Wisconsin's reign as college hockey's attendance king will undoubtedly come to an end at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. The crowds at the Kohl Center are dwindling at an alarming rate, and Badgers fans should be prepared to hand their crown to North Dakota.
Through 15 home games this season, Wisconsin is averaging just 10,289 fans per contest. That's just 67.5 percent capacity of the spacious 15,237-seat Kohl Center. North Dakota leads the country with an average of 11,712 per game, which is 100.7 percent capacity of the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Last Friday's contest vs Minnesota drew the largest crowd of the season (13,611), but even with hundreds of Gophers fans in town to drive up ticket sales on their way to Chicago for the Hockey City Classic, Wisconsin still fell over 1,600 tickets short of a sellout.
The 2012-13 season will be the first year since 2002-03 in which Wisconsin failed to produce even one sellout crowd. For reference, the Badgers sold out the Kohl Center at least five times per season, five years in a row from 2004-09, with a record seven sellouts during the 2005-06 season.
While Wisconsin has four home dates left on its schedule, don't expect that 10,289 average to move in a positive direction.
A Sunday-Monday series vs. Penn State on Feb. 24-25, coupled with the March 8-9 series vs St. Cloud State held at the Alliant Energy Center, will likely drop UW's average under 10,000 for the first time since the Badgers moved to the Kohl Center in 1998.
That's quite a shame for a school that has led the nation in attendance 38 of the past 43 seasons.
The Badgers' run of attendance crowns started at Dane County Coliseum in 1969 and carried through until Minnesota built the 10,000-seat Mariucci Arena in 1993. The Gophers led the nation for five seasons before the Kohl Center opened in Madison in 1998. Wisconsin immediately reclaimed its crown, and has held it all 14 seasons the Kohl Center has been open.
Up until this season, of course.
The dip in attendance isn't something that has started just recently. In fact, Wisconsin has seen declining attendance in five of the past six seasons. The past two seasons have been especially drastic, with an 11 percent drop-off between the 2010-11 season and the 2011-12 season, as well as a 12.6 percent fall from last season.
Kohl Center Attendance (Mike Eaves era)
|Season||Attendance||Capacity||Attendance +/-||Goals per Game||GPG National Rank||Record||Win %|
So why is this happening? Badgers fans, and fans across the state of Wisconsin as a whole, are widely regarded as some of the most loyal and rabid fans in the entire world.
Style of Play, Insufficient Offense
The largest criticism of Wisconsin's teams during the Eaves era from outside the program has been style of play. It's hard to blame the critics -- at times, Badgers games are extremely painful to watch. Even covering games live, I've been lulled into a trance at times.
Don't get me wrong, the style can be effective, especially when you've got a roster comprised of inferior talent compared to that of your opponent. But then again, at Wisconsin, with one of, if not the largest hockey budget in the country, there should never be a roster with inferior talent.
This season has been a prime example. We were told that Wisconsin was going to switch to a 1-1-3 offensive system that was going to be more aggressive and produce more goals. Well, this season has been as boring as ever from an offensive standpoint. More corner dump-ins, less offensive creativity than ever before and one of the poorest power-plays in recent memory.
This is one of the poorest offensive teams in the Eaves era, and it comes in a year in which the Badgers lost zero forwards that registered a goal last season. The only player on the roster with offensive impact that didn't return from last year is Justin Schultz. Is he a big loss? Well, obviously. Schultz has jumped into the NHL and hasn't missed a beat in production. That said, it's not the first time Wisconsin has lost a talented player to the NHL.
Should losing Schultz result in production dropping by over half-a-goal per game? Considering he's the only point-producer that's gone, you wouldn't think so.
Yes, you have to keep in mind that Wisconsin hasn't had its full compliment of offensive talent all season long. Nic Kerdiles missed the first 10 games of the season due to the NCAA mess, and Morgan Zulinick has missed the past 22 games with a thigh injury. Derek Lee also missed five games along the way, and Mark Zengerle six.
That said, Zulinick and Kerdiles are freshmen and weren't on the roster last season. So returning forwards have missed 11 games this season due to injury. Considering Lee alone missed 20 games last season due to injury, I fail to see how that's a reasonable excuse for the significant drop-off in production.
Lack of Consistently Elite Teams
Currently, Wisconsin stands No. 25 in the Pairwise ranking, which is used to mimic the NCAA tournament selection process. With 16 teams making the tournament, schools typically need to be in the top 14 to earn an at-large birth.
At this stage in the process, it's likely going to take a 6-2 or 7-1 stretch for Wisconsin to make the tourney. Given the remaining opponents on the schedule -- including WCHA-leading St. Cloud and a road trip to Omaha -- that's probably unlikely.
If Wisconsin doesn't make the NCAA tournament this year, it will mark the third season in a row it hasn't qualified for postseason play. It will also be the fourth time in five seasons, and the fifth time in the past seven seasons the Badgers have failed to make the NCAA tournament under Eaves.
Wisconsin hasn't endured a NCAA tournament drought like that since former head coach Jeff Sauer made the NCAA's just three times over his final six seasons, which ended when he "retired"after the 2002 season.
Of course, it hasn't been all bad. Eaves obviously reached the mountain top in 2006 and came close in 2010 when Wisconsin dropped the title game to Boston College. But the valleys between the peaks have been too drastic, and it has shown in wavering fan support.
