Top 25 Team Tiers

Paul Baker Puts Lakeland in the Discussion among top teams

Craig Peterson

January 9, 2024

Photo by CH Sport Photo
Photo by CH Sport Photo

We’re at the halfway point of the regular season, as nearly 60 percent of the teams in Michigan high school hockey have played half of their schedule. If you’ve been following along on the podcast, or YouTube or the blogs, then you’re up-to-date on my Top 10 Rankings. I update that group on a weekly basis, but each month, I’ve expanded those thoughts to 25 teams. Not only that, but I’ve categorized those 25 teams into groups within the group:

Front-runners: They’re out in front of the pack as tops in the state, and their playoff division.
Favorites: Teams capable of competing for a state title, and bringing home hardware.
Contenders: Regional players with potential to compete with those ranked ahead of them.
Longshots: Definitely underdogs, but if you get caught sleeping on ‘em, they’ll bite ya.

There was significant movement across the board, with several teams even jumping up from Favorites to Front-runners and falling from Contenders to Longshots. Last month’s Top 25 Team Tiers may be worth a refresher, but let’s get into the latest rankings…

1Detroit Catholic Central
3Byron Center
7Bay Reps
8Trenton hockey logoTrenton
9Orchard Lake St. Mary's (OLSM) hockey logoOrchard Lake St. Mary’s
10U of D Jesuit hockey logoU of D Jesuit
11Brother Rice hockey logoBrother Rice
12East Grand Rapids
13De La Salle Hockey logoDe La Salle
14Grand Rapids Catholic Central
15Marquette hockey logoMarquette
17Livonia Stevenson hockey logoLivonia Stevenson
19Flint Powers hockey logoFlint Powers
20M-1 United
21Sault Ste. Marie
22Bay City
23Jackson Lumen Christi
25White Lake Lakeland
Last updated: Jan. 8th, 2024

Hartland Enters Front-Runner Conversation

Detroit Catholic Central, Houghton and Byron Center remain intact month-over-month. No surprise at all either, given what CC has done while both the Gremlins and Bulldogs remain undefeated. Hartland, however, has shown to make pretty big strides from its 1-2-1 start to the season. I was never worried about the Eagles; they’re a very talented bunch with Ian Kastamo, Drew L’Esperance and Jake Pietila making plays. Michael Zielinski has turned it on recently as well, on a four-game point streak coinciding with Hartland’s current four-game win streak. 

A 19-game win streak by CC was snapped just before holiday break. Mathieu Chernauckas made 18 saves in a 2-1 loss to out-of-state Lake Forest Academy. That was the Shamrocks fifth of seven scheduled games against out-of-state opponents. Against fellow Michigan high school programs, they continued their dominance with a pair of wins over Grosse Pointe South and No. 9 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. 

Both Houghton and Byron Center continue their respective unbeaten streaks. No team has scored more than two goals against the Gremlins in a game this season, and Bryant Lee looks to be the best goalie in the state so far. He’s got a 1.00 goals-against average and an astounding .951 save percentage. Downstate, the Bulldogs looked to be human in a 3-3 tie to the Bay Reps on Saturday. Make no mistake, they’re still a dominant team and an absolute front-runner, outshooting the Bay Reps 38-27. But Grant Lucas and Ethan Coleman showed that BC could get got, coupling top-level forwards with a big performance in net from Tyler Boynton-Fisher.

Bay Reps Becoming A Favorite in Division-III

They’re just 4-2-2 since I last updated my Top 25 teams, but the Bay Reps’ resume is really starting to come together. Two of their three losses are to teams that they’ve also beaten (No. 14 Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Northville) and the tie to Byron Center shows they belong in the conversation. Lucas, Coleman and Thomas Boynton-Fisher are nasty top-line options that only two or three teams in the state can match. And, Tyler Boynton-Fisher in net may just be a sophomore, but he’s very talented and showed against the Bulldogs he’s capable of giving the Reps a chance in high stakes matchups.

