Junior defenseman Joe Palodichuk scored 39 points last season, including a team-best 35 assists. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports Media
Our too-early look at Class 2A continues as we count down the top 25 big-school teams for the 2020-21 season.
2019-20 Record: 22-6-3
Playoffs: Beat Eden Prairie 4-1 in Class 2A championship game
Early departures: 1
Seniors lost: 6
Goals for: 130
Goals lost: 68 | Goals returning: 62
Goals against: 49
Goalie minutes lost: 1419:36 | Goalie minutes returning: 209:35
Power-play percentage: 31.0
Penalty-kill percentage: 82.1
Raise your hand if you saw Hill-Murray’s 2020 state championship coming.
Come on, now. No fibbing. Unless you are Pioneers coach Bill Lechner, one of his players or maybe, just maybe, a crazed parent or fanatical alum, those hands better not be in the air.
But who would have guessed that Charlie Strobel would emerge as both a singularly focused (championship or bust) leader and deliver-in-the-clutch scorer? Or that Hill-Murray’s group of defensemen, led by juniors Joe Palodichuk and Matthew Fleischhacker, would stake its claim as the state’s best with a dominating three-game state tourney run?
It would be an insult to the Pioneers’ boatload of talent to say it took an aligning of the stars or surge in lunar gravity for them to win the program’s fourth championship. Luck? Sure, a fortuitous bounce here or there never hurts, but Hill-Murray was built to overcome bad luck as much as it was capitalize on good.
Speaking of bad fortune, Palodichuk, a Wisconsin commit and the Pioneers’ top returning scorer with 39 points, was deemed too sick to play in the state championship game against Eden Prairie. And the Pioneers still played near-perfect defense in their 4-1 victory over the Eagles.
So why not begin our too-early look at the Pioneers with their defensive unit, which returns not only Palodichuk and Fleischhacker, the team’s No. 2 returning scorer with 34 points (10 goals and 24 assists) but also sophomore Axel Begley (15 points). Two more sophomores Leo Gruba and Luke Hause, saw significant playing time and have the potential to emerge as major contributors.
But the Hill-Murray talent pipeline has been gushing with top-level prospects in recent years, including sophomore Nick Erickson from Apple Valley. The 6-foot-3 Erickson, who earned an invite to USA Hockey’s Select 15 Player Development Camp last summer, posted fantastic numbers (1.22 goals against average, .935 save percentage) last winter in a backup role and figures to be the Pioneers’ new starter.
Strobel’s four-goal state tournament performance helped land him a scholarship to play at Minnesota. He finished second on the Pioneers in scoring with 54 points and first in goals with 27, but his organization of team-bonding summer activities before the season and team, team, team mindset might have been just as crucial.
Pierre, the team’s top scorer with 59 points, has indicated he’ll play junior hockey in the USHL next season for the Sioux City Musketeers. The winger with blazing speed and a wicked shot will be sorely missed should he, indeed, depart early. But, again, the Hill-Murray program, after a couple of so-so seasons by its lofty standards before last year's championship breakthrough, has such an overflow of talent it should overcome the loss of Pierre.
A similar scenario played out last season when superb defenseman Brett Oberle, committed to Minnesota Duluth, skipped his senior season with the Pioneers to play for the Minnesota Magicians of the NAHL.
Dylan Godbout (13 goals, 15 assists), a sophomore and Wisconsin commit who was named to the all-tournament team, appears poised to lead a skilled and deep forward group that also includes standout junior Jared Jensen (10 goals, 8 assists). Junior Max Zupfer and sophomore Nate Hardy each scored seven goals last season. And junior forwards Nick Mountain and Triston Tabucol are so highly regarded they earned regular playing time in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League last fall.
Replacement players will come from a talent-laden junior varsity squad that went 24-1 and features an assortment of offspring or relatives of former legendary players. Names such as Bonin, Sampair, Quinlan, Hurley and Luger, to name a few.
In particular, keep an eye out for sophomore forwards Brendan Bonin, son of former White Bear Lake and Minnesota star Brian Bonin, Gianni Hurley and Anthony Madigan -- a 5-foot-4 jitterbug with 360-degree ice vision -- to crack the varsity roster.