Both decisions were tough. Both decisions were correct. Craig Smith and Jordy Murray were presented with opportunities this off-season to take their games to the next level, and get paid handsomely to do so.
Despite repeatedly proclaiming that he would be returning for his junior season, the opportunity presented to Smith by the Nashville Predators was too much to pass up. Smith was given a $180,000 signing bonus (over two seasons), and a contract that will average $715,000 a season if he's in the NHL, and $67,000 if he's in the AHL. Looks like he won't have to worry about that AHL salary, as it was announced that he has made the Predators out of training camp.
Murray's situation was a lot more complicated. Due to his families ties and his time spent in Switzerland as a youngster, Murray is able to be classified at a Swiss citizen in pro hockey. And given Swiss pro teams can only have 4 import players, his value is exponentially higher as a Swiss citizen. Unfortunately that loophole for him was in jeopardy, and if he didn't sign when he did, could have lost that opportunity forever.
Unfortunately it's the nature of the beast at a school like Wisconsin. When you recruit the best players, the best players leave early. Now Mike Eaves and company run the tough task or trying to replace the production of those two players who were fantastic during their Badger careers.
Michael Mersch-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
The first place to look, is at the sophomore trio of Mark Zengerle, Tyler Barnes, and Michael Mersch. Eaves has already anointed them the top line to start the season and they will be relied upon heavily to put points on the board for a young Badger squad.
Zengerle will be centering the top unit, the first time he's played center at the collegiate level. The position isn't entirely foreign to him, in fact he's said in the past it's the place where he's the most comfertable.The shifty right hander put up 36 points as a freshman, but 31 of those points came on assists. Zengerle MUST score more goals for the Badgers this season.
Barnes showed flashes of brilliance last year and is a real breakout candidate. He plays well with the puck and and should thrive playing with a distributor like Zengerle. Put up 17 points in his rookie season but should see that number double in year two.
Mersch had a breakout year as a freshman putting up 8 goals and 19 points. When the season started, many weren't sure what to expect from the lanky lefty who had a down year at the NTDP before coming to Wisconsin. Mersch silenced the critics last year and played his way into the fourth round of the NHL Draft. Mersch will be a key player up front this season especially on the power play where he'll be given an opportunity to find some garbage goals.
Derek Lee-Jefferson Dahl
Derek Lee and Jefferson Dahl look to be crucial members of the 2011-2012 Wisconsin squad. Eaves loves to be strong down the middle and Lee and Dahl have been tabbed as the Badgers second and third line centers to start the season.
Lee played in the middle at the start of last season but switched to wing after an experiment with Podge Turnbull at center was successful. Moving Lee back to the middle this season should provide him some more room to work and free him up to distribute the puck. Lee has been paired up with freshman Joseph LaBate in early practices who has a big time shot and could make for a really nice unit. Lee recorded 17 points a year ago but is going to be relied upon by Eaves as a big time point producer this season. I could see him reaching the 30 point plateau.
Dahl played center for the entirety of last season, mostly on the fourth line. He's one of the most defensively responsible players on the team, and should be looked upon as one of the teams top penalty killers this season. Dahl brings a lot of hockey IQ to the table, and Eaves isn't afraid to play him in any situation.
Brad Navin-Joseph LaBate
Grouping Navin and LaBate together for me was fairly obvious. Both were 2011 NHL draft picks. Both are coming straight out of high school hockey. Both are left handed. Both have outstanding size. And possibly most importantly, they both shoot the puck very, very well.
As I already mentioned, LaBate has been paired up with Derek Lee and is going to be relied upon early in his college career to put points up. LaBate was a big time scorer in high school and should be put in spots to succeed by Eaves. Lee is a great center for him and is a guy that can get him the puck in scoring areas.
Navin could have more of an adjustment to the WCHA coming from Wisconsin high school hockey as he's the last player to do so in some time. Navin moves well for a man of his size and if he can get his cannon off on a consistent basis, could be a sneaky scoring threat for the Badgers.
Keegan Meuer-Ryan Little
Little and Meuer are going to be two players to keep an eye on for the Badgers this season. With the youth on this squad, Meuer and Little are two of the most experienced players on the roster. Both players have taken a red-shirt during their Badger careers and need to set the bar in practice and in games for some of the younger players.
Meuer is starting the season centering the fourth line, a role that he hasn't played since joining the Badgers. Meuer is a prideful player and knows what it takes to be a successful Badger. He should get plenty of opportunities this season in the role he's in and should chip in few points as well.
Ryan Little is wearing a letter on his sweater this season and will be given an opportunity to play some big time minutes against some big time players. Little is currently playing on a line with Dahl and Navin and will be looked upon to shut other teams scoring units down. One of the hardest working players on the roster, Little is poised for a big junior season.
Jason Clark-Gavin Hartzog-Sean Little
Clark, Little and Hartzog are an interesting trio to analyze. All are sophomores and none of them had great freshman seasons. Clark and Hartzog are projected to be in the lineup, but neither one of them have secured every night positions.
Clark was the more highly touted recruit out of the three, but suffered through hip injuries for the majority of his freshman campaign. Clark had surgery on both hips over the summer to repair them and looks to be full go heading into this season. He's currently on the fourth unit paired up with Hartzog and Meuer but should be on a scoring line. There is a glaring hole on the second line with LaBate and Lee that Clark could take if he starts the season with a bang.
Hartzog struggled in his last few seasons of junior hockey but looked all world in a USHL tryout last summer, prompting Eaves to bring in the 6'3 winger a year early. Projected to be a John Mitchell type player, Hartzog never really got things going as a freshman. He'll be presented with the first crack at right wing on that fourth line to start the season and it's going to be up to him to see what he does with it.
Sean Little probably played the least out of all of the forwards on the roster last season and has the chip on his shoulder to prove it. Anyone who knows the Little brothers understands the type of game that they play and Sean is going to be fighting and clawing to get his way into the lineup in his second season in Madison.
Matt Paape-Brendan Woods-Tyler Lapic
We'll round out our preview with a group of three freshmen that no one is sure what to expect of them yet. Paape has been given the first crack at a roster spot being thrown on a line with Lee and LaBate. I'm not sure he currently possesses the talent level to stick in a top 6 role but it says something about his level of skill that Eaves is willing to give him the opportunity. Woods and Lapic are currently fighting to make it into the lineup.
Paape was used primarily as a defensive forward in the USHL so it's intriguing that Eaves would pair up up early with Lee and LaBate. Most likely, Eaves is looking for Paape to play more of a defensive roll on that line which should free up Lee and LaBate to be a little more creative offensively.
Woods has an NHL type body and does a lot of things well. He's going to get an opportunity to get in the lineup at some point on the wing most likely with Meuer's line. Being simple, clearing the puck, finishing checks, and getting the puck deep are going to be key's for Woods to stay in the lineup.
Lapic, due to his lackluster junior career is going to start on one of the lower rungs of the totem poll to start the season. He's proven in the past that he's got the skills to play at this level, but it remains to be seen how quickly he will pick up the pace of play. Like Woods, he's going to have to really focus on being strong in his own end first and worry about offense later.
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