Passeno, Philo make Byron Center a different team

One player from every team at the North-South Showcase that caught my attention

Craig Peterson

January 15, 2024

Photo from Instagram | @benpasseno24
Photo from Instagram | @benpasseno24

‘Depth’ was a popular topic of discussion during my weekend at the North-South Showcase. 

Most teams — even 76th ranked Kingsford, as an example — have a top line of talented forwards. Gavin Moore and Jake Crockford really impressed me in Traverse City against good competition, proving to be a nice duo for the Flivvers. More on them in a bit.

Some teams have two really good lines or a solid three-line rotation. I think of East Grand Rapids, the Bay Reps and Forest Hills Central among those with solid rotational depth. This is where names like James Albers comes in to play for the Pioneers or Larson Millar for the Reps, and the Rangers’ Henry and Harper Vonk on the back end.

Then there’s a select few, Marquette and Byron Center in this case, who’s discipline, structure and weapons go deeper than just about anyone else. That is where the real danger resides. Marquette was breath-taking to watch from a coaching perspective. Thirty-second shifts, aggressive forecheck, tremendous effort, sound defensively. Wave after wave after wave. It was a coaches’ dream to watch. Byron Center was so dynamic and dangerously talented, oozing with goal scorers and play-makers. An embarrassment of riches for both squads as they displayed to those in attendance why they should be considered top teams in the state.

There was a ton of action over the weekend, and I did my best to bounce back between rinks at the Centre Ice Arena to catch as much of it as possible. Hell, I even hopped on a bench and ran lines for two games (More on that on this week’s podcast). I’ve got detailed notes on almost 100 players, and I’ll continue to share more thoughts in the coming days. But I did want to provide some instant reaction, and notes on select players that really stuck with me for a wide range of reasons. Some were clearly the best players on the ice. Others were pivotal role players. A couple more might’ve just had a really great game. Nonetheless, it’s all worth noting, so here’s at least one player from every team at the North-South Showcase who made an impact. 

James Albers, East Grand Rapids Junior Forward

Ian MacKeigan, Glenn Green, Scotty Millman, Charlie Hoekstra… Every time I watch EGR, a new forward jumps out to me. This time, it was Albers, who flashed some explosive hands with a forehand-backhand deke to get around a tough St. Edward’s defender. He followed that play up with his first goal of the weekend in Friday afternoon’s 2-0 win. Albers joined the offensive rush and found open ice as he crossed the blue line. He fired a quick shot off the pass, forcing the goalie to make the initial save. Then, Albers followed the play and earned a second-chance opportunity, and scored to double the Pioneers’ lead over St. Edward’s. It took three sentences for me to explain it but only 1.5 seconds for the play to unfold. He showed a nice ability to make effective plays at a fast pace.

Jack Balahoski, Big Rapids Senior Defenseman

He’s the team’s leading scorer, and does it all for the Cardinals playing forward and defense. Maybe an easy one to spotlight for Big Rapids, but the team’s biggest player came through in its biggest moments of the weekend. He scored a power-play goal on Thursday to give the Cardinals a 3-2 lead. Then, after losing the lead and tying the game late in regulation, Balahoski came through in overtime to win it against Lake Orion. He’s got 10 goals in a season for the second straight time in his career.

Ryan Belanger, Plymouth Senior Forward

Continually caught my eye with the ‘right’ plays. A puck bounced Belanger’s way while in the midst of traffic, and his immediate reaction was to make a quick bump pass to Noah Smentowski in open space. Smentowski fired a shot on net that generated a rebound right back out into the slot. Belanger was there to one-touch it back to the net for a nice put-back goal. Both of those plays within seconds of each other displayed Belanger’s instinctual, knee-jerk reactions as the game unfolded. I love that, because it was essentially a microcosm for the way he plays the game and moments like that highlight a player’s hockey IQ and tendencies on the ice.

