The Burnsville boys hockey team has high expectations this season even though it lost a healthy portion of its lineup to graduation in the spring.
What’s left is a mix of savvy veterans and up-and-coming underclassmen ready to mix it up with anyone in the state. It just might take a few games to get there.
“We have a lot of new faces and basically half the team hasn’t played varsity hockey,” head coach Janne Kivihalme said. “We are very green. It’s going to take some time to get everybody on the same page. We’re making progress every day. The kids are working hard.”
Burnsville enters the season as the highest-ranked team in the South Suburban Conference at No. 7 on the Class AA list by Let’s Play Hockey. Eagan is one spot lower.
“We are enthusiastic about our team,” Kivihalme said. “I think we’ll be able to play with everybody once we get everything implemented. … We have strong players at each position from the net out. We’re not as big as we were last year but we’re a better skating team than last year and move the puck better.”
The team lost three of last year’s top four scorers to graduation, but the returnees include Tyler Sheehy and Teemu Kivihalme, two of the top juniors in the state. They played with Team Southeast in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League.
“They have had success at this level before,” Janne Kivihalme said. “We’re looking at building the team on those two guys.”
They’re joined by experienced players such as forwards Anthony Rikberg, Ian Taylor, Adam Schweitzer, Sam Dockry and Nick DiGregorio along with defender Dan Ames.
Mixed in will be several newcomers such as Brock Boeser and Jack Ahcan along with freshmen Nolan Sawchuck and Sam Rossini.
“All of the guys who made varsity stood out to us,” Kivihalme said. “They have a ways to go, but they’re all finely skilled hockey players.”
Goalies Chris Mallon and Nic Anderson are also back after splitting time last season.
“They’re only going to get better,” Kivihalme said.
The Blaze soon will find out just how accurate the preseason rankings are. The boys opened the season with a trip to No. 2 Hill-Murray on Thursday. Up next is a trip to No. 3 Eden Prairie on Tuesday and a visit to No. 1 Benilde-St. Margaret’s on Dec. 6.
“Our philosophy is we want to play against the top teams because we feel we’re one of the top teams,” Kivihalme said. “We want to see how they handle the adversity. It’s more of a learning and educational deal for us. We want to put them in a competitive situation where they are pushed and challenged.”
Kivihalme said the tough schedule will continue when the team starts to play in the South Suburban Conference.
“You have to just worry about yourself,” Kivihalme said. “I know all the teams will be ready when they play us.”
The boys will play at Eastview on Dec. 8 and Rosemount on Dec. 11 before playing their home opener Dec. 15 against Lakeville North.
Kivihalme mentioned Prior Lake, Eagan and Bloomington Jefferson as favorites in the SSC based on who is coming back, but he also mentioned Apple Valley, Eastview and both Lakeville teams as potential challengers.
“I know by the end of the year they’ll be playing well,” Kivihalme said.
The Blaze also will play Edina, the team that knocked Burnsville out of the playoffs the past two seasons, on Jan. 3 at Braemar Arena.