Like the Bay Reps, Clarkston’s top line is almost unmatched. Ron Wade has 26 points, and Owen Croston, Kyle Lynch and Gavin Anderson are point-per-game guys as well. Sophomore goalie Brady Damian hasn’t seen a ton of action — 24 shots is the most he’s faced in a single game  so far — but he’s been stellar with an 8-2-0 record, 1.66 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. He shut out No. 17 Livonia Stevenson on the road, and the boys are buzzing on a seven-game win streak.

After convincing losses to No. 4 Hartland and No. 16 Hancock, I couldn’t in good faith keep Brighton in the Front-runners group. With names like Cam Duffany and Lane Petit on the lineup card, though, the Bulldogs are still an obvious favorite. This stretch in the calendar can feel like the dog days a bit for teams like Brighton. You’ve got goals and aspirations of winning a state title in March, so non-conference games with little on the line can be hard to get up for in January. It’s not an excuse, but I’m confident the D-I state title still goes through Brighton in some capacity.

Trenton has quietly built an impressive body of work this season, riding a six-game win streak. I’m admittedly lower on them than some other outlets, and the strength of schedule being a big reason for that. Matchups with No. 4 Hartland, No. 9 Orchard Lake, No. 11 Brother Rice and No. 1 DCC are all on the horizon this month, so it’s a ‘prove it’ opportunity to move up for the Trojans. 

I’m holding firm on Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the Favorites tier, which is a bit lower than some other outlets. The Eaglets are winless in their last three games and may be cooling off a bit after a loss to No. 13 De La Salle and a 5-5 tie with Rice. They’re still a team I expect to be in the mix, given their resume thus far, but their plus-7 goal differential has me a bit concerned.

East Grand Rapids Heating Up As A Contender

They remain 12th in the Top 25, but East Grand Rapids is really starting to catch fire. Football player Ian MacKeigan is finding his stride, literally, leading the team in scoring with 10 goals and 19 points. He’s not the only one who made the challenging transition from gridiron to ice rink. East is on a heater, winning six of the last seven and its “worst” loss is a 2-0 thriller to No. 14 GRCC. They also knocked off fellow Contender No. 19 Flint Powers and have a fortuitous slate ahead of them

Brother Rice is bouncing back a little bit. Started 3-3-0, and only 2-2-1 in their last five, but the Warriors are playing better hockey. Close losses to fellow Contender U of D and Frontrunner Hartland, plus a 5-5 tie with Orchard Lake. If goaltending gets hot, Rice could be a real problem for people late in the season. 

I have U of D ahead of its MIHL counterparts in this tier, but there’s opportunities for change in the near future with matchups against De La Salle and Rice before season’s end. The Cubs have stiff matchups with Houghton, Orchard Lake, GRCC and DCC. Wins in just a couple of those matchups could propel the boys into a higher tier, and do so just at the right time as well.

Flint Powers’ four losses have come in arguably its four biggest games of the season. They are very much a Contender to defend their Division-III state championship crown, but I need to see them prove it before I move them any higher. Ayden Cook, Brendan Sly and Andrew Parmentier are coming up in big spots, but the Chargers just have to find a way to close out some of these games. There’s more opportunities coming for Powers to prove itself and push up the rankings with games at the MIHL Showcase, Orchard Lake and Hartland all on the schedule.

It was important for Grand Rapids Catholic Central to get a win back from the Bay Reps in their rematch over the weekend. A 2-1 win at home was nice after losing 5-0 in Traverse City last month. Trent Goheen stopped 27 shots in that one; a much lighter workload than the 44 shots he faced last time out against the Reps. He’ll give the Cougars a chance in just about every matchup, and that’s what makes them such a legitimate Contender.