Nolan Bink, Escanaba Junior Defenseman

Listed as a forward, Bink stepped up on an Eskymos’ shortened bench and played some defense this weekend with only 10 skaters. He looked like a natural, got a ton of puck touches and made a bunch of plays in the process. Bink flashed a real nice skating ability with slick hands and good instincts. Defenseman Ben Sands wired an 80-foot D-to-D pass across the offensive blue line that caught Bink in an awkward predicament. A lefty on the right side, he adjusted his body accordingly, caught the pass cleanly on his backhand, quickly moved it to his forehand and created a scoring opportunity without breaking stride.

Thomas Boynton-Fisher, Bay Reps Senior Forward

His brother, Tyler Boynton-Fisher, had a pretty busy night against Marquette. While he only faced 20 shots on goal, Marquette spent long stretches in the offensive zone that kept Tyler on his toes and under constant pressure. On the other end of the rink, Thomas snapped off a no-doubter from 50 feet out that went bar down past Marquette goalie Cole Kelly. It ended up being his first of five points, as Thomas factored in on all but two Bay Reps goals over the weekend. He’s got the size, plays with pace, and has a heavy shot. Definitely worth taking a long look at for anyone in the American Tier-II junior or Canadian Junior-A hockey world.

Matt Daoust, Utica Eisenhower Sophomore Defenseman

I was thoroughly impressed by some of the intangibles on display by a one-win hockey team. Sophomore Andrew Empson and freshman Weston Szudarek showed nice instincts and skating ability from the back end. Daoust definitely factored into that equation on defense as well. There’s some really good, young talent on this team and I’m excited for them for earning not one, but two wins over the weekend. Daoust flashed his footwork along the blue line, opening up his hips, walking to the middle of the ice and finding shooting lanes. Empson and Szudarek all made similar plays with the puck on their sticks as well. Development and growth will be key in the future, but I left feeling very encouraged about the potential on this team.

Kevin Dolney, Chippewa Valley United Junior Forward

I actually thought Kingsford outplayed Chip Valley for long stretches of the 4-3 overtime game. But hockey is a funny sport, in that the better team doesn’t always win. Chip Valley capitalized on its opportunities, and Dolney was one of those players who made sure to finish when he got the chance. He lined up an opposing player quite nicely in the neutral zone that created a turnover, and line mate Jake Paperi took off on a breakaway. While Paperi wasn’t able to score, Dolney — after creating the turnover — followed up the play and chipped in the rebound. He followed that shorthanded goal up with the game-winning goal on the power play in overtime. A very opportunistic type of player.

Logan Eland, M-1 United Senior Forward

He’s a little undersized but Eland’s skating ability certainly makes up for it. A good skater who’s very fluid with the puck on his stick. Whether he was jumping into scrums along the boards or making breakout passes coming up the ice, Eland just seemed to be around the play constantly. He saw a lot of puck touches over the weekend, and was able to capitalize on those opportunities. His two goals and assist against Allen Park were evidence of just that, and it was Eland’s fourth three-point game in the past four weeks. The Griffins are 10-1-0 when Eland gets on the scoresheet and 1-2-0 when he does not.

Braden Graham, Lake Orion Sophomore Forward

There’s a good amount of potential in Graham’s game. He does a lot of little things you love to see as a coach. His feet were moving, he anticipated well, and there was intent and purpose behind his play. Graham jumped on a vulnerable Kingsford defenseman below the goal line. A scrum ensued, the puck squirted out, and half a second later, Derek Ryberg was chipping in a garbage goal in front. It may not be pretty, but Graham’s work ethic directly influenced the Dragons’ offense in a positive way. Still a long way to go in rounding out and cleaning up his game, but I like his foundation and instincts.

Owen Hall, Livonia Stevenson Junior Forward

If you give him an open look, he’s gonna make you pay. Three goals on the weekend. None bigger than his blocked shot on the penalty kill that led to a breakaway, rebound, putback to win it with 41 seconds left in the game against Forest Hills Central. A really complete player who is strong, skates well, sound positionally and dangerous in open ice. He’s the prototypical Stevenson forward with a high motor and compete level that functions at a fast pace. Hall is really tough to play against for anybody at this level.

