Michigan Hockey Advancement’s (MHA) Top 80 Showcase took place over the weekend at Farmington Hills Ice Arena. Two 18U teams and two 16U teams squared off in respective three-game series, vying for spots on the program’s tournament team for the upcoming fall season.
Some stood out from the crowd this weekend, making an immediate impact while others continue to knock off the rust from the summer months, shaping up for the quickly approaching winter season.
A couple players jumped out to me, having great showings at the showcase and making their names known as we inch closer to puck drop in November. We will certainly take a closer look at many of them as the fall progresses but I wanted to share some thoughts on a few guys that stood out to me in particular, following the Top 80.
Starting with the 16s, I really liked Max Marquette (U-D Jesuit, 2021). The junior forward looked like he was in mid-season form and it’s only August. He was the fastest guy on the ice Friday night and at times, he downright dominated play, controlling the flow of the game with every shift. He’s fast, he’s flashy, has great hockey smarts and a really high motor.
Bret Beale (Detroit Catholic Central, 2021) was a nice surprise and another forward that impacted play on several occasions in a short period of time. Whether it was on the fly during an odd-man rush or stationary in-zone, Beale’s ability to distribute the puck and find open teammates was on full display as he facilitated multiple scoring opportunities. At the end of the game on Friday, he buried a long put-back on a rebound to seal the victory for Team White, showing he can finish plays as well as he can set them up.
Too many times, the puck carrier enters the offensive zone, hugs the half-wall and skates themselves below the goal line and into trouble, ultimately turning the puck over and losing possession. But Houck on multiple occasions showed a knack for creating opportunities for himself, cutting across the top of the slot and putting himself in a position to generate a quality shot or scoring opportunity for his team.
Tyler Lawrence (Flint Powers, 2021) is fun to watch. He didn’t overwhelm with his speed and looked a little light for being listed at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, but anything he may lack in size or strength he more than makes up for with an aggressiveness on loose pucks. Constantly in the mix on scrums along the boards, he came away with a ton of 50-50 pucks and absolutely snapped off some high-level passes during 2-on-1 chances for Team Red on multiple occasions.
I’m not a goalie guy, so I can’t get too technical breaking down the position. But when I see a guy deny what I perceived as slam-dunk, no-doubt scoring opportunities three, four and five times in one period, it’s safe to say a guy like Blake Nowak (U-D Jesuit, 2022) is the real deal.
He’s just a sophomore, but the 5-foot-10 netminder played like a seasoned veteran in the 16U series. After stealing not one, but two scoring opportunities away from Team Red, Nowak cemented his performance on Friday with a beautiful right-leg pad save moving from left to right — as the puck moved from below the goal line left of the net across the crease to the right post — eliminating an almost empty-net look from the back door on a would-be goal scorer, and suffocating any chance at a rebound.
If forwards like Marquette, Beale, Houck and Lawrence were the bright spot among the 16s, defensemen were the ones who definitely stole the show in the 18U series.
At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, it was very easy to notice Jacob Thomas (Detroit Country Day, 2020). Aside from his size, though, he’s got the skills to go along with it and can definitely be one of the top D in the state this season. He’s cool and calm under pressure, quick on retrievals, showed some nice deceptiveness and escapability, and moved pucks effortlessly. For as big as he is, he gets up and down the ice really well and can engage in an offensive rush, turn around and recover in time to defend an oncoming attack.
Dakota Kott (Hartland, 2020) is quite possibly the polar opposite of Thomas, listed at nearly a full foot shorter than his fellow D-man. Kott is 5-foot-5, but has a huge impact on the game despite his smaller stature. He’s got some fantastic footwork and jumps north in the offensive attack quicker than a hiccup. I really appreciate his understanding of shooting lanes, first in the offensive zone as a shooter, putting pucks into the funnel and finding ways to get it to the net. Defensively, he’s just as good obstructing lanes and forcing opponents to alter their shot selections.
A good defenseman is like a quarterback, seeing plays as they develop and thinking it out two or three steps ahead of the action. The way Enzo Tarducci (Detroit Catholic Central, 2020) plays, you can almost see his thought process through his actions on the ice. A left-hand shot from the blue line, Tarducci always anticipates the puck coming his way and knows exactly what he’s going to do with it before it comes to him. He was aggressive holding the blue line, making timely and effective decisions with the puck as soon as he corralled it, distributing to an open man or throwing it to the net for a quick scoring opportunity.
