The Wisconsin hockey season is just 31 days away. Think about for that for a second, we're a month out from watching the Badgers back in action at the Kohl Center. Exciting stuff guys.
I've been meaning to post my thoughts on what I think the lineup should look like to start the season. I apologize this wasn't posted sooner. As always, there are multiple caveats to consider.
First of all, despite what I want to believe, Mike Eaves does not care about my opinion on roster decisions. So keep in mind that the lineup on October 6th when the Badgers play the U.S. Under-18 team in the opening exhibition game likely will look nothing like what I'm about to post.
Second of all, I understand from time to time players, family members, friends, siblings, etc will read this. If I'm critical of someone, or don't have them in a spot you feel that they deserve, don't take it personal. Not everyone can play.
Lastly, I'm not there watching guys train over the summer. I don't know who's been working and who hasn't. I haven't been to captains practices to see what kind of strides guys have taken over the summer.
With that said, let's get after this thing. Remember, this is just one guys projection.
Wisconsin lost three forwards from last seasons roster. Tyler Lapic decided to pursue other opportunities at the Division 3 level, Jason Clark signed with the New York Islanders, and Gavin Hartzog moved back to defense full time. The good news? Those three combined for a whopping four points last season.
The Badgers have added three freshmen forwards. Nic Kerdiles from the National Team Development Program, Morgan Zulinick from the Salmon Arm Silverbacks (BCHL), and Spencer Bell from Maple Grove high school. Kerdiles and Zulinick are expected to be immediate contributors. Bell, a walk-on, is a long shot to see ice time barring a rash of injuries.
When looking at the roster, you start down the middle. Zengerle, Lee, Woods, Dahl, Meuer, Kerdiles, LaBate, and Zulinick have experience at center. Eaves likes his freshmen to start on the wing, so you can likely eliminate Kerdiles and Zulinick from the discussion. The LaBate experiment at center last year was a flop.
That leaves you with Zengerle, Lee, Woods, Dahl, and Meuer. Given how left-hand dominant the forwards are this season, it's unlikely in my opinion that there are more than three right-handed centermen.
That leaves Zengerle, Lee, Woods, and likely Dahl as my centers. We can fill in the wingers from there.
LW: Nic Kerdiles (Fr.)-C: Mark Zengerle (Jr.)-RW: Tyler Barnes (Jr.)
Should come as no surprise that Zengerle is your top line center. He thrived in the role last season, and should be even better in 2012-13. Barnes is the only top-six type winger who is right handed. He's got chemistry with Zengerle, so that's a no-brainer.
It may come as a surprise to some seeing Kerdiles inserted in this role right out of the gates. If you've seen him play, you know he can handle it. It's not just his offense that makes him an attractive option playing with Zengerle and Barnes, it's his defense. That line will be paired up against the Kristo's and the Bjugstad's of the WCHA, and Kerdiles plays a 200 foot game and can be relied upon in his own end against top teams.
Eaves also isn't afraid to play freshman in a top line wing role. Joseph LaBate, Mark Zengerle, and Craig Smith all played top line minutes as freshmen.
LW: Joseph LaBate (So.)-C: Derek Lee (Sr.)-RW: Michael Mersch (Jr.)
We've got our first minor dilemma with the second group. In my opinion, the UW roster has a pretty clear top-six forward group at this point. Unfortunately, there are only three right handers in that group, and two of them will likely play center. That leaves either LaBate, Mersch, or Kerdiles to play on their off wing. Don't be surprised to see those three shuffled around to see who best works in that role.
Lee is a veteran who has shown the ability to put points on the board, but has never played a full season in a top role. He'll get that opportunity this season right from the get-go. Mersch and LaBate are both developing forwards who are nowhere near their peak.
Certainly the best top six Wisconsin has put on the ice since the 2010 run to the Frozen Four.
LW: Morgan Zulinick (Fr.)-C: Brendan Woods (So.)-RW: Brad Navin (So.)
Question marks start to pop up when you get to this point in the lineup. Brendan Woods was a surprise break-out player for Wisconsin last season, and played very well at center in the second half of the season. He's a big, two-way center who I think Eaves trusts in all three zone.
Zulinick is a bit of an unknown here. Reports from people I've talked with around the team are very positive in regards to this young forward. Navin's potential is through the roof and he's got a huge shot. Does Eaves trust Woods enough to pair him up with two young forwards that aren't known for their defensive play?
I think the offensive upside in this group outweighs the risks defensively. With TV timeouts, penalties, and the amount of minutes the UW coaching staff wants to get his top-six, I think Eaves should be able to put this unit out there in good spots to help them succeed.
LW: Ryan Little (Sr.)-C: Jefferson Dahl (Jr.)-RW: Keegan Meuer (Jr.)
What a luxury it will be this season to put a line like this on the ice in a 4th line role. All three players are experienced, and all three can be trusted in any situation.
This line reminds me of the Nick Lecari-Andy Brandt-A.J. Degenhardt line that Eaves had on the 2006 National Championship roster. Three veterans that can provide energy, play defense, kill penalties, and change the momentum of the game.
It's an invaluable resource to have a fourth line that you can trust to kill off penalties. That keeps top-six forwards fresh for five-on-five and power-play opportunities.
Healthy Scratches: Matt Paape (So.), Sean Little (Jr.), Spencer Bell (Fr.)
