October Hockey Notes: Northern Power

It’s not often one can glance up at the TV in a bar and see a kid he used to bump into in the hallway skating across the ice, but it happened to me this past weekend. Former Duluth East defenseman Derek Forbort made his NHL debut on Friday night, as he registered one shot in 11 minutes of ice time for the Los Angeles Kings in their overtime win over the Wild. Forbort is the sixth ex-Hound to appear in the big show, though he may soon have company in the form of a couple of UMD Bulldogs. It wasn’t the smoothest road to the show for Forbort—most of the other players drafted around him in the 2010 draft made their debuts years ago—but make it he has, and it was just one of a few highlights this past weekend for those of us with our roots in the North.

The NHL have been under way for a couple of weeks now, but the first major college series of the year, an early season home-and-home between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, ushered in the hockey season more properly. The two-game series revealed two teams in decidedly different places, and while the end result wasn’t an overwhelming surprise, the gulf between the two squads was the lingering takeaway. Minnesota Duluth’s 3-1 and 3-0 wins gave them six in a row over Minnesota dating back to last season, their greatest run of dominance over their southern rivals in school history.

The Bulldogs return a veteran core from a team that narrowly missed the Frozen Four a year ago, and after slipping up in their opener at Bemidji State, they looked the part against the Gophers. Two three-goal nights may not seem overwhelming, but their relentless pressure in the offensive zone had them in control for most of the series. It was offense-as-defense at its finest, with gaudy shot counts over the first four periods. Dom Toninato, ever a powerful presence, scored twice on the weekend; freshman Adam Johnson seamlessly slid into the Bulldog top line with Toninato and Alex Iafallo. All four lines were humming along, and the Bulldogs simply owned the neutral zone.

The Friday night performance was even more impressive considering the absence of the suspended Carson Soucy, whose tracer in the Saturday game—with some help from a Karson Kuhlman tip—gave the Bulldogs their second goal. The giant, physical defenseman is an imposing force, and he and Andy Welinski make for a dominating one-two blueline punch. One of the Bulldogs’ most apparent weaknesses this season is a lack of defensive depth, but after some rocky moments early in the first game, the greener UMD defensemen all settled in and had solid series. The difference in comfort of the new arrivals was one of the distinct differences between the Bulldogs and Gophers all weekend long. It’s Frozen Four or bust in Duluth this year.

For their part, the Gophers came out with good energy in the opening ten minutes of both games, pushing the pace and forcing some quality saves out of Kasimir Kaskisuo. Other than that, they only showed life once down 3-0 in the second game. Their two returning stars, Hudson Fasching and Justin Kloos, disappeared for stretches of the first game, at times trying to do too much on their own. Taylor Cammarata, the poster child for the Gophers’ lack of fight a year ago, looked more willing to go into corners, but is ill-equipped to do much once there. Brent Gates Jr. got the lone goal of the weekend, while Tommy Novak was probably the most consistently useful of the freshmen.

This isn’t wildly unexpected. These Gophers are young, and looking to recover from a veteran-laden season that went all wrong. Even so, teams lose as much as they do year to year and get by just fine. They’ve scored just once in three games, and the whole clearly does not match the sum of the parts. There is too much talent here to languish in a cellar. The effort of some of the forwards gets the most flak, but I’ll point to a number of sophomore and junior defensemen who have yet to live up to the hype: they are far too soft in their own zone, and the fluid puck movement that should be the Gophers’ staple has degenerated into blind outlet passes. Add in a coaching staff that doesn’t seem willing to adapt a system to the team they have, and there is a recipe for ugliness. Yes, it’s still early. But they need to turn things around before Big Ten play starts, or the whispers about Don Lucia will grow louder.

On the high school side of things, there’s less than a month until practice opens, and the Elite League is deep into its second half. So far, the league has been owned by Team North, a squad that has just three schools—Grand Rapids, Hermantown, and Duluth East—accounting for the vast majority of its players. With Bemidji looking strong as well, this could be a banner year for the North. East’s Luke Dow and Ash Altmann are flashing their offensive talent and are the top two forwards, though the team’s leading scorer is the sublimely silky Scott Perunovich, a Hibbing defenseman and future Bulldog. He and Hermantown’s Wyatt Aamodt make for a defensive pair no other Elite League team can match.

Future Gopher Casey Mittelstadt is the Metro area’s finest player, though he relinquished the league scoring lead to Breck’s Chase Ellingson while off playing for the national team this past weekend. Team Northeast is Stillwater-heavy, but their two big guns are Luke Notermann of Blaine and Will Garin of Holy Family. Team Southwest, home to the Edina and Prior Lake contingents, has lined the cellar so far, and the Great Plains group shows flashes. Mittelstadt joins the returning Lakeville North crew along with some Hill-Murray boys in leading team Southeast; they’re locked in a battle for second in the standings with Northwest, whose scoring beyond Ellingson is probably the league’s most balanced. They also boast its top goalie to date, Alex Schilling of Wayzata.

The last few weeks of the Elite League will provide a few more clues as I go about readying the preseason AA rankings. I’ve started to comb over team lists in my spare time, and I’ve put a few rough orders on to paper. They’ll be out in less than a month. Yes, Minnesota, hockey season is finally here.

A Midsummer Night’s Hockey Notes

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.

2013 Elite League Musings

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

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.

Team Northwest

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.

Team North

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.