s Christiano Versich had the speed and hands to match anyone on the ice on Saturday, though he had a tendency to try to stickhandle through forests of defenders when he had other options. The line anchored by the East Grand Forks duo of Dixon Bowen and Tanner Tweten was North’s most consistent, and Cloquet’s Koby Bender had some good flashes. Beastly defenseman Eddie Eades of East Grand Forks made all 6’4.5” of his presence felt when on the ice, despite some roughness around the edges. The defensive pairing of Tye Ausmus (East Grand Forks) and Alex Trapp (Duluth East) was the most reliable group Team North had; despite being eight inches shorter than Eades, Trapp threw just as many big hits as his teammate, and seemed to be making plays all over the ice. As has often been the case, Team North, led by former Greenway coach Pat Guyer, seemed to have the best team concept of anyone involved, and while that can hurt the win-loss record, I commend the North staff for staying true to the mission of the league. It was a tough weekend for North, which was without the services of Grand Rapids goalie Hunter Shepard and also pressed a different defenseman into forward duty each day.
In the Duluth area, much has been made of the presence of non-northern players on this team. In this case, however, the forward point totals speak for themselves. If North were to stay true to the old Section 7 region, they’d have a very small number of programs to rely on, and this just isn’t a great year for upper-class talent for most of them. Hermantown, Grand Rapids, and Duluth East will be good teams, but they’re also fairly inexperienced, and each has a would-be senior playing in the USHL (two of which will be playing high school hockey this winter). Duluth Marshall is deep, but also a bit on the young side and lacking in any real established stars; the Iron Range collectively is down, and Cloquet suffered a large exodus after last season’s coaching controversy. Some years, as in the past two, there is enough talent from this region to field a quality Elite League team; in others, there just aren’t enough teams feeding in to pull it off.
If anything, there might be an argument that a couple of local seniors should have been playing instead of local underclassmen. This renews one of the oldest Elite League debates: is it better to take seniors with lower ceilings, knowing that this may be one of their last chances at exposure for the next level, or is it for younger, rawer players who are better D-I prospects? I tip toward the former option, as it’s become clear that there are a good number of seniors out there who are at least NAHL-caliber that don’t have a fall team. The important thing is that everyone who wants a place to play can find one, though private options (i.e. the Blades) are capable of filling that hole, too. I don’t have any trouble with young players being called up from the Elite Development League to fill in for absent players, and the Elite Development All-Star squad seems like a sensible concept that perhaps could be expanded to make sure younger players have opportunities to take on other top-end players. I’d even entertain the idea of dividing teams by age groups and having separate leagues along those lines, though I’d have to think through that idea further. I doubt this question will ever go away completely, but with some creativity, there are ways to quiet a few of the critics.
It can be fashionable to criticize the Elite League, but all in all, it was a fun day of competitive hockey. The list of scouts in attendance was respectable, and the league gives them a good chance to see through sometimes misleading stat totals and get an idea of how well players stack up against their more talented peers. When the coaches make an effort, there can be quality development here, too. So long as players are fighting for a finite number of post-high school spots, things are going to be cutthroat at times, and there will be perceptions of bias or politics no matter how the system is set up.
The Elite League (or any alternative model) can’t satisfy everyone all the time, but that’s no reason not to demand the best. The league just has to constantly make an effort to improve its product. Complacency and a repetition of the same old patterns just won’t do. So long as its directors stay on top of things, this league will be viable for years to come.
One last note: a shoutout to whoever shotgunned a beer in the men’s bathroom during the morning session. I do enjoy being back among hockey people.