A Midsummer Night’s Hockey Notes

29 Jul

We’re over halfway through the long, dark tunnel of summer without high school hockey, and there have even been some summer tournaments in recent weeks to give a faint glimmer of what’s to come. Still, there’s been no shortage of news of late, so it’s worth rounding some of it up here.

Coaches Come and Go

It hasn’t been a quiet summer on the coaching carousel. Two longtime coaches with 13 State Tournaments between them, Russ Welch at Hastings and Erik Setterholm at New Ulm, made their way to the exits. Welch’s nephew Adam takes over along the Mississippi, while the kings of 3A have gone with Ryan Neuman. Aaron Weber, long a polarizing figure at Lakeville South, gives way to newcomer A.J. Bucchino. Some familiar names came in to help teams return to glory or seek it for the first time: Grant Clafton at Greenway, Billy Hengen at Providence Academy, and Mark Parrish at Orono. (Maybe a big name here will placate the Orono parents in a way their last thirty-seven coaches failed to do.)

Scott Brokaw, an active figure in the offseason training world, moves from Providence Academy to Mounds View. In the theater of the bizarre, Matt Funk takes over at the head of rising St. Paul Academy after Bill Owens got the can in the middle of the playoffs, while Scott Steffen takes the place of Tom Benson, who was rewarded for taking Spring Lake Park to its first Tourney with a pink slip. St. Cloud Cathedral, a regular Class A contender, has a vacancy after Erik Johnson’s retirement. As I covered in an earlier post, John Rothstein left Grand Rapids, and well-regarded bantam coach Trent Klatt has taken the reins.

Exit Tyler Palmiscno

The biggest, and perhaps most unexpected, retirement came from Tyler Palmiscno, the coach of two-time defending Class A champion East Grand Forks. It was a prolific 7-year career for Palmiscno; he came along at the right time, as the Green Wave surged in talent and peaked in his three final years. But his growth over that time was very visible to anyone watching. They went in to the 2013 Tourney raw and survived a Rochester Lourdes comeback in the first round, and after skating fairly evenly with dynastic St. Thomas Academy early in their semifinal, a train wreck ensued. It was 11-0 by the time the carnage was over, and the Green Wave lost the third place game to Breck. Their coach struggled to find words to describe what had happened.

The Green Wave rolled back in with added power in 2014, and this time around, there were no Cadets in the way. A visibly more composed Palmiscno projected a low-key determination as his team marched to a clearly deserved title. And then, in 2015, they came into the Tourney with a team that clearly wasn’t the most talented, but was the most complete team. This is my style of hockey: they weren’t the perfect team, but they knew their strengths and weren’t afraid to flaunt them. Their performance against Mahtomedi was a message to Hermantown, and the rest of the state: the Hawks weren’t in some league of their own. “We wanted to turn it into a man’s game,” Palmiscno told the press after the win. The Green Wave had the swagger of champions, took the game to Hermantown, and had the composure to respond like coolly when things did fall apart in the final minute of the third period.

For now, it sounds like Palmiscno is content with his work and on to other things in life; one hopes there is no more to this story, and that his departure isn’t a rude shock to his program. And if I’m sad to see Palmiscno go, I can’t help but relish the possibility that Scott Oliver will climb back into the saddle. Oliver has a state championship ring from his days at the helm at Roseau, and these Green Wave teams bore his unmistakable mark. The talent pool is thinner than the past few years, but they still have a couple of top-end players, and should be right there with Thief River Falls in the hunt for an 8A title. If they can make it back to St. Paul, they know what to do once they’re there.

Elite League Rosters

The fall Elite League rosters came out last week. As usual, there’s room for some wrangling, especially when it comes to the younger players selected. Unlike some, I’m not one to deny underclassmen roster spots if they’re legitimately good enough to hang with the seniors, but one does hope that no seniors are being left without places to pay because they’ve been cut. Of more concern is the tendency of a handful of teams to dominate the list, and the fact that large portions of the state seem to get shut out; like it or not, this will lead to cries of nepotism.

The biggest surprise is Stillwater’s six players in the league, a figure that ties them for the most in the state. None of these Ponies are can’t-miss studs (pun intended), but it’s worth remembering that their bantam team was one of the two or three best in the state two years ago. There’s no reason that city can’t develop a front-line program, and it may finally be happening.

The others with six are Benilde, always near the top of this list no matter how the team does, and Hermantown, peaking in upper-class talent and a northern team. Team North draws from the smallest pool of players—it’s basically 7A and the four northern 7AA teams, plus the East Grand Forks kids who can’t play for Scott Oliver—so team numbers at the top schools will look inflated. It is here that the choosing of younger players can be most extreme: three of Grand Rapids’ five invitees were bantams last year. (Duluth East is an exception to that trend; all five Hounds are seniors, and I can’t remember a sophomore Hound participant despite some worthy contenders over the years.) When the number of schools is smaller (and alternatives more limited, thanks to geography), there are going to be some more odd figures—even though North has no trouble fielding a competitive team.

