One of the criticisms of the Wisconsin hockey program during Mike Eaves' tenure in Madison centers around the balance -- or lack thereof -- of the forward class sizes. When Eaves was hired he talked about the importance of balancing class numbers, and, to this point, he's done little to rectify the issue.
As can be expected at any level, teams with a higher number of veteran players on the roster have more success than inexperienced teams, and Wisconsin is no exception to that theory.
Over Eaves' 11-year coaching career at Wisconsin, the Badgers have carried a roster with more upperclassmen at the forward position than underclassmen in just four seasons. In those four years, the Badgers have a .649 winning percentage, reached the NCAA tournament three times while playing in the national championship game twice (including one victory).
In the seven seasons Wisconsin has carried more underclassmen up front, the Badgers have a .521 winning percentage, have made the NCAA tournament less than half the time (three out of seven seasons) and have made zero trips to the Frozen Four.
The rewards of the current setup can be great, as evidenced by the trips to the national championship game. The drawbacks are the inconsistency from year-to-year that has drawn the ire of the fan base, and which has been reflected in the drop in attendance numbers the past few seasons.
The Badgers are set for a big season in 2013-14 with nine upperclassmen projected up front. Unfortunately, Wisconsin will have to pay the piper the following season, when it's projected they will need to bring in between six to eight freshmen for the fall of 2014.
Wisconsin will have six senior forwards on the roster next year that will need to be replaced. In addition to those players, the Badgers may also need to find replacements for NHL draft picks Nic Kerdiles (Anaheim Ducks) and Joseph LaBate (Vancouver Canucks), who are both serious flight risks to sign NHL contracts after the 2013-14 campaign.
The Badgers thought they had at least one blue-chip replacement for the current crop of seniors in Chicago area prospect Christian Dvorak who committed to UW in August, 2012. That changed over the weekend, when Dvorak informed Eaves he would be signing a contract with the London Knights of the OHL, voiding his NCAA eligibility.
The loss is disappointing for Wisconsin, given the fact Dvorak was one of just two committed forwards eligible to come to campus for the 2014 season.
The other, Ryan Wagner, originally committed for 2015. At this point, the Badgers don't have a choice but to bring him in one season earlier than originally planned. Thankfully for the Badgers, Wagner's development should be accelerated by a move from U-16 midget hockey to the U.S. NTDP U-18 team next season. As it stands right now, the U-18's are scheduled for 16 games against NCAA teams next season -- including 12 against D1 schools -- in addition to its international and USHL schedule.
Outside of Wagner, the Badgers have four very skilled forwards committed, but unfortunately for UW, none will be ready for 2014. The 1996-born Seamus Malone, 97-born Brock Boeser and 97-born Matthew Freytag are juniors-to-be, and 97-born Luke Kunin will be a sophomore this fall.
There was chatter that Malone may accelerate his studies to be ready for 2014, but his coach in Dubuque last season, Jim Montgomery, told Bucky's 5th Quarter in February that he remained on track for 2015. It would be tough given time constraints of school and the demands of playing in the USHL for Malone to fast-track his studies at this point.
Potential options for 2014 forward recruits
Unfortunately for Wisconsin there aren't hoards of elite level recruits available for the 2014 recruiting class. That's a problem, considering the Badgers need to fill five to seven spots, depending on what happens with Kerdiles and LaBate next off-season.
One player the Badgers went after hard was Ryan Gropp from the Penticton Vees of the BCHL. Gropp, who is still a flight risk to play in the WHL as a former first-round selection, committed to North Dakota in July. Another potential elite option, Ryan MacInnis, ended speculation of his future destination last week when he officially signed with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.
An intriguing uncommitted prospect that seems to be gaining traction right now is Chase Phelps from Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school. At 6-foot, 170-pounds, Phelps is a bruising forward who can also put the puck in the net. Phelps was selected this summer to represent the U.S. at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament after his performance at the USA Hockey Select 17 festival. Phelps' selection didn't surprise his coach at Shattuck, Tom Ward, who has helped develop some of the NHL's top prospects.
