Season eight of rankings is here! As always, these are offered in the spirit of fun and good debate. The ‘schedule’ listed are a team’s games before December 6, when the first in-season rankings will come out. With no further ado:
1. Eden Prairie
-This isn’t a runaway number one, but the Eagles’ one-two punch of Michael Graham and Casey Mittelstadt is something no one can match, and they have decent depth and balance beyond them. There’s some question as to whether they can put it all together, but the Eagles tend to deliver when they’re favored, and they have enough firepower to rise to the top of a very convoluted top ten. They open with a bunch of teams on the bubble.
Schedule: 11/28 at Prior Lake, 12/3 at Farmington, 12/5 vs. Maple Grove
-There was a huge outflow of talent here, but the next Hornet golden generation is on the way, and any growing pains should be short-lived. The pipeline remains peerless, though they will need some players to step up into leadership roles. The defense in particular is inexperienced beyond Clayton Phillips, though they have no lack of quality bodies there. They have a new home in 6AA, which looks a bit harder than 2AA would have been. No one plays more over the first three weeks, which include a Turkey Trot, a new section opponent, and a tour of 5AA.
Schedule: Wayzata Turkey Trot—11/20 vs. #11 Holy Family, 11/21 vs. Maple Grove/#9 Wayzata; 11/24 vs. Farmington, 11/27 vs. Burnsville, 12/1 at Cretin-Derham Hall, 12/3 at Centennial, 12/5 vs. #7 Blaine
3. Lakeville North
-Like Edina, the Panthers lost a lot off of last season’s dominant squad, most notably in back. With Henry Enebak, Max Johnson, Taylor Schneider, and Ryan Poehling all back in the fold, they’ll score plenty, and there’s some decent talent here that didn’t get to see the ice much last season because of the players in front of them. If the depth holds up, they’ll be right back at the top of the heap again.
Schedule: 12/1 vs. #15 Stillwater, 12/5 at Shakopee
4. Grand Rapids
-The time has come for the Thunderhawks: they return a boatload of offensive talent, and a pair of rising sophomore stars to the mix. A thin defense could yet again be their Achilles’ Heel, and highly touted Zach Stejskal will have to carry the load in goal. They open up with three ranked opponents at home, then travel to face some northern foes.
Schedule: 11/24 vs. #8 Bemidji, 11/27 vs. #10 Minnetonka, 11/28 vs. #12 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 12/1 at Virginia, 12/4 at Roseau, 12/5 at Warroad
-New year, same old Hill: they may not be quite as deep as some of the other contenders, but they are well-balanced, and a full year of Jake Begley in goal will help the cause. While they may not have overwhelming talent in any one area, there’s quality everywhere, and with their characteristic depth, there’s no reason to bet against them yet. The early nonconference slate offers its share of challenges.
Schedule: 11/21 at Burnsville, 12/3 vs. #12 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 12/5 vs. #9 Wayzata
6. Duluth East
-East brings back a strong core from a team that could play with anyone by the end of last season; lest that playoff run seem like a fluke, their seniors had some strong fall performances and made a state championship game as bantams. If they can develop secondary scoring from their talented underclassmen, get good goaltending, and show some creativity while maintaining the classic East discipline, they’ll defend their 7AA perch. The early schedule is pretty easy after the Wayzata opener.
Schedule: 11/28 vs. #9 Wayzata, 12/1 at Cambridge, 12/3 at Apple Valley, 12/5 vs. Andover
-Riley Tufte and Luke Notermann give the Bengals a one-two punch right up there with Eden Prairie’s, and they have some good senior experience at all positions beyond them. That’s enough to make them odds-on favorites in 5AA and the Northwest Suburban Conference, though they’ll need to develop some secondary scoring to get any further than they did last year. They’ve got three warm-ups before heading to Edina.
Schedule: 11/24 at Osseo, 11/28 at Spring Lake Park, 12/3 vs. Totino-Grace, 12/5 at #2 Edina
-The Lumberjacks return practically everyone from a team that held its own at State last year. The biggest question mark is in goal, and quality depth on defense may also be a concern. The schedule is a bit tougher than last year, and some of the big games come early, as they take on Grand Rapids and host the section rival Spuds.
Schedule: 11/21 vs. St. Could Apollo, 11/24 at #4 Grand Rapids, 12/1 vs. Moorhead
-Last season slipped away from the Trojans, and they open under some scrutiny despite considerable talent. The pieces are there for a run, but they’ll need some offense and some leadership. They have the ability to beat Edina in 6AA, but with their schedule, they could get buried pretty quickly, too. This is a pivotal year for the direction of this program. They start out busy, with the Turkey Trot, a Duluth road trip, and Hill.
