We’re finally here: the 2019-2020 season begins with its first few games tomorrow night. A preseason podcast and my AA rankings have already made their way out into the world, and my next task is to write a foreword for a book. If you need more hockey coverage to pass the time between now and puck drop, though, here are five storylines as we head into a new decade of high school hockey.
Changing of the Guard? Three perennial State Tournament contenders, Edina, St. Thomas, and Duluth East, have been decimated by graduation and departure; while they will remain relevant to varying degrees, this season has a chance to bring out a lot of new faces. The top teams in St. Thomas and East’s sections, Rosemount and Andover, respectively, have never been to AA State; Edina’s chief antagonists include a Benilde team that has only been twice in AA and a Blake team that’s never been. These aren’t minor transitions, either: every one of those teams is a state title contender in a pretty open race. History tells us the old powers don’t go quietly, but there is a chance at a lot of fresh blood in the AA Tourney this season.
Eagles in Formation? Eden Prairie is #1, and its collection of star power on the defending runners-up is among the more impressive out there. The questions begin right after that, though. With Mason Langenbrunner arriving from Cloquet, Ben Steeves from New Hampshire, and Jackson Blake up from bantams via Shattuck, there are legitimate questions as to how this team will jell. There’s also very little varsity experience beyond their collection of stars. Can they get enough out of some very green depth players to hold up against the other top few teams, most of which can go at least three lines deep?
Defense wins championships? The unifying trend across the top AA teams is the quality of the defense. Headliners like Eden Prairie’s Luke Mittelstadt (now united with Langenbrunner), Benilde’s Nate Schweitzer, Andover’s Wyatt Kaiser, and Rosemount’s Jake Ratzlaff will get the attention, but these teams are all deep in back, capable of rolling two or three pairs and confident they won’t see a drop-off. Goals could be at a premium in some marquee matchups this season. And in a year when defense may lead the way, who can get the most out of their forwards?
The Lake gets deeper For years, the Lake Conference has been the undisputed cream of the crop in Minnesota, and the small size of this five-team festival allowed its powers to load up on nonconference schedules that were always the best in the state. Now, though, things are changing: St. Michael-Albertville and Buffalo, two interesting though hardly top-tier programs, have joined the fray. The powers now have smaller nonconference slates, which creates less crossover and sets up a little more ranking intrigue; the changes will also spare us three annual Edina-Eden Prairie meetings. I, for one, am glad to see a new wrinkle in a conference that tended to feel repetitive by season’s end.
A Class A Slugfest If AA is fairly open this season, Class A is a different, though equally enticing story: the front-end talent on the top three teams is the best it’s been in years. Defending champ St. Cloud Cathedral returns most of its core, Hermantown boasts Blake Biondi and Joey Pierce, and East Grand Forks has loaded up with some star young talents and an acquisition from North Dakota. If those three make it through to semifinal Friday in March, we’ll have a few heavyweight fights to decide a state title.
It’s not always that easy, though: throw in some added intrigue up north with rising Warroad, ever-present Thief River Falls, Greenway’s continued relevance, and a peaking Eveleth group, and we have the makings of some good races. Outside of steady Mahtomedi, the metro sections of Class A feel as unsettled as they ever have, which leaves an opening for someone new to crash the party. My fun pick to watch this season, though, is a North Branch team that has a shot at being the first seeded team from 5A in its present form.
As always, follow along as you please and send your thoughts my way. I’m headed to the Twin Cities this weekend to catch my first few games of the season, and action in the Duluth area will begin in earnest after Thanksgiving. See you at the rink!