Nick Marone (Brother Rice, 2020) must be a big HGTV fan, because he is a big-time DIYer. There is definitely an art in being able to create scoring opportunities on your own, whether it be beating a defender 1-on-1 or out-muscling opponents to get to the net in-zone. He is a slippery player with some fancy dekes, toe-draggin’ between-the-legs and going top cheddar, and I can definitely appreciate the ability to generate on your own. I do believe he should simplify a bit at times, utilize his linemates some more and create opportunities without the puck — which can be corrected — but his next-level skillset is hard to teach and certainly sets him apart from others.
I’ve got a soft spot for players like Brendan Finn (Lake Orion, 2021). He’s not the prettiest player, no fancy moves or eye-catching size but he’s got an absolute motor that does not stop.
Calling him a bull in a china shop may be an understatement and I mean that as a sincere compliment. From the moment he comes over the boards, his feet don’t stop moving until he returns to the bench. Finn came streaming into the offensive zone as F-1 on a forecheck like a heat-seeking missile. He came down the slot, flushed out the opposing defenseman from behind the net so fast that he overskated the puck carrier, kept going, caught back up to the puck carrier and picked his pocket clean before the tops of the circles, changed direction 180 degrees and came 1-on-1 in tight with the goalie. He may not have capitalized on that particular opportunity but a guy with that much energy can play on my team any day.
These are just a couple players that jumped out to me this weekend. Certainly, other names including Alex Blankenship, Dylan McMullen, Logan Gotinsky and Brady Rappuhn among others, were some of the standouts to watch as well. As the fall season progresses and we see more leading up to the winter, I’ll be sure to point them out as well.
Got any returning players ripe for a breakout season or new names that are sure to have an impact? Gimme a heads up on Twitter and discuss some ones to watch with November right around the corner!
Team Michigan Juniors and Seniors have spent the past two weeks prepping for the CCM NIT in Plymouth, Minnesota, where they will compete against teams comprised of the top high school players across the country including those from Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
A process that began in March with more than 250 of the top juniors and seniors in the state congregating at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea following the conclusion of the winter season, now culminates with the Minnesota showcase later this weekend.
For an eighth consecutive year, teams are assembled and put on display not just for the individual exposure of the players in attendance but to also showcase the strides and growth that Michigan high school hockey has made overall on a national stage in front of junior, NCAA and professional scouts.
Overall, Team Michigan has seen more than 70 players go on to compete in high-level junior and college hockey with some reaching the game’s highest level in the NHL. The 2018 Senior Team promoted eight players off last year’s squad to the NAHL and BCHL alone, serving as a premier launching point for those embarking on junior careers after high school.
This year’s senior team returns 12 players from the 20-man roster from a year ago; a then-junior team that went 2-2-0 at the 2018 NIT.
“It helps knowing what you’re getting yourself into, knowing what scouts are out there and how the tournament works,” said goaltender Sam Evola. “Second time coming around, you’re gonna have more experience. You’re gonna be better.”
The 2018 Mr. Hockey recipient, Evola is coming off of back-to-back Division-III state titles with Detroit Country Day and is currently tendered by the NAHL’s Minot Minotauros. Still, he said there’s plenty to prove in front of the scouts that will be in attendance and that this talented group is capable of turning some heads.
“The NA is great but I’d like to get drafted into the USHL and obviously get in front of some schools and get some school exposure and there’s a lot [at the tournament],” he said. “Guys like Joey Larson, Cam Blanton, Luke Evo. They’re solid players. It’s kinda cool to get to play with these guys before they go to their respective junior programs one last time is pretty cool to finish off your high school career.”
Of the 40 players heading to Minnesota, almost all are involved with the Michigan Developmental Hockey League (MDHL), TPH’s Top 80, Copper Country or Elite Brigade off-season programs. While each provide unique opportunities, Team Michigan is a chance for high school hockey to assemble two teams of the best players regardless of region or affiliation. This year, players were plucked from 20 different programs around the state, from across metro Detroit to the west side, mid-Michigan and the U.P., bringing them together for a two-week span presents unique challenges.
“Some of us knew each other just through high school hockey, MDHL, TPH Top 80 but we bonded really fast,” said Team Juniors defenseman Brendan Miles. “We’re just a great group altogether.”
Miles, a standout D-man in the MIHL for Detroit Catholic Central, battled it out against several of his fellow junior teammates during the regular season, including the likes of Seth Lause (Livonia Stevenson), Nick Marone (Brother Rice), Joey Cormier (Trenton) and Cristian Bronzino (Warren De La Salle) among several others. Now teammates, that comes as a bit of a relief that once opponents now come together to compete on the same side.
