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Hockey preview: There’s no need for Minnesotans to jump to juniors

Florida Panthers forward Kyle Rau plays the puck during the first period of a Nov. 15 game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Rau played Juniors after his high school season. Eric Bolte / USA Today Sports

The debate rages: Should the top high school hockey players skip their senior seasons to play juniors?

The answer is “no,” the reason simple: They don’t need to.

Louie St. George

Despite pressure to leave, Matt Niskanen remained with Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl in 2004-05. The move hurt him so much that the defenseman, in 2014, inked a seven-year, $40.25 million contract with the Washington Capitals.

Minnesota Duluth freshman Riley Tufte started last season with Fargo in the United States Hockey League before returning to Blaine in November. After the Bengals were ousted from the section playoffs, Tufte rejoined Fargo. In June, he was selected in the first round of the NHL draft.

Casey Mittelstadt will skate for Eden Prairie this winter, and he’ll likely be a first-round pick next summer.

The best prospects in the State of Hockey face zero risk of being overlooked if they put off the USHL or North American Hockey League for a year. Be a teenager, share a locker room with your buddies one more time, work like dogs to reach Xcel Energy Center in March. If you can play, college coaches will find you. NHL scouts will find you. They’ll find you on a high school team, they’ll find you in the reputable Elite League and they’ll find you if you choose to play juniors immediately before and/or immediately after the prep season.

“High school is the last year before it comes to business,” Mittelstadt recently told the Game On Minnesota website.

Mittelstadt consulted others, including Tufte, who stayed. They all told him the same thing — “best year of your life,” according to the website.

Juniors can wait.

“If you’re thinking you’re going to play in the NHL, guess what? You’re five, six years away from playing in the NHL,” Duluth East coach Mike Randolph said.

Randolph has had players leave. Most coaches of elite prep programs have. But it’s not necessary, they say. And some would argue it hinders development.

“You’re on the first line, the power play, getting 25-30 minutes a night (in high school),” Grand Rapids coach Trent Klatt said. “Isn’t that better than playing fourth line and getting six minutes a night in juniors?”

Said Randolph: “Stick around and be the guy.”

Playing juniors doesn’t guarantee anything, other than an inability to compete in the premier state tournament in America.

And what about bailing on the communities and youth programs that invest their time and resources to provide development opportunities? How does one simply ignore those coaches and volunteers that worked with them from mites to peewees to bantams? What about teammates they’ve sweated alongside since Day 1? How do you walk away from that?

Randolph visited the opposing locker room after Eden Prairie outlasted East in an epic 2011 state final. He praised the Eagles for staying. Senior Kyle Rau, who notched the game-winner in the third overtime, was among the stars Randolph addressed that night.

Rau is now with the Florida Panthers.

“You don’t have to go anywhere,” Randolph says.

Louie St. George III is a News Tribune sports writer.

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