Paul Bittner (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)
The state high school tournament is one of the bucket list experiences for any hockey fan, but other leagues have taken many of the top players in Minnesota away early. Can the tide be reversed at this point?
Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award goes to the state’s most outstanding senior in high school hockey and a perusal of the past winners churns up some pretty impressive names. Ryan McDonagh, Nick Leddy and Nick Bjugstad all earned the honor and each one of them was then taken in the first round of the NHL draft. For years, a Minnesota high schooler always went in the top 30, but those days are gone. Since 2011, the first names called have been second-rounders, but sometimes fifth-rounders. In 2014, a Wisconsin high schooler (Matt Berkovitz, Anaheim) was actually taken before any Minnesota kids, which, traditionally speaking, is insane.
The “State of Hockey” is still producing lots of talent, but those kids are no longer sticking with their schools. Team USA, the United States League, the Western League and prep school Shattuck-St. Mary’s have all taken chunks out of the high school circuit, which still holds its vaunted state tournament at the Minnesota Wild’s XCel Energy Center and packs the house. It’s getting to the point where some scouts are less than enthusiastic about watching the games and a fierce protectionism has frayed relationships at the local level.
Two Minnesota kids with a shot at being drafted this year are Paul Bittner and Alec Baer. Both played at USA Hockey’s All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo in the fall and got to know each other quite well when their flight home was cancelled. The duo spent 12 hours together at the airport in Detroit before they departed for Vancouver. That’s right: the West Coast. Because Baer plays for the WHL’s Giants, while Bittner, a potential first-rounder, is a member of the Portland Winterhawks.
Baer missed practice to see the Giants play last season, even though his Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Ken Pauly told him he would be off the Red Knights if he did so. Bittner left the Crookston Pirates when he was 15 and in the wake of that decision, his father ended up resigning from the executive board of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association. Jon Bittner had coached high school hockey for 28 years. “It was a pretty hard decision, obviously the hardest of my life,” said Paul, the 6-foot-4, 202-pound power forward. “After I visited Portland and met the guys, saw the fan base, it was almost an easy decision.”
Bittner started slowly in the ‘Dub,’ but now in his draft year he has worked his way up to the top line where he plays with Winnipeg Jets prospect Nic Petan and Columbus pick Oliver Bjorkstrand, two smaller players who have shot out the lights the past two seasons. Bittner says he is sad that he won’t ever get to play at the Minnesota state tournament, but has few regrets otherwise. “Junior wasn’t the goal and the NCAA wasn’t the goal,” he said. “The NHL is the goal.”
And NHL teams are wondering if they can still get an accurate read on kids on the Minnesota high school circuit due to the level of competition. “We definitely encourage kids to leave for the USHL,” said one scout. “In high school, everything is too easy for them.”
Naturally, those within the high school circuit have a different opinion. Trent Eigner coaches the Lakeville North Panthers, a team that lost in the final game of the state tournament last season and went undefeated in the regular season this year thanks to several draft prospects (defenseman Jack Sadek is ranked highest by Central Scouting at No. 84 among North American skaters). For Eigner, player development can sometimes be a slow process and that’s OK. “We’ve been able to instill in our kids that it’s not a race,” he said. “And if it is a race, what are the benefits of leaving before you’re ready?”
The schedule is another barrier for scouts, who note that the Thanksgiving-to-April timeframe and 25-game regular season harkens back to the “stone age” days of outdoor rinks. Eigner would like to see a couple more games allowed under the league’s laws, but also notes that his team gets in four practices for every two games, which resembles the NCAA, where these players hope to end up. There’s also the Upper Midwest Elite League that comes before the season now, where the best in the state (plus a few outside teams) play against each other on all-star squads.
But in the end it’s always going to come down to the talent on the ice. Lakeville North defenseman Jack McNeely was the only Minnesota high schooler at the AAPG and stuck around for not only the development time, but also that unmatched opportunity to play in front of a sold-out crowd at an NHL arena for that title. “Last year we made the state championship game and lost 8-2 to Edina,” said the 2015 NHL draft prospect. “And there wasn’t a single thought in my mind after that I would leave for junior.”
McNeely, a two-way blueliner committed to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, will head to the USHL for 2015-16 and may even practise with the Tri-City Storm once his year with Lakeville North ends. But the resolve in his voice says that won’t happen until the very last game of the season at the Xcel Energy Center is played.