“Playing against him, it was difficult for me as a forward to go against him on a rush because he’s just a smart defenseman,” said Bronzino. “Playing with him, makes me feel safe on the back end because if I get beat by my guy — which I hope doesn’t happen — then I know that he’s back there to help us out.”
Miles helped anchor a CC defensive corps that went a near-perfect 29-1-1 this season and he’ll be expected to provide similar support on the back end for the juniors.
One advantage the senior group typically has to their advantage over the juniors ahead of the tournament is having players who know what to expect from the speed and competition level that the NIT is known for.
“You have an idea of what the two weeks is gonna be like and what you have to do to get the group together as a team,” said Tim Erkkila. “Having a lot of guys back from last year is big in the sense that we know what we have to do to build that chemistry so we can be as good as possible in Minnesota.”
A four-year letter-winner for Brighton, Erkkila is one of the most decorated defensemen in high school hockey. With back-to-back Division-I state championships in 2017 and 2018 as well as being named to the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches’ Association (MHSCHA) Dream Team his junior and senior years, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound defender has seen plenty of high-level hockey during his high school career.
As one of the 12 seniors returning to the lineup from last year’s squad, Erkkila said the Team Michigan experience is a unique one for him.
“Honestly, I just had a lot of fun,” he said. “At the end of the day, hockey’s all about having fun. It’s an unbelievable tournament, tons of exposure and I don’t think you can get enough of that. It’s always fun to play with guys from CC — we hate ‘em during the season — then guys from the U.P., I’ve got a lot of connections there. My cousin Sam, he’s on the team so that’s a lot of fun as well.”
Tim’s cousin and senior teammate Sam Erkkila finished up his final season, concluding a three-year career with Calumet. The showcase presents a rare opportunity for the Erkkila family to support both boys on the ice at the same time.
“I’m sure they have a lot of fun watching,” Tim said. “Any time you get to play with a family member that lives 500 miles away, that’s pretty cool.”
Coach Ryan Ossenmacher will coach the Seniors for a seventh time, joined by Jeff Fleming and Jay Thompson. A dozen returners provide a wealth of experience and familiarity for the squad with not one, but two Mr. Hockey recipients in Evola and 2019 honoree Joey Larson (Hartland). Newcomers and first-timers like Gabe Anderson (Hartland), Kevin Bostwick (Houghton), Patrick Donnelly (Houghton), Carter Korpi (Detroit Catholic Central), Anthony Mollica (Jenison), Daniel Nelson (Grand Rapids Catholic Central), Gage Thrall (Davison) and Jack VandDenBeurgery (Plymouth) breathe some fresh air and newness into the group as well.
While the seniors will rely on past experience, the juniors will be flying blind in a way, preparing for the idea of an unknown opponent.
“I honestly have no clue what they’re gonna be like,” said Will Jentz. “Our game yesterday, the coaches said it was gonna be two, three times faster than it was out there. That should just be a lot of fun going out [to Minnesota]. We won’t know, we’ll just have to bring whatever we have and just show them what we have to do and not adapt to what they do.”
Coach Dave Mitchell returns behind the bench for the juniors alongside Joe Ford and Kyle Zagata. A diverse and dynamic group that’s represented by 15 different schools, an obvious challenge for the younger of the two teams is preparing for the unknown and bringing a group together in such a short window of time.
The general consensus among juniors was that cohesion happened quickly with the mood in the locker room and team meetings coming naturally.
Lack of familiarity lends itself more to surprises but Bronzino suggested that the unforeseen can be a good thing too.
“Actually, one of the kids on our line, Brady [Rappuhn] from Saginaw Heritage,” he said. “I haven’t seen them play or really seen him play ‘til now. He’s fitting in real well and you know that those guys that come from areas out there want to work real hard and work their butts off for spots on the power play or the penalty kill, whatever it may be and just want to fill their role and be the best at it.”
Rappuhn is one-of-six juniors from outside of metro Detroit, coming off of an ‘18-19 season in which he scored 24 goals and 62 points in 25 games for the Hawks.
With offensive firepower upfront, there has been a clear focus in training camp and attempting to prepare the juniors for an unfamiliar opponent.
“We’re very strong offensively,” said Miles. “We’re trying to be just as strong defensively and I think in practice that’s what we’ve really tried to work on so I think we’re going to be a really hard team to compete against.”
The Junior and Senior teams will head to Minnesota together on Wednesday morning by bus, before games get underway Thursday afternoon. The two teams will compete in opposite pools, playing in three round-robin games. Playoff and consolation games will bring the tournament to a close on Sunday. Follow @TeamMichHockey on Twitter for updates all weekend long and keep tabs on both squads!
