The Upper Midwest Elite League is the first focus of our new series "Recruiting Grounds." It seemed appropriate to start here since its season is ending soon. Happening in the Fall and starting in early September, the Elite League ends with playoffs in early November. High School players from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota are assigned to one of seven teams based on a player's region. The Faribault, Minnesota prep school, Shattuck-St. Mary's also sends a team to participate each year in a 21-game regular season. The Minnesota teams are made up of metro players divided up among four teams (Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, Southeast) plus a North team made up of primarily northeastern Minnesota players while some northwestern Minnesota players play on the Great Plains team along with North Dakota players. The Wisconsin team is made up entirely of players from Wisconsin, sometimes including players that play for Minnesota private schools.
The league has a great track record of college commitments going all the way back to 2006, with over 250 participants through 2015 earning a commitment to a DI hockey school. A closer look at 2010 participants shows that over 76% of players with at least 10 points ended up playing at least one season of Division I hockey and most of them committed to their college team within a year of their final season in the Elite League. While most of these guys may have been noticed before Elite League, the condensed schedule and quality/depth of the player pool makes it a great opportunity for scouts of all levels to see what these high school-age kids can do.
Michigan Tech also has it's own history of recruiting in the league going all the way back to 2006 with Team Wisconsin standout Seth Soley and including five current players; Cliff Watson, Tyler Heinonen, Dylan Steman, Jake Jackson, and Mitch Reinke. We'll discuss Michigan Tech's record with Elite League players more later.
Talent throughout College Hockey
Some very special players have participated in the Elite League over the years including current NHL players, former NCAA All-Americans, multiple Hobey Baker Award Finalists and even one Hobey Baker Award Winner.
Current NHL Players:
- Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs)
- Nick Leddy (New York Islanders)
- Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild)
- Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers)
- Jake McCabe (Buffalo Sabres)
- Jamie McBain (Arizona Coyotes)
- Craig Smith (Nashville Predatores)
- Max McCormick (Ottawa Senators)
- Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers)
- Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers, C)
- Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets, C)
- Derek Stepan (New York Rangers, A)
- Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres)
- Derek Forbort (Los Angeles Kings)
- Mike Reilly (Minnesota Wild)
- Brock Nelson (New York Islanders)
- Nate Schmidt (Washington Capitals)
Former American Hockey Coaches Association NCAA All-Americans (First and Second Team):
- Kent Patterson (Minnesota-2012)
- Brady Hjelle (Ohio State-2013)
- Nick Jensen (St. Cloud State-2013)
- Nate Schmidt (Minnesota-2013)
- Andres Lee (Notre Dame-2013)
- Kyle Rau (Minnesota-2014)
- Jake McCabe (Wisconsin-2014)
- Zach Palmquist (Minnesota State-2015)
- Charlie Lindgren (St. Cloud State-2016)
- Brock Boeser (North Dakota-2016)
Hobey Baker Award Finalists (and All-Americans):
- Jamie McBain (Wisconsin-2009)
- Chase Polacek (Rensselaer-2010/2011)
- Eric Hartzell (Quinnipiac-2013)
- Ryan Walters (UNO-2013)
- Josh Archibald (UNO-2014)
- Adam Wilcox (Minnesota-2014)
- Mike Reilly (Minnesota-2015)
- Zane McIntyre (North Dakota-2015)
- Alex Lyon (Yale-2016)
- Ethan Prow (St. Cloud State-2016)
One former Elite League player truly excelled in the college ranks. That would be former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog Jack Connolly. Connolly was a three time All-American and two time Hobey Baker Finalist, winning the award in 2012, the year after leading the Bulldogs to their first ever national championship. He scored an amazing 197 points during his four years of college.