Very tough to keep Paape and S. Little out of the lineup. Between the two of them, they combined to play in 69 games last season. That said, when you insert Zulinick and Kerdiles into the lineup, someone has to sit.
I actually like what both Paape and Little bring to the table. Little developed into a pretty good penalty killer last season, and Paape has some offensive flair. I can almost guarantee you that both guys will play at least double digit games this season.
When I look at the roster, I see probably nine locks up front. It's unlikely any of the top-six forwards will sit, and I think Woods, Ryan Little, and Dahl have pretty solid roles. That means it's going to be up to S. Little and Paape to beat out Zulinick, Navin, and Meuer if they want minutes.
Sean Little is more likely to be a replacement if Eaves is looking for someone to play on the fourth line and kill penalties, while Paape is more likely to be a third line type replacement for Navin or Zulinick.
Bell—who I mentioned was a a walk on—is a long shot to see any ice time at this point. Even if they are three forwards short, Gavin Hartzog who transitioned to full time defense for this season would likely move back up front.
Well, let's get right into it. Justin Schultz is gone. He was good. We need to move on. You can't replace Schultz, but you can still be pretty solid defensively without him. The biggest problem is replacing him on the power-play, but we'll get into that later.
The Badgers added three defensemen this year. Freshmen Eddie Wittchow (Waterloo), and Kevin Schulze (Omaha) come to Madison out of the USHL. Gavin Hartzog played forward most of his first two years at Wisconsin, but practiced as a defenseman much of the second half of the season a year ago. This season he'll be on the back end full time.
Wittchow is expected to be a full-time player right out of the gates. He had a crazy good +22 plus/minus for Waterloo last season to lead his team in that category. Schulze is more of a question mark at this point, but has exciting potential.
LD: Jake McCabe (So.)—RD: Frankie Simonelli (Jr.)
Not hard to pair these two up on your top pairing in my opinion. Both of these players played #1 minutes with Justin Schultz at times last season, so they aren't new to playing against top lines in the WCHA. McCabe is a potential All-WCHA type player, and Simonelli is just every-day-Eddie on the blue-line.
My only concern is that they really haven't spent much time playing together, as one of them was always with Schultz last season, but it shouldn't take too long for them to form a chemistry.
LD: Eddie Wittchow (Fr.)—RD: John Ramage (Sr.)
Ramage and Wittchow are both locks to be in the lineup on opening night, it's just a matter of pairing them up with compatible partners. While it's not my #1 concern when pairing up defensemen, keeping left-handers on the left, and right-handers on the right certainly helps things.
One of the bigger concerns here is speed. Both are big, physical defense-first type guys. While that's not a bad thing, you're not going to see much offense out of these two, and watching two klunkers out on the ice can at times be an eye sore.
I'd expect to see the d-pairings mixed up for a while to see where guys are going to fit in together.
LD: Chase Drake (Jr.)—RD: Joe Faust (Jr.)
Surprised to see Chase Drake's name here? I've been hinting for a while that I like Drake to take big steps forward this season. Drake only played in a few games last season, but looked solid enough to play on a regular basis if forced into duty. I personally think he should have been playing over some of the defensemen on the roster last season, but that's for another day.
I was talking to an NHL scout at one of the games this past season and he brought up Drake's name to me, wondering why he hadn't been in the lineup more. I couldn't give him a great answer. That scout—who shall remain nameless—told me Drake (who is an un-drafted free agent) still has NHL upside. Keep that in mind when projecting him this season.
Faust is a guy who you know what you're going to get. He's not the flashiest guy out there, but the New Jersey Devils draft pick plays with a little jam, and he can skate. From time to time Faust flashes some offensive upside, could this be the year he breaks out in that area?
Healthy Scratches: Kevin Schulze (Fr.), Gavin Hartzog (Jr.)
Schulze and Hartzog are complete wild cards. Schulze by most accounts had an up and down year in the USHL. He started the season with Muskegon, and was later traded to Omaha. He's got some offensive skills, but I'm not convinced he's ready to play well enough in his own end to get regular minutes.
Hartzog as I've mentioned is moving back to defense full time this season. He got enough practice time last year with Bill Butters where he won't be a complete newbie to the position, but I just have a tough time envisioning much out of him, at least early in the season.
Power Play Overview:
The biggest loss here is obviously Justin Schultz. You simply cannot replace how good he was with the puck on his stick on the power play. He ran the point for Eaves top unit from the moment he stepped on campus as a freshman.
So what do you do now? McCabe has Schultz 'type' skills with the puck, but he's left handed. The last three years Eaves has ran his power play with Schultz, a right-hander. Before that it was Jamie McBain, who was also right-handed.
I think McCabe could be that guy, but an intriguing idea I heard this summer was Derek Lee. I hadn't thought about it, but once I heard the idea I instantly fell in love. Lee is an outstanding passer, and has elite puck skills. He can also skate, which is incredibly important.
Lee at the top allows the Badgers to run their familiar power-play if they so choose. You can keep McCabe in a one-timer position on the weak side of the ice, and Zengerle on the half-wall. Mersch will no question be causing havoc out in front of the net, and you have to have another right-hander playing down in the corner. That would likely be Tyler Barnes, who good at winning puck battles in the corner.
What my PP would look like:
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