One of the greatest reasons for the lack of consistency has been the size of incoming freshman forward classes. One of the first things that Eaves said when he was hired was how his goal was to balance out the classes. So far, that hasn't happened.
Forward Class Size (Mike Eaves era)
|Year||Seniors||Juniors||Soph.||Frosh.||Goals Avg.||Record||Win %||Results||Notes|
|2011-12||0||2^||8||5||2.84||17-18-2||.486||Missed NCAAs||^R. Little Pos Change|
|2010-11||3||1||2||7 (8*)||3.15||21-16-4||.561||Missed NCAAs||*Meuer red-shirt|
The preceding chart does a pretty good job of depicting Eaves' tenure. When Wisconsin is loaded with upperclassmen -- like in 2006 and 2010 -- it can do amazing things. When the Badgers are heavy on freshmen and sophomores, things are going to be ugly.
Unfortunately, with Wisconsin being one of the schools in college hockey that has been hit hardest by early departures to the NHL, the Badgers have had more seasons in which they are heavy on freshmen and sophomores than ones in which they are led by veterans.
Since Wisconsin's last run to the Frozen Four in 2010, no team in college hockey has lost more talent in terms of early departures than Wisconsin. In total, the Badgers have lost nine underclassmen over the past three offseasons.
For comparison's sake, Boston University is second with eight early departures, followed by Denver (seven) and Michigan State (five). Notre Dame, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and Boston College all have had four early departures since 2010.
To curb the departures, it appears Eaves has slightly tweaked his recruiting philosophy over the past few seasons. Unfortunately, that's created a roster lacking offensive skill players with the ability to put the puck in the back of the net. And the ones who are on the roster haven't taken the necessary steps forward from last year to make this team into a championship contender.
Wisconsin isn't the only team underperforming this season. For the first time in decades, Michigan is going to miss the NCAA tournament. The difference is that missing the tournament has become a trend for the Badgers, as opposed to shocking news like it is this season with the Wolverines.
I compared Eaves' tenure to coaches at, in my opinion, the top 10 hockey programs in the country. Keep in mind Dave Hakstol has only been at North Dakota for eight seasons, and Jeff Jackson at Notre Dame for seven.
Coaching Data (2002-2012)
|Coach||School||10 Yr. Win %||NCAAs||Frozen Fours||Nat'l Titles||Reg. Season Titles||Playoff Titles|
Against the best of the best in the country over the past 10 seasons, Eaves has led Wisconsin to the worst winning percentage and the fewest tournament appearances per season. Eaves is also just one of two coaches not to win a regular-season league title, and the only one not to coach his team to a league tournament title.
Keep in mind this is only data over the past 10 seasons, which obviously doesn't include this year and puts the Badgers in the NCAA tournament in fewer than half of the seasons Eaves has been at the helm in Madison.
If you can't tell, I'm pretty much resigned to the fact the Badgers will not be playing in the NCAA tournament this season. So where do they go from here? Are things going to be better going forward? Should Eaves continue to be the head coach at Wisconsin?
These are all questions I'm asked by Wisconsin fans on a weekly basis. From Twitter, email, scouts, agents, fans in person at games I'm covering -- there is serious concern as to the future of the Wisconsin Hockey program.
In my opinion, yes, things are going to get better. Probably even by next season.
First of all, Wisconsin is going to be an upperclassman-led team in 2013-14. The Badgers will graduate captain John Ramage on defense, and Derek Lee and Ryan Little up front. All three are valuable players that have been relied upon for many seasons. Obviously, all three bring a leadership angle, and Lee is going to be missed as an offensive threat.
Besides that, I don't foresee any early departures next season. Michael Mersch (Los Angeles Kings) is having a breakout season and Mark Zengerle has generated interest as a free agent, but I believe both will be back. Kerdiles and Jake McCabe are second-round draft picks, but both are very young and at least a few years from playing in the NHL.
If my gut is correct and no one leaves early, Wisconsin will have 10 upperclassmen at the forward position along with two very talented sophomores in Kerdiles and Zulinick, who hasn't had a full opportunity to show what he can do at this level. The Badgers will also likely add goal-scoring machine Grant Besse out of Benilde-St. Margaret's High School in Minnesota, who could be a double-digit scorer in the right situation next year.
Listen, the numbers are what they are. No one should be happy with missing the tournament as much as Wisconsin has recently. I think if you were to ask Eaves if he was happy with the way things have gone in terms of making the NCAA tournament, he'd obviously tell you he expects more. That said, I think that this team is a year away from doing something really special.
On top of the upper-class forward depth this team will have next season, goaltenders Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel will be in in their third seasons in the program. If you think they've played well this year, wait until they blossom next season.
Could I be off my rocker in saying Wisconsin should be looked at as one of the top teams in the country next season? No question. Do I honestly believe that? Yes, I do. With that in mind, I think it would be doing a disservice to this program to consider relieving Eaves of his duties at the end of the season.
As I've mentioned multiple times in this column, missing the NCAA tournament as much as Wisconsin has recently is unacceptable. But if this team has the potential I think it does next season, it would be borderline irresponsible to consider taking away the man that pieced it together.
If you have comments on Eaves or the future of the Wisconsin hockey program, drop me a line in the comment section.
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