Six college rosters, including five the NCHC, have many of their top returning scorers with Elite League experience:
Minnesota (6 of 8):
- Justin Kloos
- Tyler Sheehy
- Tommy Novak
- Vinni Lettieri
- Michael Prodzinski
Minnesota Duluth (5 of 6):
- Dominic Toninato
- Karson Kuhlman
- Adam Johnson
- Neal Pionk
- Willie Rashkob
North Dakota (4 of 5):
- Brock Boeser
- Austin Poganski
- Tucker Poolman
- Johnny Simonson
Nebraska Omaha (4 of 6):
- Jake Guentzel
- Jake Randolph
- Tyler Vesel
- Luc Snuggerud
Colorado College (3 of 5):
- Sam Rothstein
- Teemu Kivihalme
- Mason Bergh
St. Cloud State (3 of 5):
- Jimmy Schuldt
- Blake Winiecki
- Judd Peterson
Additionally, Grant Besse was Wisconsin's leading scorer last season with 11 goals and 33 points in 35 games. The previously mentioned Brock Boeser (27-33-60) and Jake Guentzel (19-27-46) were both top-ten scorers nationally last season.
Michigan Tech has had mixed results over the years. The previously mentioned Seth Soley played two seasons, scoring only one point before off-the-ice issues pushed him to transfer to St. Norbert's College. Three recent graduates also played in the Elite League; Ryan Furne, Dan Sova and Walker Hyland all played a role in returning Michigan Tech to respectability. While all three lost playing time over their four years, they were still helpful in improving the team and continued to be good team players as their roles diminished. The caliber of recruits to choose Tech with Elite League experience has increased over the years with current captain Cliff Watson and two veteran forwards leading the way in Tyler Heinonen and Dylan Steman. Those three players will be expected to preform at a high level in key roles this season.
Sophomore Jake Jackson also played in the Elite League and carries high expectations this season if he can learn to be a team player. Freshman Mitch Reinke has already been thrown into the fire with regular time on the power play and he doesn't look out of place at all. Joe Schuldt (whose career ended early due to injury) and Brett Boeing (who left the team after last year's GLI) also played in Elite League but didn't pan out for the Huskies.
Michigan Tech has four future Huskies who have played in the Elite League. Cliff Watson's younger brother Cooper played two years with Team Wisconsin while the dynamic Jackson Cates from Stillwater, Minn. played last season. Both should head to Houghton in 2017. Keaton Pehrson has participated in the last two season in the Elite League while a more recent recruit, Brian Halonen only participated as a senior but led all scorers with 26 points.
If history is any indicator, the leading scorer in the Elite League should have a very productive college career. Every leading scorer from the seasons we could dig up (2006, 2009-2013) has gone on to have success at the college level, scoring nearly a point per game (Chase Polacek, Caleb Herbert, Tony Cameranesi, Justin Kloos, TJ Moore and Tyler Sheehy). Hopefully Halonen can live up to to those who came before him.
The Upper Midwest Elite League has an excellent track record of high-caliber collegiate talent, and by its nature allows scouts from all levels to see the Upper Midwest's best players play against each other. This has really helped players from smaller, lesser-known high schools throughout Minnesota get noticed. Michigan Tech, as well as some of the top tier college teams, have been scouting this league heavily for over a decade, and that isn't likely to change. Some of MTU's recent and current stars have come from the Elite League, and many potential future leaders have spent time there. Look for Tech to continue to recruit from this pool, and for the guys who come out of it to perform at a high level. Join us again next week in our Recruiting Grounds series, when we take a look at the BCHL, Canada's best Junior A hockey league.
Recruit of the Week
Since this is the award of the year, we'll look beyond last week and recognize Marcus Mitchell. He verbally committed to Michigan Tech less than two months ago and had a nice run for Salmon Arm (BCHL) during the month of October. In 12 games for the Silverbacks, Mitchell scored 5 goals and 11 total points while also being recognized as the 1st Star of the game twice. That run has propelled him to third on the team in scoring. He had the best month of any future Husky in Junior Hockey and could be a dynamic player when he heads to Houghton in a year or two.
Cover image of Brian Halonen courtesy of Nick Wosika/Elite League