The Upper Midwest Elite League held their National Invitational Tournament last weekend at New Hope Ice Arena, and I was there the first two days of the tournament, and a good time seemed to be had by all. Shattuck-St. Mary's took home the title with a win over Minnesota Red in the final, while Minnesota White beat Malmo in the third place game.
Among the more amusing things at the tournament:
1. Minnesota White managed to take 2 Too Many Men penalties in a 25 second span. And neither were of the 'bad line change, guy trying to race back to the bench' variety. They were literally playing with too many men for a good ten seconds, before the opposition's coach's shouting got the attention of the officials.
2. Only in Minnesota would the 'Jean' in 'Jean-Paul' be pronounced like "Gene".
3. Between the Norwegian team that played in the Elite League regular season, and Malmo, I will never stop being amused by the way Scandinavians dress.
On to the slightly more serious stuff...
Malmo's team looked much better than they were last year. Victor Ohman was on the Malmo team that came over to the States last year, and didn't really do much to impress me. Then again, he was a '92 birthdate, so he was one of the youngest players on the ice. I had heard a fair amount of hype about him over the past year, which didn't really connect with what I saw last year. But this year, he was probably the best player at the tournament. I think he finished with 9 points for the tournament, and seemed to have a hand in nearly all of Malmo's goals. The big difference between Ohman and some of the American '92s at the tournament was that Ohman was listed at 6'1" 201 lbs., and seemed to be every bit of that. Insert your own joke about eating your lingonberries. He's a very strong kid with a great nose for the net. He'll definitely be a name to watch for the 2010 Draft.
Axel Wemmenborn was another '92 birthdate that was like a poor man's version of Ohman. Not quite as big, and not quite the scorer, but still a good looking player. Sebastien Dyk was a '92 that played with Ohman and also ended up with a hand in a lot of goals. '90 defenseman Ziga Grahut played on their top powerplay unit and had a great shot from the point.
Erik Haula was the player I was most interested in seeing for Shattuck, as he is projected as a potential first round draft pick this summer. Haula was his team's best forward, and a talented player, but not as dominant as you might expect. Still, he scored a beautiful overtime goal against Malmo, and did a lot of little things very well. He still needs to add a lot of strength, which could hold him back a little in terms of the draft, but still a very nice player.
Alexander Fallstrom is the other top forward for Shattuck this year. I was a little surprised he got passed over in the draft last year. He's very talented, and I wouldn't be surprised if he got picked in this year's draft. Belarussian import Kirill Gotovets was very impressive on defense. I think he'll get drafted too.
This Shattuck is maybe a little underrated compared to past teams. Fallstrom is the only player committed to a college right now, and Haula and Gotovets are the only other serious potential draft picks. But they do have a lot of very talented, though small, hockey players. Guys like Blake Matejcek, J-P Lafontaine, Brad Robbins, and Sam Alfieri on offense, and Nathan Sinz and Kevin Tuohy on defense are all small, but pretty good hockey players.
Minnesota Red won the battle of the Minnesota teams. The Red team had less talent, but did a great job of playing as a team and always looking to make the extra pass, while the White team was always looking to take a shot, as opposed to setting up a teammate for a shot.
Off the Red team, Derek Forbort has really developed into a great hockey player. He's made great strides over the past 10 months or so since I last saw him, and should have a bright future.
Max Tardy is another player that has made a huge jump in development. He led the regular season in scoring, and I heard a lot of impressive reviews of his play by people at the rink.
I had Danny Mattson rated a lot higher in the draft than most people do--though I also suspect I've seen him a little more than most people. I may have him a little too high just because he lacks ideal pro size, but his offensive instincts are certainly at that level.
I really like the way Adam Knochenmus plays, even though he's another little guy. He's another typical Roseau kid--hard worker, and a very smart player. Max Gardiner still doesn't have the skating ability of his brother, but he gets around ok and really uses his size to create havoc.
Nick Leddy was probably the top prospect for this year's draft at the tournament. He had kind of a rough game on Saturday, but overall, looks to have a fantastic future. He should easily be the best player in the state this year. I also thought his defensive partner Brendan Baker played well. I've always like Baker and think he gets overshadowed by the other big names from Edina.
Speaking of the other Edina players, Marshall Everson and Anders Lee played pretty well. Lee has absolutely ridiculous strength for a high schooler. But I think they missed Zach Budish making plays and setting them up offensively.
The line of Tyler Pitlick, Willie Hess, and Danny DeLisle was probably White's most effective line, though on Saturday, it seemed like they didn't get out there 5-on-5 enough to be effective--penalties killed White against Red. All indications are that Pitlick will jump straight to college hockey next year. He's added a lot of strength, but I think still has a ways to go before he's strong enough to be really great in the WCHA. Centennial defender Joe Schmitz has really seen his stock rise this fall. I don't know if it's true or not, but he looks a lot bigger than he was at the end of last year. He was held fairly quiet in the games I saw though. The other Centennial defender, Brett Stern got injured in the first game and was replaced by Zach Palmquist. Palmquist has gotten a little WCHA interest this fall. He's a skilled kid, but still on the small side. I could see where teams would like him though, once he adds weight.(The program listed Palmquist as 190 lbs. Last summer's Model Camp roster listed him at 150. The Model Camp weight looks far more accurate.)
I mentioned the Minnesota '92s being a little behind in terms of weight. Christian Isackson, Brett Patterson, and Nick Bjustad were listed at 170, 160, and 155 respectively. There's a huge difference between that and a guy that's a solid 200 lbs. and it showed. But I suspect that by next fall, those guys will have caught up and should be in the conversation for the 2010 draft. They all had moments where they flashed their talent, but overall didn't do a lot. White kept putting Isackson on the point opposite Leddy on their powerplay, which never seemed to work all that well.
Team Wisconsin competed as their own team in this year's NIT, as opposed to last year, where they were absorbed into the Red team after years of struggling on their own. Ironically, last year was probably the one year they could have really competed as their own individual team.
It seemed like a lot of the strength in this year's team was in the junior class, but then again, who knows how many of those kids will be playing high school hockey next fall. Matt Paape was the top forward for Wisconsin. He's a solid, honest player though not all that flashy. Defenseman Aaron Harstad looks like a really nice player, as did defenseman Nolan Kirley.
The MDHL, Michigan's answer to the Minnesota Elite League, team is always a scrappy one. Talent-wise, there was a pretty big gap between the top four teams--Minnesota Red, White, Malmo, and Shattuck--and the other four, but Michigan was a scrappy bunch, and gave Shattuck a pretty good game on the first night--the only decent game of the first night-- despite probably not playing their best hockey.
Brent Darnell is the first player from the MDHL to make a college commitment while playing in the league. He's maybe not the flashiest player, but is the type of player that coaches will love because he plays great defense, hits people, and is solid on face-offs. Cranbrook's Patrick Brown is another '92 player that looked pretty good.
It'd be nice to see the MDHL continue to have some success. They held their league tournament two weeks ago and had a lot of scouts attend, and those kids got a lot of exposure this weekend. Without making a value judgement on high-level AAA hockey, I will say that it's probably not for everyone, and it's nice to see kids have another option to go with.