Cretin-Derham Hall's Drew Fisher led the Raiders in scoring last season with 15 goals and 42 points.
1. Cretin-Derham Hall
I think the top spot is a straightforward choice, though I also don’t think they’re in some other tier from anyone else in the top ten. On paper the Raiders loaded, losing just one of their top 12 scorers from a season ago. Behind the Fishers and the Sondreals and a pile of supporting talent and a veteran goaltender in Marko Belak, there are no clear on-ice weaknesses. They’re also now in a more forgiving section, though St. Thomas is a formidable obstacle, and for all the talent, this squad has not made it out of a section semifinal since 2016. We’ll see how they stack up against the rival Cadets right out of the gate, and they follow that with a couple of respectable second tier teams.
Schedule: The Opener—Sat 11/27 vs. #10 St. Thomas Academy; Tues 11/30 vs. Mahtomedi, Thurs 12/2 vs. Blake
2. Maple Grove
If number one is straightforward, number two is not at all; no spot was more of a struggle.
The Crimson may have lost a lot of bodies off last year’s elite squad, but they continue to churn out top-flight youth teams year after year, so there’s no reason to expect a major decline. Landen Gunderson will lead a potent offense, and expect a bunch of kids who got buried on the depth chart last season to slot in quite comfortably. The Turkey Trot will show us if there will be any adjustment period, and they follow that with the start of conference play.
Schedule: Wayzata Turkey Trot—Fri 11/26 vs. #4 Edina, Sat 11/27 vs. TBD; Thurs 12/2 at Champlin Park, Sat 12/4 vs. Blaine
This Spud squad is deep, talented, and back with a vengeance: they return eight of their top nine scorers from a season ago, including front-line junior stars Harper Bentz and Joe Gramer. The first month of their schedule is particularly aggressive, as they’ve added themselves to the Wayzata Turkey Trot and also have an early date with a strong Andover team.
Schedule: Wayzata Turkey Trot—Fri 11/26 vs. #13 Wayzata, Sat 11/27 vs. TBD; Fri 12/3 vs. #5 Andover, Sat 12/4 vs. Lakeville North
I am bullish on the Hornets. The Jimmy Clark and Trey Fechko combo is about as good a one-two punch as any in the state, and while the depth players didn’t put up a ton of points last season, they are rock-solid; this seems like a formula that Curt Giles will thrive with. They’re set in goal with Robbie Clarkowski, too. They can show what they’ve got right away in the Turkey Trot, while after that, the schedule settles down until the Holiday Classic, and even that may not be quite what it normally is this season.
Schedule: Wayzata Turkey Trot—Fri 11/26 vs. #2 Maple Grove, Sat 11/27 vs. TBD; Thurs 12/2 at St. Louis Park, Sat 12/4 vs. White Bear Lake
After a strong showing during Upper Midwest High School Elite League play, Landen Gunderson returns as one of Maple Grove's leading upperclassmen.
Big weapon Garrett Schifsky has graduated, but most of the rest of the Huskies core is back as they look for a third straight 7AA title. A dynasty could well be brewing here, with a steady flow of resources while their chief rivals face bigger challenges. Gavyn Thoreson leads a deep forward group that only gets better with the addition of Cayden Casey from Elk River, and they’ve got some rocks on defense as well, most notably Weston Knox. First off, we’ll get a sense of how they measure up against 8AA’s top two.
Schedule: Sat 11/27 vs. #15 Roseau, Tues 11/30 at #3 Moorhead
The Pioneers are going to miss some members of the core that carried them to a title two seasons ago and had them contending for another before disaster struck last season; replacing their top defensive pair is first on the to-do list, and the extent of that ask is why I’m (for once) a little more down on them than others. That said, the program depth remains on par with anyone’s, Dylan Godbout has a shot at Mr. Hockey with a big senior year, and they have one of the more experienced goaltenders out there in Nick Erickson. Does anyone really want to bet against this group returning to St. Paul? They start with a bang as they host Benilde, rematch the 2020 title game, and see if they can contain the Plantes.
Schedule: Tues 11/30 vs. #7 Benilde-St. Margaret’s; Champions Cup—Fri 12/3 vs. Eden Prairie, Sat 12/4 vs. Hermantown
7. Benilde-St. Margaret’s
The Red Knights are an intriguing team with one of the higher ceilings out there. They have not one but two potential Mr. Hockey short-listers in Adam Marshall and Tristan Sarsland, and the defense, so often a source of stress in St. Louis Park, has a very solid core returning. If young guns like Drew Stewart and Michael Risteau can take the next step, they could be a very potent group. However, there are enough question marks for a program that is now a decade removed from its last Tourney trip that I’m keeping them out of the top five at the start. They can change that in a hurry with a win over Hill or Hermantown.