Eli Lipke, Forest Hills Central Junior Defenseman

I got to witness Lipke’s responsible play first-hand, serving as temporary D coach for the Rangers over the weekend. He’s a long, rangy defenseman that doesn’t overcomplicate the game. Hard on pucks up the wall and out of the zone. Simple eight-foot passes to the near-side winger. Firm D-to-D passes in a neutral zone regroup. Lipke’s a good skater, with great size and reach, and values simple over sexy plays. A goal and an assist on the weekend give him a team-leading 20 points in 16 games this season. 

Vaughn Meade, Allen Park Senior Defenseman

I was thoroughly impressed by the Jags’ overall talent level. Bobby Leis and Logan Jent were a pretty dangerous tandem up front. Goaltender Jack Miller has received a ton of recognition this season as well. But Alex Hoerle, Connor Baker and Meade were all nice on the back end, and worth highlighting too! Hoerle is a really good skater with fluid footwork. Baker is a very similar player, very comfortable with the puck on his stick. Meade makes it an impressive trio on the back end, and his combination of speed, hands and rhythm is what caught my attention. He joined the rush with ease, head-manned the puck and executed effective zone entries. He lined up a St. Edward’s forward beautifully with a hip check in the corner. Plus, Meade wired a wrist shot on net in a fluid catch-and-release movement that got in the funnel quickly.

Brandon Meyers, Traverse City West Senior Forward

It was a tough weekend for the Titans, as Lincoln Seyferth scored the team’s only goal in two games. Meyers did have a moment off the ice, though, as he signed with the Notre Dame Hounds in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL). He’s the top forward for West, with six goals and 13 points, and did a nice job playing the middle in their lineup. The Titans were on their heels a bit, with long stretches in the D-zone. That certainly tested Meyers’ ability to maintain position and support of the play, even for long periods of time. 

Jack Micus, Grand Rapids Christian Junior Defenseman

It seemed like every time Micus was on the ice, he was around the play in some capacity. He’s got great size, plays with speed and quick to make plays when the puck is on his stick. There was a really nice sequence in the neutral zone where he caught a pass with his back to defenders. He didn’t hastily make a chip up the wall or tip the puck into the zone or panic with pressure barreling down on him. Micus caught the pass, waited for his weak-side winger to get a head of steam and then hit him in stride with a 70-foot pass on the tape for a clean zone entry. He also likes to shoot, finding open ice and getting pucks to the net with a purpose.

Gavin Moore, Kingsford Junior Forward

He’s a shooter. Moore was busy offensively, and while he only scored one goal on the weekend, he was very active. Between him and Jake Crockford, the Flivvers had a real good one-two punch that competed well against Lake Orion and Chippewa Valley United. I actually thought they were the two best players on the ice, even in defeat on Saturday. Moore supported the play well as a center, showed good control of the puck and spent a lot of time in the opponent’s end. If Kingsford had just a little bit more depth, the team’s 4-12-0 record could look incredibly different. That top line showed a good compete level, ability to create offense and made plays in all three zones.

Ben Passeno, Byron Center Senior Forward

Cade Pratt and Jackson Froysland have grabbed all the headlines and drawn much of the attention when talking about Byron Center this season. However, players like Passeno and Braxton McKee and Luke Philo are what separates the Bulldogs from being a Top-25 team and a Top-5 team. Nothing is more important in Michigan high school hockey than depth in your lineup. Philo provides a nice burst and presence on the forecheck. Passeno displayed his ability to finish, with four goals on the weekend. They may not garner the headlines, but players like Passeno are definitely what makes Byron Center such a dangerous team.

