Badger Hockey Season Preview: Defense

All-American Justin Schultz will be relied up on to play big minutes for the Badgers this year.

It's a rare treat that the Wisconsin Badgers return their leading scorer from a season ago. Even more rare, is the fact that last years leading scorer was a defenseman. Of course I'm talking about Justin Schultz, who broke onto the national scene as a sophomore last season. Schultz  was paired up with Jake Gardiner and they formed the most potent defensive pair in college hockey.

Gardiner has since moved on, signing a pro contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gardiner was ready to make the jump, and the Maple Leafs rewarded him with a $262,500 signing bonus (over 3 years), and a salary that will average $875,000 a year if he's in the NHL. Gone too off last seasons roster is Craig Johnson who is moving on after a nice four year career for the Badgers.

As usual the Badgers reload on the blue-line. Incoming freshmen Jake McCabe (Eau Claire, WI) from the National Team Development Program and Patrick Daly (Victoria, MN) from Benilde-St. Margarets high school both look like they are going to be playing key roles for the Badgers this season. Early reports out of camp are that both players look good and are ready for opening night on Friday.

Justin Schultz-Jake McCabe

McCabe and Schultz are your top pairing to start the season. I've been on the McCabe bandwagon since scouting him a few seasons ago even before he had a scholarship offer from Wisconsin. That said, I'm surprised with the way the coaches are handing the keys to the car to McCabe right out of the gates. It's not that I don't think he's talented enough, but he's only 17 years old after accelerating and his studies to graduate high school in three years. What it does tell me is that the coaching staff is confident in the young defenseman who Mike Eaves calls "an old soul."

McCabe has always played with poise and that's only improved with his time spent over the past two seasons with the National Team Development Program. In an interview with Andy Baggot this week, McCabe attributed some of that to moving away from home at 15 years old for his sophomore year of high school. McCabe moves the puck well and won't be relied upon to push the puck up the ice with Schultz as his partner. McCabe has a high hockey IQ and will need to be aware on when he needs to cover for Schultz and when he can make a play himself.

What can I say about Schultz that hasn't already been said? He's an All-American and goes into the season as a Hobey Baker candidate once again. Teams are going to be focusing on shutting him down even though he's a defenseman so he's going to have to trust his teammates this season. We might not see Schultz reach the same point total as last year with teams keying on him but him just being on the ice should free up his teammates to make plays around him.

John Ramage-Patrick Daly

Another interesting combination here with a true freshman in Daly paired up with junior captain John Ramage. I'm not surprised that Daly is paired up with a veteran but I am surprised that it's Ramage because Ramage is going to play big minutes this season, especially in situations against other teams top lines as well as the penalty kill.

Daly, is an electric skater and can get up and down the ice with anyone in the country. I'm not saying he's Jake Gardiner but he skates well enough to cover up some of his mistakes. Pairing him with Ramage will let Daly take a chance or two because Ramage is good enough to cover up for him if needed.

Ramage is arguably the most important player on the roster this season. He's been given the captaincy and will be relied upon to be the anchor of the blue-line. Justin Schultz pulls in the headlines for the points he puts up but there might not be a better defensive defenseman in the country than Ramage.

Joe Faust-Frankie Simonelli

This group features a pair of true sophomores who are looking to bust out in their second seasons on campus. Simonelli was an every night player a year ago, and while he had some up and down nights, certainly ended the season with a positive grade. Faust was in a battle for playing time for the majority of the season, and an injury to Eric Springer paved the way for Faust to make an impact down the stretch.

Simonelli has an absolute rocket launcher of a shot, and the coaching staff is trying to put him in a position to get that thing off on a more regular basis. Don't be surprised to see Simonelli get some time on the PP to take advantage of that cannon. As Simonelli got more comfortable last season, he started playing with an edge that can make him a really nice player for the badgers.

Faust was an interesting case last season as he was a late recruit and no one was sure what to expect out of the 18 year old out of Bloomington. Everytime he was in the lineup he showed flashes of being a really nice player, and really left a lasting impression. Once he locked in a roster spot at the end of last season, he really took the next step in his development. Look for him to build upon that this year.

Chase Drake-Eric Springer

With only six defensemen in the every night lineup and eight defensemen on the roster, someone has to be the odd man out. Right now it's Chase Drake and Eric Springer but that could certainly change. Springer has plenty of experience, and is the only senior on the entire roster. Drake didn't crack the lineup as a freshman, but has been complimented behind closed doors by teammates who see the effort he's putting in.

Springer spent much of last season in the every night lineup but a shoulder injury forced him to the sidelines at the end of the year. As I mentioned, he's the only senior on the roster and knows what it takes to play at this level. I can guarantee you he's pissed about his spot in the pecking order right now. I still expect him to be rotating in and out of the lineup early in the season until the Badgers find a consistent group around the holidays.

Drake has been working over the off season on filling out his body and pushing to get into the lineup. He's got a really nice shot and brings a lot to the table that the coaching staff likes. Unfortunately with a loaded blueline he's one of the odd men out right now but it's rare that a team goes through the season without injury so Drake will likely see the first action of his career at some point this season.

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For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Chuck on Twitter (@UWChuckSchwartz)

Chuck can also be reached via e-mail at chuckschwartz@live.com

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