I love me some Minnesota high school hockey. While developmental hockey has changed in many parts of the U.S. over the years, most of the best boys and girls in the state still play for their high school teams in hopes of netting that vaunted state title when the tournament hits the Minnesota Wild's XCel Energy Center at the end of the season.
And despite the pull of major junior or the U.S. NTDP, we still see some solid NHL draft prospects coming out of the Minnesota high school ranks. These days, a number of players will begin their season in the USHL (or NAHL), then head back to high school in November and gun for the state tourney. Once that's done in early March, they go back to the USHL for the stretch run. Last year's big tournament hero, Jackson Blake, won the title for Eden Prairie in the AA final (there are two brackets - one for smaller schools, one for bigger schools), then re-joined the Chicago Steel en route to a USHL championship at the Clark Cup. Blake was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes this past summer.
So who might be this year's Jackson Blake? The following are 10 players to watch on the boys' side of the ledger in the Minnesota HS game, all of whom are eligible for the NHL draft this summer.
Zam Plante, C, Hermantown Hawks: The Hawks have been one of the strongest programs in the small-school bracket the past decade and Plante promises to be an offensive driver for the team after notching three points per game last season. Plante, a Minnesota-Duluth commit who has been playing for USHL Chicago, brings a ton of vision, creativity and pace to the ice. He's also a competitor with NHL roots thanks to his dad, Derek Plante.
Sam Rinzel, D, Chaska Hawks: In three games with USHL Waterloo, Rinzel had three points this year - not too shabby. A 6-foot-4, 181-pound defenseman who already put up great numbers for Chaska last season, Rinzel is an excellent skater committed to the University of Minnesota. He and Plante are the top tier of Minnesota HS prospects this year and both played for Team USA at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament in the summer.
Finn Loftus, D, Blaine Bengals: A skilled defenseman who performed very well in the fall's Upper Midwest Elite League (where a lot of top Minny kids play before the high school season), Loftus helped his team win the title and was one of the top scorers. Heading back to Blaine, he'll be counted on as the Bengals' most important blueliner. Sioux City has his USHL rights.
Leo Gruba, D, Hill-Murray Pioneers: Gruba played on the same Upper Midwest League team as Loftus and was also one of the top scorers, so it will be fun to see what he can do when he rejoins the Pioneers. Gruba has excellent size at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, plus a nice helping of two-way skill on the back end to go with it.
Alex Bump, LW, Prior Lake Lakers: A skilled winger with some surprising power in his frame, Bump leaves USHL Omaha as one of the Lancers' top scorers and that's great news for Prior Lake. The University of Vermont commit will once again be joined by Will Schumacher and Sam Rice (both draft-eligible themselves) on the Lakers, forming a formidable attack.
Jaksen Panzer, RW, East Grand Forks Green Wave: While he hasn't been ranked by Central Scouting yet, I've liked what I've seen from Panzer, who reminds me a bit of Anaheim prospect Kyle Kukkonen: both have played for NAHL Minot, neither has a lot of size, but both can really produce. Panzer is a University of North Dakota commit who finished second in team scoring with EGF last season and is poised to ring up big totals this year.
Nick Erickson, G, Hill-Murray Pioneers: Another player unlisted by Central Scouting, Erickson draws attention nonetheless with his great size (6-foot-3, 170 pounds) and the fact he posted seven shutouts in 16 games last season. The Pioneers look to be pretty strong again this year and with the stingy Erickson between the pipes, they'll have a nice security blanket. His USHL rights are owned by Tri-City.
Barrett Hall, LW, Gentry Academy Stars: Playing for last year's small-school champs from Gentry, Hall has piled up points the past two seasons, but scouts have noted the fact he has also had some success in the NAHL with the Minnesota Wilderness this season. Hall was one of Gentry's top scorers last season.
Tristan Sarsland, D, Benilde-St. Margaret's Red Knights: Another blueliner who can contribute to the offense, Sarsland was more than a point-per-game for BSM last season and also had some luck with NAHL Fairbanks. A Colorado College commit whose USHL rights are owned by Madison, Sarsland has a nice shot and he gets it through.
Weston Knox, D, Andover Huskies: A very promising Huskies squad will draw a lot from their blueline and Knox in particular. He averaged more than an assist per game last season and was one of Andover's top scorers overall. He's an excellent athlete.