Ah, what an exciting and action-packed opening week of playoffs! From starting with 138 teams, to only having eight remain in each Division as we enter the State Tournament on Tuesday. Be sure to check out this year’s Regional Champs HERE.
FULL DISCLOSURE follow-up to last week’s Regional Playoff Predictions…
The Favorites: 17 Champions
Under The Radar: Four Champions
The Darkhorses: One Champion
Total Misses: Two Champions
All-in-all, a great week of worthy champions; some mainstays like DCC, Hartland, Stevenson, Trenton, Big Rapids and FHNE as well as some first timers in Petoskey, Cap City and the Bay Reps. Big shoutouts to Rochester United and Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard; two teams that proved me wrong and made us all pay for looking past them in Regionals, congrats on your well-deserved Wooden Mittens.
As we shift focus to the eight-team State Tournament, I wanted to change things up a bit and introduce Confidence Picks to the playoff projections. With so many great teams still remaining, it would be virtually impossible to limit potential contenders to just three teams in a Favorite, Under The Radar and Dark Horse format like last week. So this time around, I’ll rank teams in each division not by talent, skill or program history but by their likelihood of winning the entire tournament, given the potential matchups and path to a championship. Eight points to the ones I’m most confident in and one point to the longest shot of the division. Let’s get started…
Rochester United: They’ve got a major challenge in the Quarterfinals and an even bigger giant in the semis, should they survive OLSM on Wednesday. RU has had a tremendous run at 25-3-0 overall but I just don’t think there’s enough fight left to run with the big dogs.
Cap City: The Cinderella of D-I, Heritage (No. 4) will be the toughest team the Capitals will have faced all year long. Jenison (No. 47) was their biggest test thus far, and that was a 5-1 loss back in December, however, if they shock the world in the Quarters there’s a chance CCC could qualify for the D-I Final.
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s: I could be overvaluing the Eaglets here, as I don’t know that this is one of the stronger OLSM teams we’ve seen in recent history. However, I’m confident in their ability to get to the semis with a chance to play CC and of the eight teams in D-I, I think they’ve got the best shot — albeit a small one — to take down the favorite.
Byron Center: They’ve never been “out” of a game this season. At 22-5-1, the Bulldogs have been one of the best west-side teams in ‘18-19 and all of their losses are by two-goals-or-less, so I’m confident they’ll compete with anyone they take the ice with. It’s not an easy road but a winnable game in the Quarters and another one in the semis, so look out for BC.
Bay Reps: I said Byron Center could win at Ewigleben Ice Arena and they can, but I’d definitely lean towards the Bay Raps in the Wednesday matchup. I really like this Reps team and I think they’d give Heritage a better fight in a potential semifinal matchup than they did when the Hawks handled them 6-1 back in December.
Saginaw Heritage: I fully expect them to be one-half of the D-I finale for a second consecutive season. I don’t think the outcome will be different than 2018 but hey, get to the title game and anything can happen! With three skilled lines, they’ll get up and down the ice with anyone left in the tournament.
Detroit Catholic Central: There’s really no reason why the Shamrocks shouldn’t win the D-I title. Honestly, I think they’re three goals better than the other seven teams remaining. No disrespect meant to the field, this CC team is just that good. No team in the state has solved the Shamrocks this season and I don’t believe anyone will.
Forest Hills Northern-Eastern: They’ve been living on the edge! Back-to-back overtime thrillers in the Regional semis and championship game but I think the well runs dry on Tuesday against Hartland. There’s plenty of offensive firepower in D-II and I highly doubt FHNE has the guns to go up and down the ice with the likes of Hartland, Rice and others.
Port Huron Northern: Like the Husky-Hawks (is that what FHNE calls themselves?), I don’t know if PHN can score on Rice in their Quarterfinal matchup, let alone a Hartland or Trenton. It’s been a great run for Northern but a road to the finale gets real rocky here in the Elite Eight.
Petoskey: They’re in unchartered waters. By my count, the program hasn’t reached this stage of the tournament in more than 20 years so they’re gonna have to elevate their game if they want to compete with the blue bloods. I think they have a small chance against Marquette in the Quarters, but they’ll need some more postseason magic to get to a title.
Trenton: On paper, they’re intimidating but after watching their Regional Final I think talented squads like the ones below can out-class the Trojans. The 6-0 loss to Stevenson a month ago raises a red flag, even though I expect a closer game in the Quarterfinal rematch. Trenton is certainly capable of winning the whole thing but they could just as easily be eliminated by Tuesday.