The Metro and southern part of the state, meanwhile, has six and a half AA sections and (ostensibly) four Class A sections feeding in to four teams. Given that tight competition, there’s going to be some extra scrutiny on the handful of younger kids who make it, and the lack of variety among the teams represented. I don’t watch the tryouts so I won’t judge if anyone else should be there, but the Elite League could do itself some favors by pulling out some of the people with the most blatant ties to high school programs.

As always, some of the omissions are the most striking, as they clue us into who is playing in the USHL during the fall. Whether they’ll stay there over the course of the season may be another story. No matter what, though, it looks like there will be significantly fewer early departures this season than in recent years. I’ll wait to judge that until we know if it’s a trend or a one-year blip, but it’s worth noting.

Pre-Pre-Preseason Ranking Talk

It’s never too early to get this going, is it?

A vague consensus seems to be forming around Eden Prairie as the top team in AA. Michael Graham (assuming he returns) and Casey Mittelstadt alone are enough to make them a factor, and with the program’s considerable depth, they’ll be well-supported. Add in the past success of Lee Smith’s Eagles when blessed with teams that clearly lead the way in raw talent, they’re the cautious favorites.

Still, this promises to be one of the more open years. Defending state champ Lakeville North returns a fair amount of firepower, but has to replace its heart and soul, that dominant blue line. They’ll be the favorite in 1AA, but it’s hardly the cakewalk it was the past two years. Speaking of cake, Edina is still Edina, but has to replace far more than usual; St. Thomas Academy is also in reload mode. Wayzata or Benilde-St. Margaret’s, if either one can fix long-running and obvious shortcomings at one end of the rink, could dethrone Edina in a retooled 6AA. In 2AA, Minnetonka pushed Eden Prairie to the brink last season, and Prior Lake’s steady rise could continue, too. I have some issues with the new sections, including the indefensible imbalances the MSHSL has left in the number of teams across sections and a couple of weird placements, but I do think the new 2AA and 6AA are more equitable than they were in the past.

Realignment has also given the Cadets the only serious threat to their primacy in a weak 3AA in the form of Bloomington Jefferson; the baby blue, freed of a road to State through Edina, may be relevant again now. Aforementioned Stillwater, and perhaps White Bear Lake, will give Hill-Murray a run in 4AA. 5AA, while lacking an elite team, should be competitive among the familiar faces, and Centennial’s future looks very bright. Up north, Grand Rapids, Duluth East, and Bemidji all return substantial chunks of teams that showed that they—at their best, at least—could hang with the state’s top squads. The well-balanced Hounds need to prove last year’s run wasn’t just a fluke, while the future is now for the Thunderhawks and the Lumberjacks. Both will have their deepest and most experienced teams in quite some time.

In Class A Hermantown remains the perpetual favorite; with a weaker bantam class feeding in they may not be as deep as this past year, but the front-end talent is all right there, and Wyatt Aamodt may be the best player in the class. Hibbing may be good enough to give them a decent run in 7A, but anything less than another title game appearance would be a disappointment in Hermantown. In the Metro, defending section champs Mahtomedi and Breck return good cores, though should have good competition. With their defending champions realigned, 1A and 5A are wide open, while Luverne will try to atone for last year’s slip-up in sections in 3A. The usual suspects will duke it out in 8A.

For my money, though, the best story in Class A this coming year will be St. Cloud Apollo. The Eagles, semifinalists a year ago, return a lot of talent, including three elite-leaguers. They should be the favorites in a competitive 6A. Their program is also fighting for its life. The youth players in St. Cloud aren’t being distributed equally, and Apollo could face a legitimate, unexpected numbers crisis as early as the 2016-2017 season. One hopes they get some exposure and the resources necessary to keep a good thing going on the west side of St. Cloud.

Hockey Day in Duluth

In an announcement sure to delight any Duluthian, Hockey Day in Minnesota will take place in Duluth this year, with a pair of high school games in Bayfront Park on February 6. Denfeld will play Eveleth-Gilbert in the early game before East takes on Lakeville North in a rematch of the AA state championship. The first game, if not as crisp as the one likely to follow, should be a competitive one for a pair of 7A teams with some good history to their names. The East-North game, meanwhile, could well be a top ten clash. No matter what happens, it probably can’t be worse than East’s last Hockey Day appearance, and it will be hard to beat the site. Let’s start the countdown.

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