"He’s as good as any player in his age group in the country," Ward told the Faribult Daily News. "When you watch him play, he’s a big, strong, good-skating guy. It’s not a surprise."
An Eagan, Minn., native, Phelps registered 23 goals and 60 points in 57 games last season for the Shattuck Prep team. His USHL rights are owned by Chicago Steel, who acquired him in a trade from Muskegon last February.
One player out of Canada who could be high on the wish list is Connor Murphy. Hailing from Ancaster, Ontario, Murphy spent last season with the Caledonia Corvairs in the Greater Ontario Hockey League, where he led the Corvairs in goals (26) and points (71) in 51 games and won the RJ Noble Memorial Trophy as the league's top rookie.
A 5-foot-9, 170-pound center, Murphy is considered one of the top uncommitted prospects in Ontario. Murphy's OHL rights are owned by the Owen Sound attack, and he has yet to rule that option out of the equation. One potential landing spot for Murphy next season is with the Chicago Steel who own his USHL rights. It would be an interesting twist if the Badgers lost Dvorak from Chicago to the OHL, and picked up Murphy.
Murphy is considered a high-end center with a pass-first mentality. Some scouts who have watched him play have criticized him for not being aggressive enough shooting the puck, but rave about his ability to protect the puck and set up teammates.
NHL draft pick Avery Peterson is another kid Wisconsin will likely consider after the news of Dvorak's departure. As a junior at Grand Rapids high school last season, Peterson registered 27 goals and 62 points in 26 games.
The Minnesota Wild liked Peterson enough to select him in the 6th round, No. 167 overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-2, 181-pound Peterson will likely spend his senior season with the Sioux City Musketeers. Peterson got his feet wet in the USHL last year, notching a goal and three assists in eight games at the end of the season with the Musketeers.
Still developing as a player, Peterson needs to use his size to his advantage as he moves up the ranks. He's got good skill for a guy of his size, but could stand to add more drive when it comes to taking the puck to the net. Some scouts also think Peterson could use his shot more often than he does, as they consider it a plus tool for him when he takes advantage of it.
Peterson already has a strong familiarity with Wisconsin, and came on an unofficial visit to the school last year.
Another player who makes sense as a potential option is Brunsville high school's Tyler Sheehy, who has also visited campus. Sheehy committed to Ohio State last season, but re-opened his options after head coach and former Badger Mark Osiecki was fired this spring.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Sheehy recorded 22 goals and 49 points in 29 games last season for Burnsville, where he played on a line with current UW recruit Brock Boeser.
Sheehy has been a plus-plus player in every viewing I've had of the young forward, but sources have indicated the Badgers will likely look in another direction.
Another player out of the "State of Hockey" that has piqued the interest of the staff is Benilde-St. Margaret's forward Spencer Naas. Benilde is the former high school of current Wisconsin freshman Grant Besse, so there is no doubt the staff is familiar with the Red Knights' forward.
Naas started high high school career by playing two years at Blake, where he scored a ridiculous 40 goals as a sophomore. Jumping to Benilde last season, Naas was used as a second line center, but jumped up with Besse on BSM's top power play unit.
Known as one of the most gifted skaters in the state of Minnesota, Naas registered 34 goals and 65 points in 31 games last season. Naas is expected to be back at Benilde for his senior season, where he'll be the one of the favorites for the Mr. Hockey award.
Sources have indicated that Naas has offers from some NCHC schools as well as a few teams out on the East Coast. The same source said if Wisconsin made an official offer, Naas would likely jump at the chance to be a Badger.
Zach LaValle is another player from Minnesota who has received some attention from the Badgers. LaValle played five seasons (played up as an 8th-grader) at Hill Murray in the Twin Cities, and will skate for the Chicago Steel this upcoming season.
LaValle is a very solid player, and and even better person. LaValle was a quarterback on the football team, and also played baseball at Hill Murray. The Pioneers reached the state tournament in all three sports while he was at the school. LaValle also organized a third-annual fund raiser last season to help fight breast cancer.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound LaValle is the all-time leading scorer in Hill-Murray history, and registered 26 goals and 61 points in 30 games last season to lead the club in points as a senior. He was named by the Pioneer Press as the boys' hockey player of the year. In his junior year, LaValle netted more goals than Pittsburgh Penguin's draft pick, and Nebraska-Omaha recruit Jake Guentzel.