Graham Peters, Traverse City Central Sophomore Forward

He might’ve been held off the scoresheet in both of TC Central’s games this weekend, but my attention just kept coming back to Peters again and again for various reasons. He displayed good jump and a nice first stride or two when engaging and getting into the mix along walls. It’s not too often you can visibly see a player’s hockey IQ, but you can tell Peters has a good understanding of the game as it unfolds. He goes where the puck is going, not necessarily where it is currently. I also like how much value he puts on possession of the puck. Peters rarely threw pucks away haphazardly. When he did hang on to it for long stretches, it wasn’t reckless or dangerous either, just waiting for the opportune moment to make a play. 

Chad Pietila, Howell Sophomore Defenseman

He was going every other shift for the Highlanders down the stretch against tough opponents. Pietila led the team in scoring over the weekend with three points, but it was his ability to defend the rush that impressed me most. On multiple occasions, he eliminated oncoming threats before they reached the tops of the circles. One play in particular, Pietila’s eyes were locked on the attacker’s chest. He wasn’t deterred by the dipsy-do’s or dangles, just stayed square and took the opponent out of the equation. Seems simple, but so rare by young defensemen in the game. There weren’t many free passes into the zone on Pietila’s watch; he was tough to figure out for opposing puck carriers. 

Nash Riipi, Marquette Senior Forward

He missed some time in November and December — nine games in total — but Riipi appears to be in mid-season form now. Listed at 5-foot-11, he looks and plays much bigger than that. Barreling down on defenders with their back to the play, he takes away passing lanes with a long, active stick. Riipi, along with just about everyone else on Marquette, makes it very uncomfortable for opposing players with a relentless forecheck. He chased one Howell defender down behind the net, caused a scrum, forced a takeaway and then took it to the front of the net. Riipi then looped a shot on goal while getting tangled up in sticks and bodies, scoring a hard-earned short-handed and impressive goal.  

Ryan Siler, Hudsonville Senior Goalie

The 2006-born goalie is a big, strong kid. Siler saw plenty of pucks, facing 75 shots in two games. That was actually a bit of a light workload compared to the 49.6 shots per game he’s faced this season. I thought Siler’s movement was pretty good and he anticipated the play well. Ultimately, he gave his team a chance against two superior opponents in Chippewa Valley United and Utica Eisenhower.

Braden Vanderveen, Grandville Sophomore Defenseman

There’s a ton of talented, promising sophomores in particular for Grandville. I liked Landon Smith, Zach Stonehouse and Ayden Karas, to name a few. Vanderveen continually caught my eye with his skating ability from the back end. He’d open his hips and mohawk with possession of the puck, giving himself plenty of options in what they call in basketball a ‘triple threat’ position. Vanderveen also exuded a good amount of patience; I never felt like he was rushing to make plays or hastily throwing pucks away. Love to see that out of young, growing and developing defensemen.

Gunnar Weber, Bay City Senior Forward

There’s a lot to like about the way Bay City players play the game. They went 0-2 on the weekend, but I saw Andrew Kaczmarczyk, Lucas Nieman, Caleb Anthony and many others do things to illustrate that the Wolves just play the right way. Effective and clean breakouts, pesky and relentless forechecks. And as good as the team was in those facets, Weber was the best of the bunch. He was always around the play, impacting the game on every shift. I loved his patience, and he did so without overhandling the puck or complicating the play. Weber was good when I saw him in the fall; he was even better this weekend.

Gavin Winterstein, Alpena Sophomore Forward

A lot of Alpena’s top contributors are underclassmen: Garrett Hamp, Clark Weir, Luke Miller, among others. I really like Winterstein’s upside in particular because of his size and speed. He has the makings of being a really effective power forward, displaying that with a goal against M-1 United on Saturday. Winterstein pulled away from defenders through the neutral zone, and then fired a wrist shot low and hard past the goaltender without breaking stride down the off wing. Between Winterstein’s heavy release and Garrett Hamp’s ability to finish, the Wildcats could have a pretty nasty duo for the next couple seasons.

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