The Minnesota high school hockey season is upon us this week, and I took care of my big preseason obligations a few days ago, as preseason AA rankings and a preseason Youth Hockey Hub podcast made their way into the world. But, as always, I like to spill out a few more written thoughts that can’t fit within the confines of a ranking system or that I struggled to slip in edgewise amid Danny and Tony’s prattling. Here are a few storylines that I think are worth watching:
The Big Four…Or Is It? Last season we basically knew who the top four AA teams were from start to finish: Minnetonka, Edina, Duluth East, and St. Thomas Academy. This time around, everyone in the preseason rankings business pretty much agrees on the top four, which takes last year’s list and swaps out St. Thomas for Andover. However, I’m not convinced that top four is as rigid as it was a year ago. Tonka is missing Bobby Brink, Edina doesn’t have the scoring depth it did a year ago, East has a few questions in back, and Andover’s star power isn’t quite on the level of those three and is very new to all of this. All four are in tough sections, and of course East and Andover have to go through each other to get to State. Will any of them crack?
Purple Power? Three teams in purple sweaters, while not their section frontrunners, are set to grab some attention this season. Cretin-Derham Hall was the most successful of this group a season ago, as they flirted with the top five and showed a lot of offensive punch behind Matt Gleason, who is one of the state’s finest talents. On the west side of the metro, Chaska has a deep group of D-I players, and while they’ll need to develop a supporting cast to get on the level of the aforementioned Big Four, it’s not hard to imagine it happening. Cloquet, meanwhile, is one of the bigger wild cards in the state. The Langenbrunner brothers are stars and they have a deep group of forwards, but can first year head coach Shea Walters put it all together?
Blast from the Past? The Class A contender list this season features a bunch of teams whose names evoke past glory days. Greenway will have its best chance to break Hermantown’s monopoly and earn a trip to State. Warroad has one of its best teams in years, and is looking to end an eight-year Tournament drought. And while they’ll face a tall order to get anywhere near Hermantown and Greenway, Virginia and Eveleth both bring back a bunch of players from teams that experienced some youth success. On the whole it looks like a good year for northern and central Minnesota in Class A, and even the champions of 1A and 3A return a lot and could be more competitive than those sections often are. The metro only has one real surefire top ten team (Mahtomedi), plus another on the bubble in defending champion Orono.
An Open Mr. Hockey Race? Ryder Donovan of Duluth East is probably the favorite right now based on his draft status and ability to put up big points. At this time last year, the name thrown around most often was probably Jack Jensen of Eden Prairie, and while injuries and his team’s struggles a season ago may have changed that, he’s still an excellent player capable of putting his team on his back. The last nine winners have been forwards, but two defensemen have a chance to break through this season in Minnetonka’s Josh Luedtke and Chaska’s Mike Koester. (These things seem to ebb and flow: before the streak of forwards started, we had a run of five straight defensemen.) I think it’s Donovan’s to lose, but it could be a good fight throughout.
Early Clues? It seems like there’s an inordinate number of good games early in the season this year. The first couple weeks bring us some heavy hitters in the Youth Hockey Hub Opener and the Wayzata Turkey Trot, plus the Duluth East-Andover marquee matchup on December 8. Teams ranging from St. Thomas Academy to Chaska have frontloaded schedules when it comes to quality opponents, and some realignment in holiday jamborees has given some life to some affairs that had become rather flat and predictable meetings of the same teams over and over again. (None of the big ones are really tournaments anymore, which I think is boring from a fan perspective but understand given the convenience for roster management.) With many teams settling into conference schedules from January on, the big matchups that may define the
As usual, Thanksgiving travel will limit my hockey intake on the opening weekend. I plan to start my season with a trip to the cradle of Minnesota high school hockey with a trip to the Eveleth Hippodrome on November 29 to see the Golden Bears collide with the Chaska Hawks. (Some of the game, anyway; I have a work commitment elsewhere on the Range that evening, too.) Duluth East, which will naturally be the subject of a few posts on this blog over the course of the season, opens the next night at home against White Bear Lake, which has been a pest in the two teams’ most recent meetings. After that, we’re off to the races, with Cloquet the next day and that looming East-Andover dogfight the following weekend. See ya at the rink.