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Badger Hockey News and Notes

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Earl to play overseas

Former Wisconsin forward Robbie Earl, who won a National Championship with the Badgers in 2006 looks like he's headed overseas to continue his professional hockey career. Most recently Earl has been a member of the Minnesota Wild organization, where he played in 38 NHL games over the past two seasons recording 6 goals in limited action. While not with the big club Earl notched 73 points in 110 games for the Wild's top farm club, the Houston Aeros.

A little over a week ago Dinamo Riga, a Latvian team in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) announced that they had signed Earl to play for them this season. Shortly thereafter, news broke that despite signing the contract, Earl refused to move to Lativa.

It's not the first time there has been drama over where Earl would be playing. During his college recruitment he originally chose Michigan before changing his mind and following Mike Eaves to Madison. Additionally during the celebration of the 2006 National Championship during his junior season at UW, he (unprovoked) announced he would be returning for his senior season. He signed a pro contract two days later.

Over the weekend Red Bull Salzburg, a professional team in Austria announced that they had signed the former 2006 Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player.

Craig Smith expected to see NHL action 2011-2012

After Wisconsin's 2010 run to the Frozen Four had wrapped up, graduating Badger senior Blake Geoffrion was holding a Q & A session on twitter. Already thinking about next season I asked Blake who he thought would have a breakout season for the badgers in 2010-2011. His answer was brief and to the point. "Simple, Craig Smith."

Blake's answer wasn't entirely a surprise, as the Madison native played on the top line along side Geoffrion much of his freshman season recording 33 points in 41 games. However I hardly doubt anyone, including Geoffrion thought Smith would be in the position he's in right now, ready to compete for a roster spot with the NHL's Nashville Predators when camp opens.

USA Today's Kevin Allen wrote a feature story on Smith recently which included some very intriguing quotes from Predators head coach Barry Trotz.

"I do believe (Smith) will play games for us this season," Trotz said. "I just don't know whether it will be two, 22, 42, 62 or 82.  He's a guy who carries himself like a pro and thinks like a pro in terms of how he plays the game."

When hearing quotes like that from the man directly in charge of Smith's playing time, it's hard to fault Smith for his decision to turn pro. The only problem that anyone can really have is the timing of the decision, which left the Badgers with little time to find a capable recruit to fill the open roster spot.

In case you were wondering Smith's contract details here they are. It's a two year contract that will pay him a $90,000 signing bonus both years. His salary for 2011-2012 will be $67,000 if he is in the AHL and $690,000 if he's in the NHL. Smith's salary for 2012-2013 will be $67,000 if he is in the AHL and $740,000 if he is in the NHL. If you're not familiar with NHL entry level contracts it's a very solid contact for a fourth round pick like Smith.

Mersch participates at USA World Junior Evaluation Camp

Undoubtedly one of the best surprises for the Wisconsin coaching staff last season was the play of freshman forward Michael Mersch. The Park Ridge, Ill. native came to Madison after two seasons with the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor.

Mersch committed to Wisconsin shortly before he moved to Ann Arbor to play for the top developmental program in the country and had an outstanding first year in the program. But in his second year something was off, and the hype surrounding Mersch coming to Wisconsin wasn't what you would usually assume for a recruit out of the NTDP.

Not sure what to expect of the rangy winger, Eaves tried out Mersch on multiple lines early last season to find the best fit. He would eventually settle into a top 6 forward role for the Badgers recording 19 points in 41 games in his rookie campaign. The lefty's play led to him being drafted this past summer by the NHL's L.A. Kings in the fourth round.

Most recently Mersch was invited to participate in the USA World Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. where the top under 20 American born players are brought together in the first stage of picking the team that will participate in the annual World Junior Championship that takes place over New Years.