Schedule: Wayzata Turkey Trot—11/20 vs. Maple Grove, 11/21 vs. 11 Holy Family/#2 Edina; 11/27 at Hermantown, 11/28 at #6 Duluth East, 12/3 vs. Andover, 12/5 at #5 Hill-Murray
-The Skippers return plenty from a team that took Eden Prairie to overtime in a section final last year. There’s no overwhelming talent in the upper classes, but they are incredibly deep up front and have a quality goalie. Assuming the youth movement stays on track, they’ll be right there with the Eagles again this season. Defense is their biggest question mark. Nothing comes easy on this schedule, with a road trip north and some private schools to start things out.
Schedule: 11/27 at #4 Grand Rapids, 11/28 at Duluth Marshall, 12/4 at #11 Holy Family, 12/5 at #13 St. Thomas Academy
11. Holy Family
-Will Garin’s return has the Fire right back in the hunt. As usual, a handful of top-end players will put up big points, and with another year of experience, some of their young depth players should be able to help round out the lineup. They play a lot of early games, including the usual opener against Edina in the Turkey Trot, plus games with Breck and Minnetonka that could help their top ten credentials.
Schedule: Wayzata Turkey Trot—11/20 vs. #2 Edina, 11/21 vs. Maple Grove/#9 Wayzata; 11/28 vs. Lakeville South, 12/1 at Breck, 12/4 vs. #10 Minnetonka, 12/5 vs. New Prague
12. Benilde-St. Margaret’s
-Wayzata gets the flak for failing to live up to expectations, but that’s quietly been just as true for their section counterpart Benilde over the past three seasons. The Red Knights again have a mobile defensive corps and a handful of Elite League forwards, plus a goalie with some potential. But the offense doesn’t have the explosive power of some others, and we’ll have to see if they can go against their recent MO and play genuine defensive hockey. They open with five on the road, all against the top 25 and two against the top ten.
Schedule: 11/24 at St. Michael-Albertville, 11/27 at Duluth Marshall, 11/28 at #4 Grand Rapids, 12/1 at Burnsville, 12/3 at #5 Hill-Murray
13. St. Thomas Academy
-Few teams lost as much as the Cadets did over the offseason, and while they still have Billy Jerry and Jason Smallidge, they’ll be in more of a reload mode than anyone. The good news: they’re in a forgiving 3AA, meaning they’ll still be favorites to repeat. The big question is whether they can learn to play a more defensive style with less offensive firepower to bail them out; their first two years in AA have ended in upsets to hard-working, grinding teams. Can they be that sort of team themselves, and how quickly will the kids grow up? The early schedule is not overly difficult, though there are some section games and a battle with Minnetonka.
Schedule: 11/25 vs. Rosemount, 11/28 vs. Holy Angels, 12/3 at Eastview, 12/5 vs. #10 Minnetonka
14. Elk River
-Junior Jax Murray should have a breakout year, but the Elks are thin on experience and stuck in a section where their chief rivals are not. Still, the pipeline is feeding in a lot of good, young players. With all the attention on East and Rapids, they could easily crash the party if they can develop some depth and get over their Amsoil hex. They shouldn’t face much early competition.
Schedule: 11/28 at Armstrong-Cooper, 12/1 vs. Spring Lake Park, 12/3 vs. Champlin Park
-The Ponies return good forward depth and a strong goaltender from last season, and while they don’t have the can’t-miss stars of many teams here, there’s a lot of quality. The defense isn’t especially deep beyond Jesse Bjugstad, which is why they remain toward the back end of the top 15. Still, the Ponies look primed for a return to the 4AA title game, and they won’t be long-shot underdogs this time around. They open with a tough one against North before settling into the Suburban East, where they’ll be favored every night.
Schedule: 12/1 at #3 Lakeville North, 12/3 at Roseville, 12/5 vs. Cretin-Derham Hall
The Next Ten
-The Lakers return good forward depth from a team that spent some time in the top ten a year ago, and the goalie situation has also improved. They have top 15 talent, but we’re still waiting for this squad to really bust through and show they’ve arrived. They lead things off with a game against Eden Prairie.
-The Tigers are poised to continue their steady climb upward, as they return five of their top six scorers from last season. There’s a lot of ground to make up on Lakeville North, but for the first time, they have more than a distant shot. They’ve taken steps to make the nonconference schedule a lot harder, and have Edina in their second game.
-The Cougars return decent numbers from last year’s 5AA runner-up, and with a strong bantam team feeding in, they should be on the rise. With some balance between the returning seniors and rising sophomores, they’re a real threat to win the section. They host Edina in the first week of December, and follow that with a key section game against Anoka.
-This Cougar team revolves around its defense, where they have a couple of young budding stars. This could make them a very pesky team come sections if they play the right way, and if they can generate any sort of offense, they can be an upset threat. As usual they have a light early schedule, but do lead off with a challenge at Holy Family.