Sticking with the trend of Minnesota high school players who will be moving on to the Chicago Steel, we have Eden Prairie, Minn., native Mason Bergh. The 6-foot-1, 165-pound center is described as an all-out effort player who is willing to put it all on the line in the name of winning.
Scouts say that Bergh could stand to get stronger, as is evidenced by his 165-pound frame, but he's got the ability to play gritty and has quite a bit of skill to go along with an incredible desire to do whatever it takes. The Chicago Steel liked Bergh enough to nab him with the No. 21 pick in the USHL Draft.
Broadening the search a bit wider, you have to think the staff has U.S. NTDP forward Nolan Stevens high on the radar. Stevens is the son of Los Angeles Kings' assistant coach John Stevens. As we all know, Eaves loves to recruit players who are the son's of former NHL players or coaches.
Stevens played for Team Comcast in Philadelphia when his dad was coaching the Flyers, and moved to the L.A. Junior Kings program a few years ago. Last year he made the move to the NTDP where he sat out the early part of the season due to an injury.
The 6-foot-2, 186-pound winger registered three goals and five assists in 36 games for the U-17 team last season but is much more offensively gifted than his numbers would indicate.
Going more outside the box, Dubuque forward Jarrid Privitera is an option after his decommitment from Boston University. If you're familiar with college hockey, you may remember his brother Alexx, who played defense for the Terriers the past two seasons. Alexx split with the program this summer to head back to the USHL, and Jarrid decommited at the same time.
Jarrid played with Wisconsin recruits Keegan Ford and Seamus Malone last season in Dubuque, chipping in 15 goals and 26 points in 56 games en route to the USHL's Clark Cup Championship.
To be completely honest, the Badgers could use both Privitera brothers. Alexx can be a bit of a wild card on the ice, but no one has ever doubted his talent. Given the fact that the Badgers are looking to replace at least three, and possibly four defensemen if Jake McCabe turns pro after the season, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that the Badgers went after both players.
Looking more local, Drew Callin is a player who will likely be evaluated by Wisconsin as the USHL season wears on. Callin, who is a Middleton, Wis., native, started last season with the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals before going full-time with the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL the second half of the season.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Callin is a bit of a work in progress, but has some tools and could be a guy to keep on the radar if he can get things going this fall. Callin was traded Monday from Des Moines to the Lincoln Stars for future considerations.
If you want to get real wild, there are two European's that the Badgers could look at. Swedish born Leon Bristedt has indicated that he would like to make the transition to NCAA hockey for the 2014 season.
Bristedt has been a regular on Swedish national teams for 1995-birth year, including the Ivan Hlinka and the U-18 World Championships last year.
The Omaha Lancers of the USHL drafted Bristedt late in the 2012 USHL Draft and are still protecting him on their roster. At this point, however, it appears he'll play in Sweden with Linköping J20 this season.
Another Euro the Badgers could take a chance on is Ludvig Hoff out of Norway. Hoff, along with his older brother Magnus, made the trek to the U.S. earlier this year to attend a USHL tryout with the Lincoln Stars. Magnus will play with the Stars this season, while Ludvig is headed back to Norway to finish high school.
Ludvig is the more talented of the two, despite being younger, and is the player the Badgers would want to pursue.
While there are a lot of holes to fill, you can see there is still some talent left out there. You have to keep in mind I'm only scratching the surface on players that are still available. Even still, Gary Shuchuk, Mike Eaves, and the Wisconsin coaching staff have a lot of work to do over the next few months to piece together an effective recruiting class.
One thing I'll give them credit for, they aren't panicking. It would be real easy to see the holes you have to fill and start offering scholarships willy-nilly to every player with a pulse. They haven't done that. They remain selective on who they give offers too, and that can only help them down the road.
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