Mersch was one of 44 American under 20 players invited to camp that played against each other for a few scrimmages and then then in a few split squad games against Finland and Sweden. Eventually USA Hockey trimmed the roster down from 44 to 28 and Mersch was sent home. It was still a great learning experience for the young Badger winger as he explained in an interview with the L.A. Kings fan website ""

"There were a lot of good players at the camp and it was great to be on the ice skating with them. I felt pretty good about my play out there. Obviously, things didn't work out. But, I gained some confidence, knowing I can play with the best players in the nation. So, it was a good time overall. Going there and playing for the USA, with all that history and tradition there, being able to skate on that ice, it's very exciting. History brings a lot of motivation."

Being sent home doesn't mean that Mersch won't make the final team USA roster. USA will scout all 44 players invited to camp as well as some others who are on the radar this fall. Remember two seasons ago Wisconsin defenseman John Ramage wasn't even invited to camp but after a huge first half for the Badgers in his freshman season made the final roster for a team that eventually won a gold medal on Canadian soil.

Joe Fiala back in the recruiting mix?

One of the more interesting notes someone mentioned to me recently was the lack of Badger commitments past the 2011 season. It's true, the Badgers only have 5 verbals past this year, forwards Corbin McGuire, Nic Kerdiles, and Morgan Zulinick as well as defenseman Tim Davison and goalie Gabe Grunwald. Only Michigan Tech and Alaska Anchorage in the WCHA have less commitments for 2012 and beyond at this point.

The biggest reason for that is well, they don't need that many recruits right now. The only senior on the current roster is defenseman Eric Springer. And as it stands right now, the only projected early departures are Justin Schultz (most likely) and John Ramage (possibly).

With Davison, who is either a 2012 or 2013 recruit at this point being the only defenseman committed to the program, the Wisconsin staff is in the process of evaluating potential replacements. One potential recruit is Eddie Wittchow from Burnsville who will play for the Waterloo Black Hawks next season. Another could be Verona, WI native Joe Fiala who played the past two seasons with the NTDP in Ann Arbor.

Fiala, who told me in an interview last winter that he had been in contact with the Badgers since before his freshman year of high school narrowed his choice of schools to Ohio State, Miami, and Western Michigan after it became apparent the Badgers wouldn't have room for him for the 2011-2012 season. Fiala eventually settled on Western Michigan, taking a chance on Jeff Blashill, a coach who he felt he had an outstanding relationship with.

Set to be a Bronco this fall, things changed in the past month when Blashill accepted an assistant coaching position with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings. WIth Blashill no longer in the fold, Fiala decided to re-open his recruitment. Fiala will play in the USHL this season with the Indiana Ice and could be an option for the Badgers once again.

McCoshen to visit Wisconsin

Looking even further down the road to the 2013 recruiting class, the Badgers are eying two state products to build their blueline around. Those two players are Will Butcher, a Sun Prairie native who will play the next two seasons with the NTDP and Ian McCoshen, a Hudson native who will play with the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL.

McCoshen and Butcher are two of the top five 1995 born defensemen in the United States. Butcher has taken a recruiting visit to North Dakota and undoubtedly has all the top programs after him. The same can be said for McCoshen who was a rare 15 year old in the USHL last season.

In an interview with McCoshen last winter he told me he was in contact with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Ohio State. Most recently McCoshen tweeted that he visited UMD and had a great time. When asked recently what other schools he planned to visit McCoshen's response was short and sweet. "Next stop Wisconsin."

Granato to coach the National Team Development Program

Late addition to this post as shortly after I posted the initial article it was announced that former Badger great Don Granato would be announced as the new head coach of the USA U17 NTDP squad per former USA Hockey Media Relations guy Chris Peters via twitter.

Granato played four seasons for the Badgers in Madison recording 88 points during his career. After leaving Wisconsin Granato played two seasons of pro hockey before starting his coaching career. Granato has coached in the USHL, ECHL, AHL, and NHL. Most recently he was the head coach of the Chicago Wolves of the AHL.

Granato will be an excellent coach for the NTDP and it can't hurt the Wisconsin program having a former Badger in a leadership role mentoring the most talented players in the country day in, day out.

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