-The Jags are a great sleeper pick for this coming season. They return considerable talent from a decent team, and no one benefitted more from section realignment: they’re in a very winnable section whose frontrunner lost a lot. With a strong defense and decent depth, they have their best shot at a Tourney in over ten years. The early schedule includes a road trip to the Duluth area and a date with Prior Lake.
-Some rising young defensemen will be the core of this Spud team, and the future certainly looks bright. They may yet be a year away, though the senior class has enough talent to make a run at an 8AA title. An early trip to Bemidji will be a good measuring stick.
-The Blaze have a core to build around in Cade Borchardt and a respectable defensive corps, and as always, there’s some decent talent working its way up the system. Like Jefferson, they’re fortunate to slide into 3AA, and also have a decent shot at taking down St. Thomas. Depth will be the key. As usual, the early schedule is rough, with Hill, Edina, and Benilde to open things up.
-The Tornadoes return their top three scorers from last season’s much-improved edition, including a fine talent in Isaac Johnson. They’re not going to blow anyone away, but they probably have enough to swipe a 5AA title if enough goes right. They have a couple of warm-ups before a December 5 meeting with Centennial.
-Return a good chunk of last season’s 21-win team, though they’re going to need some stars to emerge to keep pace with the top teams in their new section. The Knights also have something to prove after last year’s quick playoff exit. They’ve taken some important steps toward strengthening their schedule, which will make them both easier to rank and better prepare them for a playoff run through 8AA. They open against Benilde and new section mate Roseau.
-The Hilltoppers won’t be a dynamic offensive force in their first year in AA, but they’re strong enough in back to at least pose an upset threat to the big three in 7AA. To pull it off, they’ll need some of their young forwards to really carry the load. It’s trial by fire early on, with Benilde and Minnetonka coming to town and a December 3 game with longtime nemesis Hermantown.
Honorable mention: White Bear Lake, Cloquet, Rosemount, Roseau, Mounds View
A look at the sections:
3 Lakeville North
19 Lakeville South
-Lakeville North remains on top of the heap, but the gap should be substantially narrower this season. The race between South and Farmington looks like a tight one, but it will likely amount to a chase for the last line change. Mayo is likely the best of the section’s southern contingent, and has early games with Farmington and South. South Suburban play will sort out the top three.
1 Eden Prairie
11 Holy Family
(16) Prior Lake
-Realignment has made this the deepest section in the state; though not quite as loaded as the old 6AA, it has four teams with a legitimate shot at a section title. Eden Prairie is a step ahead for now, but the other three are largely a toss-up at this point. Things get going early here, with Eden Prairie-Prior Lake and Minnetonka-Holy Family games in the first couple weeks of the season. The only matchups that don’t happen here are Holy Family-Eden Prairie and Minnetonka-Prior Lake.
13 St. Thomas Academy
(20) Bloomington Jefferson
-Realignment gave St. Thomas some more serious competition here, though they are still the clear favorite; even if it didn’t make much sense geographically or in terms of numbers, the addition of Jefferson and Burnsville does help competitive balance. None of the top three face each other, so section seeding could get messy. Rosemount should be there if one of them falters.
White Bear Lake
-The story here has shifted some, as Stillwater takes the space long filled by White Bear as the team trying to chase down Hill. Mounds View and White Bear should fight for the 3-seed, though the middle tier is fairly deep here and a shake-up wouldn’t surprise too much. The White Bear-Hill game is unusually early this year, and Suburban East play should sort out the rest.
-The question for the regulars in this section is whether Blaine has enough in the tank to repeat, or if Centennial can arrive a year early and head back to State. Anoka is good enough to derail both of them if enough goes right, and Maple Grove, adrift in the wilderness after a disappointing season and another weird coaching situation, has the organizational depth to be relevant if they can get it together. There are a bunch of early games among these teams in Northwest Suburban play, so we’ll start to get an order pretty quickly.
12 Benilde-St. Margaret’s
-A young Edina team will have more competition here than they would have in the old 2AA, but both Wayzata and Benilde have some proving to do. Edina and Wayzata often meet three times a year, and the new section should only increase the stakes there. The Hornets don’t play Benilde during the regular season. Things are pretty open beyond the top three.
4 Grand Rapids
6 Duluth East
14 Elk River
(25) Duluth Marshall
-The stakes only get higher in the East-Rapids war this season, as the Thunderhawks look to peak and dethrone the Hounds. Elk River lurks as a potential spoiler, and Marshall isn’t out of the picture on that front, either. Cloquet will be young, but the future is bright for the Jacks. The games between the top teams are pretty spread out, but don’t start until mid-December.
(24) St. Michael-Albertville
-Bemidji might be the clearest favorite of anyone in the state, though if Moorhead can reload quickly enough, they’ll be right there in the end, too. Those two play the first of two games on December 1, which should set the tone for the race. St. Michael-Albertville is something of a wild card, and Roseau returns a lot from a decent team last year, too. The contenders have all done a good job of scheduling each other.