Schedule: Tues 11/30 at #6 Hill-Murray; Champions Cup—Fri 12/3 vs. Hermantown, Sat 12/4 vs. Eden Prairie
8. Lakeville South
The Cougars are reloading some following their title game appearance, but Tanner Ludtke is one of the best players in the state, and juniors like Aidan Willis and Ashton Dahms look like the core of a next good run. The defense is probably the largest point of concern, but they are certainly in a forgiving section on that front. Will the offseason coaching drama have any effect? They start with a couple of north Metro teams that have some potential to make things interesting.
Schedule: Sat 11/27 at Rogers, Tues 11/30 vs. Blaine
9. Prior Lake
With Will Schumacher, Alex Bump, and Sam Rice all back in the fold, the potential for a dream season is there for the Lakers. I am still perhaps a bit more of a skeptic here than some; they didn’t really take a step forward last season, and need to show they have the depth and defensive prowess to compete with many of the teams above them. Still, they have an elite top line and are the favorites in 2AA. Their first few weeks of the season are fairly forgiving before things ramp up around the holidays.
Schedule: Thurs 12/2 vs. Holy Family, Sat 12/4 at Chanhassen
10. St. Thomas Academy
The Cadets lose two high-flying forwards off last season’s squad, but there are plenty of capable hands they can plug right into those key roles, starting with senior Max Nagel and junior Tommy Cronin. They also have plenty of experience on the big stage, while new section rival Cretin does not. That early meeting will set the standard in 3AA, though they can’t sleep on their Opener opener with Chaska, either.
Schedule: The Opener—Fri 11/26 vs. #12 Chaska, Sat 11/27 vs. #1 Cretin-Derham Hal
With the return of Will Schumacher from The North American Hockey League, Prior Lake appears to be a contender to play deep into the spring.
The Hawks bring back junior Minnesota Duluth commit Zam Plante, one of the top players in the state, regardless of class. Add fellow Bulldog commit Ty Hanson, rising junior Wyatt Carlson, and transfer goaltender Dane Callaway from Duluth East, and the Hawks should be in the hunt (again) come spring.
Already armed with one of the country's top 2005-born players in Jayson Shaugabay, the Warriors get a boost from prodigal son Daimon Gardner. Gardner played a portion of his youth hockey in Warroad before opting to play in Manitoba. The Clarkson commit played 32 games over the course of two seasons with the USHL's Omaha Lancers, but after the franchise entered a storm of chaos in recent weeks, Gardner decided to return to the Warriors.
The Warriors will also benefit from the maturation of several upperclassmen who won a Bantam A State Tournament championship in 2019, including goaltender Hampton Slukynsky.
3. East Grand Forks
Not much returns for the Green Wave, which fell to Gentry Academy 5-3 in last year's Class A State Tournament semifinals, including the departure of senior defender Trey Ausmus for juniors.
However, North Dakota commit Jaksen Panzer is back, and he'll be supported by a strong group of sophomores that captured a Bantam A State Tournament championship last spring.
The Zephyrs will need to learn to live without its five leading scorers from last season, and will generally rely on unproven talent to provide scoring punch.
Fortunately, goaltender Ben Dardis is back between the pipes after recording a .926 save percentage and three shutouts last season. Dardis was named Youth Hockey Hub's Boys Goalie of the Year in 2020 after backstopping the Zephyrs to the Class A state championship.
5. Fergus Falls
The Otters return three players that totaled 25 or more points last season in Isaac Johnson, Michael DeBrito, and Cole Zierden, plus goaltender Ben Swanson, who played every minute last season.
For a team that came within a goal of the Class A State Tournament last season, the Otters bring back more than enough pieces to make another run at the Xcel Energy Center.
6. Duluth Denfeld
The McClure twins, Connor and Cooper, are both back, as is leading scorer Simon Davidson from the 2021 team.
Other than that, there's not much left in the cupboard for the Hunters. They'll need to replace goaltender Jacob Snyder, who played every minute last season, plus talented junior Sam Kartch, who opted to transfer to Northstar Christian Academy.
The Tigers have made appearances in the Class A State Tournament three out of the last four years, but will be replacing three of its four leading scorers from last season.
Key pieces returning for the Tigers include forward Jesse Peterson and goaltender Thomas Huotari. Peterson totaled 12 goals and 28 points last season, while Huotari registered a 1.71 goals-against-average and four shutouts.
All three leading scorers are back for the Cardinals, as Josiah Gronholz, Joe Lamski, and Tyler Kludt all return. The offense should be aided by a handful of talented underclassmen, and goaltender Teagen Pfeffer is back after playing over 375 minutes last season while splitting time with Christopher Loken.
Carter Theissen is the only offensive threat returning from last year's team that advanced to the Section 5A finals before falling to Delano. Jack Thomson is back between the pipes after splitting time with Dylan Halliwill last season.
A relocation to Class A could bode well for Northfield, which returns leading scorer Spencer Klotz from last year, plus talented sophomore Cayden Monson, who impressed as a freshman with 20 goals and 35 points.
After splitting with Micah Olson last season, Keaton Walock takes over as the starter, looking to build on a sophomore season in which he recorded four shutouts.
Hermantown's Zam Plante returns to the USHL to lead the top-ranked Hawks into the 2021-2022 season.