As always, I feel like I need to put out a disclaimer on these types of posts. Keep in mind the following while reading these projections:
1. These projections are based off of my personal opinion of players, and what I would do with line combinations. I do factor in past history with the coaching staff and how they may place players. That said, this is not a guess on what the coaches would do, but rather what I would do if I were making the lineup card next season.
2. I have not seen all of the incoming freshmen play. Unfortunately, I don't have the budget to travel to British Columbia on a regular basis, so in certain cases I am forced to rely on information from scouts and other people in the know. That's why these things are far from gospel in terms of what may happen on opening day next fall.
3. If a player you follow isn't in a role that you think he should be, leave a comment explaining why he should be somewhere else. I understand from time to time players, family members, friends, etc. will read these things. I can promise you that lineup projections are never personal.
When projecting forward line combinations, the first thing that I like to start with is the center position. In my opinion, you can't be successful if you're not strong down the middle. Thankfully, the Badgers aren't short on options at center despite losing Brendan Woods, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes shortly after the season.
So who are candidates to play center this season? In no particular order:
- Mark Zengerle, Nic Kerdiles, Jefferson Dahl, Jedd Soleway (Fr.), Joseph LaBate, Keegan Meuer, Morgan Zulinick and Corbin McGuire (Fr.).
Let's assess our list of options here. Zengerle is your top-line center, you can already sharpie him in there. Dahl also needs to fill one of the other center positions. Dahl was very good down the stretch, and is just one of two centers (Zengerle being the other) returning to the lineup this season who won more than 50 percent of their faceoffs last season.
I'd probably say that LaBate and McGuire are longshots to be among the top four centers to start the season. LaBate has proven to be much better on the wing, and I'm not sure McGuire is ready for that role at this level quite yet.
So we've got to pick two of Kerdiles, Zulinick, Soleway, and Meuer for two spots.
- Kerdiles was on the wing this past year, but played both center and wing at the NTDP before coming to Madison. To be perfectly honest, I think he could slide into that No. 2 center role and be perfectly fine. That said, I have a very tough time taking him off a line with Zengerle.
- Zulinick missed virtually the entire season last year due to a knee injury, but played center with Salmon Arm in the BCHL before coming to Wisconsin. He's a playmaking forward with arguably the best set of hands on the entire roster.
- Soleway is coming in from Penticton in the BCHL, where he was the Vees' top-line center. Soleway helped lead Penticton to the BCHL Finals, where they lost to Surrey. He's a Woods-type of player in that he's big, physical, good on faceoffs and can play a two-way game. Perfect fourth line center for this upcoming team.
- Meuer spent a lot of time in the middle this year after Derek Lee went down with injury and Woods was moved up the depth chart. Meuer isn't a great faceoff man (.458 last season), but he's defensively responsible. I wouldn't have a problem playing him in the middle, but I'd prefer him on the wing.
Gun to my head right now? I'll take a combination of Zengerle, Dahl, Zulinick and Soleway down the middle for now.
So now we start to slot in wingers to go with the centers. We always need to keep in mind that it's not just about the offense that these players produce -- we also can't put them in bad spots. For example, It's probably not likely that you're going to see Zulinick paired up with Grant Besse early in the season. Two very talented players, but you've got to assess them on the entire 200 feet. That combination is a defensive liability that I'm not comfortable with at this point.
When looking at left and right wingers, you can start with handness, but there are obviously other factors. The Badgers are extremely left hand-dominant, so you're going to likely see some left-handed players on the right wing. Michael Mersch is left-handed, but played almost exclusively on the right wing last season.
You can also expect to see Grant Besse on the right side, as well. Besse is left-handed, but loves to come down the right wing with the puck on his stick to the middle where he can open and fire.
- Left-handed wingers: Kerdiles, LaBate, Brad Navin, Mersch, Besse, Matt Paape, Aidan Cavallini.
- Right-handed wingers: Tyler Barnes, Meuer, Spencer Bell, Sean Little, McGuire.
Nic Kerdiles - Mark Zengerle - Grant Besse
Easiest move was keeping Kerdiles and Zengerle together. I think they have the potential to be one of the top duos in the entire country next season. Besse may surprise people in this spot, but I love this line combination. Anyone who has watched Besse knows that he's a goal scorer, plain and simple. If you put Besse on a line with one of the best play-making centers in the country in Zengerle and a do-everything player in Kerdiles, you're looking at exciting goal potential in this unit. Reminds me a little bit of the role Minnesota put Kyle Rau in as a freshman.