Marquette made the biggest move of any team in my Top 25, up four spots from the last rankings. Them and Hancock are attached at the hip after Marquette topped the Bulldogs 1-0. I think these two teams are very similar, and fit that stereotypical U.P.-style team. Hard-working, relentless, aggressive, in-your-face style that doesn’t let up. There really aren’t any standout performers for Marquette, it’s just the sum is greater than its individual parts. Nineteen skaters and they all have multiple points this season. But, I will say I’m a big Seth Sandstrom fan and believe he’s the best freshman in the state. Hancock is very similar with a team full of work-hard, energy guys, but they’re not quite as deep. Todd Kilpela is pretty nasty on the blue line though, and I’d take him on my team in a heartbeat.

I have Livonia Stevenson ahead of Howell purely based off of what I’ve seen so far. You can scoreboard watch. You can run analytics and equations to produce a ranking. But when it comes to these two KLAA teams, I’m just trusting what I’ve seen without them having gone head-to-head yet. Good news is, the Spartans and Highlanders will settle the debate near the end of the month when Stevenson travels to Howell. The Highlanders may be the most talented they’ve been in years, but have shown a tendency to struggle with opponents that theoretically punch them in the mouth. That is Stevenson’s M-O; They may not be pretty but they’re damn sure gonna work their asses off. Howell can beat the Spartans, but I’d have to see it first to move them ahead in my Top 25.

Lumen Christi, Romeo, Lakeland Join The Longshots

I love when a team with something to prove goes out and wins the biggest game on their schedule. Jackson Lumen Christi did just that over the weekend, upsetting No. 14 Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Zach Jaakkola made 39 save in that game; the fifth time he’s made 30-or-more saves this season. As long as he’s in net, the Titans have a chance to win. They’ve only got one game remaining against a currently ranked opponent, so I’d expect Lumen to really go on a run in 2024.

Sault Ste. Marie — the only team to defeat Lumen Christi thus far — is among some of the biggest movers in my Top 25. They’re up four spots after going unbeaten in their last four games and coming away with a pretty impressive 1-1 tie with De La Salle. I said if they could keep it low scoring, they’d have a chance to win, and the Blue Devils did just that. Cam LaBadie kept it close, making 34 saves in that one. Their schedule is a bit backloaded, and they’ve got some tough games coming up. A great opportunity for The Soo to continue climbing up the ranks and maybe jump into a higher tier as well.

I’m becoming a big Zach Schalk fan. What he’s done at Bay City and how he’s built that program over the last few seasons has been very impressive. He should deliver a TED Talk in how to build a program in Michigan high school hockey. The Wolves are 6-1-0 in the last month, and may be the favorite in every matchup remaining on the schedule. People will see the success of this season for leading scorer Gunnar Weber and Bay City, but it’s really been years in the making.

I’ll be watching all 24 teams in action at the North-South Showcase, but one of the teams I’m most intrigued to see is M-1 United. Junior Charlie Price is a stud with 28 points in 12 games, but the strength of schedule has left quite a bit to be desired. In fact, it’s the weakest among teams I have ranked in the Top 25. Now SOS isn’t the end all, be all, and that’s why I’ll be watching the Griffins closely. How’s the forecheck? Good effort on a backcheck? Guys sprinting to spots? Responsible positioning in the D-zone? All things I’ll be looking for to compare/contrast against teams ranked ahead of them.

Romeo and White Lake Lakeland are two of the fresh faces to make the Top-25 picture. I’ve gotten lots of comments about how good Eastside teams are this season, but it’s been hard to judge when they only seem to play each other. However, the Bulldogs’ 11-1-1 start is undeniable at this point, and Spencer Groszkiewicz is having a stellar season with 12 goals and 24 points. Romeo’s got a huge opportunity next week against Clarkston. They don’t have to win that game to prove to me they’re legit, but I can’t have them fall flat in the biggest game on their schedule either. Lakeland is a good example of doing just that, playing teams like Trenton and Sault Ste. Marie to close games. Senior Paul Baker is 9-3-1 with sub-2.00 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. I heard some pretty glowing reviews of him this season, and after watching a period of the Eagles over the weekend, I’m starting to believe the hype. Good goaltending always give you a chance, and great goaltending has moved Lakeland in the mix among Longshots.

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