Brother Rice: I fully anticipate a rematch in the semis from the MIHL-KLAA Showcase when Hartland defeated Rice 5-1 in December. However, I expect that rematch in Plymouth to be much, much closer the second time around. If the Warriors are to make a serious run at a title, they’ll need next-level goaltending to give themselves a chance against the firepower they’d face in Elite Eight action.
Livonia Stevenson: It’s gonna be boom-or-bust with the Spartans. Another team with a legitimate chance at the D-II title but could just as easily be knocked out by Trenton on Tuesday. They’ve already beaten the Trojans and Hartland — twice — but throw that out the window in playoff rematches. I like their chances a lot but it’ll require three intense games to get it done; a much tougher grind than I think other contenders would have.
Marquette: I said before the tournament started, if there’s one team in D-II I don’t want to face, it’s the Redmen and I’m sticking to it. They’re “U.P. tough” with a stingy defensive effort that allows less than two goals against per game and will bring the support of an entire peninsula with them to Plymouth. They’re not the best team in the division but Marquette may be the hungriest, most balanced team in the field with a great path to the title.
Hartland: Maybe they shouldn’t be the favorite. Losses to Trenton and Stevenson, I don’t know… Literally 4 through 8 could be interchangeable in D-II but the Eagles are the most talented of the group, with the best goalie among the eight, arguably the easiest road and a title to defend in a fourth straight trip to Plymouth. Why WOULDN’T they be the favorite?
East Grand Rapids: It’s not so much their Quarterfinal matchup that hinders their chances but the potential Semifinal draw that has me concerned about the Pioneers’ title hopes. Big Rapids will be a tall task on Wednesday and the winner of Country Day/U-D at Plymouth would be monumental. I just don’t know if East has enough gas left to get to a title, let alone bring it home.
Big Rapids: Same concerns as above, but the Cardinals won me over with their Regional Championship run so much so that I’m looking at them to knock off EGR in the Quarters. I didn’t think they had enough firepower to make it this far… and then they hung a six-spot on Dow and an eight-spot on Powers. Their top is really good but depth may be what holds them back in Plymouth.
Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard: Their path isn’t as rough as some others in D-III, and the Irish have played stellar in the playoffs so far. The Quarterfinal matchup is pretty balanced and could go either way but if they survive the Battle of Gabriel Richards, coach Clint Robert will have to push his kids to the next level if they’re going to hold their own with the competition at USA Hockey Arena.
Riverview Gabriel Richard: I’m giving the Pioneers a slight edge in that Quarterfinal, as they’ve played a tougher slate in ‘18-19, priming them for this time of year. I still don’t think there’s enough steam to get over the next hump but GR has played Alpena and Country Day — twice — tough enough to prove they can skate with everyone remaining in the D-III playoffs.
U-D Jesuit: I like the Cubs a lot. I hate their Quarterfinal matchup more though. This is another boom-or-bust as U-D could potentially win it all or they could be cut out of the playoff picture by Wednesday. I do believe whoever wins that tilt will be one-half of the D-III finale and most likely be the favorite to win against whoever comes from the other half of the bracket.
Houghton: Their top is really good and may be the best among the eight teams remaining but a path to a title would involve going through the two best goalies in high school hockey. This time of year in a matchup between high-powered offenses and stingy goaltending, I’m giving the nod to the netminders here but you could swap 5-6-7-8 and wouldn’t get an argument from me.
Alpena: I’ll admit, I’m picking with my heart on this one. They’ve been a great story all year long but they have certainly earned every bit of it on the ice, building up an impressive resume. If the Wildcats get to the D-III final, we could end up playing all night long because I don’t know if anyone’s scoring in a Cooper Black v. Sam Evola showdown.
Detroit Country Day: If there’s a reason why they shouldn’t be the favorite, please let me know. For starters, they don’t have to play Woodhaven, a team that’s handed the Yellowjackets two of their four losses, so that’s a big plus! In all seriousness though, I think they’re one of the most complete teams I’ve seen this season playing in front of the best goalie in the state. That U-D matchup is certainly the biggest concern but I think that game could be quite similar to DCD’s’ low-scoring affair with Cranbrook earlier in the playoffs.
Well, this is it folks! Whether you win or lose, it’s the final week of the season for everyone remaining. I wish all teams nothing but the best down the stretch here. Take some time to truly enjoy the little moments this week and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. Only three teams earn the privilege of ending their seasons — and in some instances, careers — with a victory, so make the most of final practices, bus rides and memories with the boys while you can!
Feel free to connect with me on Twitter and argue my picks 140 characters at a time!