Joseph LaBate - Morgan Zulinick - Michael Mersch
LaBate and Mersch were the wingers on this unit last year, so there should be some solid familiarity between those two players. I'm throwing them with a younger guy in Zulinick, who I think can be a big point producer for the Badgers. The risk with this unit is that you've got three left-handed players, which obviously isn't an ideal situation. Although, Woods centered this line the last half of the season as a lefty and did just fine last year. Mersch obviously had a huge year as a junior and putting him on this unit gives the Badgers two elite scoring lines.
Brad Navin - Jefferson Dahl - Tyler Barnes
Barnes was one of the tougher players to place. Obviously he was on fire down the stretch last season and is a veteran player with top-line experience. Given that I wanted Mersch to play the right side on the Zulinick unit, I had to decide between Besse and Barnes for these two spots. I felt like this option gave the Badgers better lineup depth. Dahl has elevated his game, and Navin is a player who NEEDS to have a breakout season. Navin has one of the better shots on the team, and he needs to turn the corner into a point producer this season. If this line plays like I think it can, it will provide the Badgers a scoring threat from the third line which has been lacking for years.
Sean Little - Jedd Soleway - Keegan Meuer
Every team needs a line like this. A line that can go out there, pressure for 35-45 seconds, lay some hits and bring some energy. Little and Meuer are energy guys and Soleway is a good center who can play physical and both ends of the rink. Little and Meuer have also been around for a long time, and I'd have no problem throwing this line out against anyone in the country. That's an advantage when you don't have to worry about any of your lines defensively. Make teams match up to you, not the other way around.
Aidan Cavallini - Corbin McGuire - Matt Paape - Spencer Bell
Bell and Cavallini have come to Wisconsin basically as walk-ons, and I'd be surprised if either saw much action next season. McGuire is a wild card at this point given his injury history in juniors over the past couple of seasons. Paape is obviously the known entity here as a junior. To be honest, I thought he played his best hockey as a freshman. This past season he was in and out of the lineup and couldn't find a consistent flow, and I think that hampered his play. Obviously this team isn't going to go the entire season without injury, so it's nice to have a guy like Paape on reserve where he can fill in a spot on almost any line.
The only piece the Badgers are losing defensively is captain John Ramage right now, so it's not going to be as hard to place guys in this case. Wisconsin went with a pretty set rotation of six defensemen down the stretch, but Chase Drake saw a lot of action earlier in the season and is ready for an every-night lineup spot as a senior.
Jake McCabe - Frankie Simonelli
Why mess with a good thing? The Badgers' top-pairing played a lot of minutes last season and that's not going to change next year. McCabe needs to add some more offense to his game to become the elite level player we all know he can be. Simonelli is solid in all facets.
Kevin Schulze - Joe Faust
I think one of the surprises last season was how good Schulze was in his own end. Did he make mistakes as a freshman? Yes. But overall, he was a very reliable player. Given that Faust is in the lockdown defenseman mold like Ramage was, I think this should be a seamless transition for an offensively gifted defenseman like Schulze.
Eddie Wittchow - Chase Drake
This is where things start to get a bit more tricky. Wittchow has to be in the lineup. Has to be. So we're forced to decide between Drake and freshman Tim Davison for the sixth spot. Both players are left-handed, which isn't ideal, but we can work with it. In a perfect world, we'd let Davison get more seasoning in the USHL next season, but the Badgers need him in Madison to provide quality depth on the roster. Drake is a senior and has looked good in limited opportunities, so I'll give him the nod here for now.
Tim Davison - Gavin Hartzog
As I said above, the best thing for Davison would be sending him back to the USHL for another season to dominate and get that confidence back, but the Badgers need him now. I do think he'll end up playing 15 to 20 games this season, so don't be confused -- I like him as a player and think he's got a lot to offer. Hard to know what to expect on Hartzog at this point. Started his career as a forward and switched back to defense. Hartzog has yet to see game action defensively and I doubt that changes. It actually wouldn't surprise me to see Hartzog get action at forward somewhere along the line this season if injuries become a problem.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Leave them in the comments and I'll respond with my thoughts.
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