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Why is the Wisconsin hockey team so bad?

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The Wisconsin men's hockey team isn't quite off to the start it expected this season. If you haven't been paying attention, the Badgers are 0-8, which hasn't happened since 1932-33, when UW went 0-9 to open the year. A head-scratching record for a program of pride and tradition that should play second fiddle to no one in college hockey.

Wisconsin is the only team in the nation without a win at this point. Out of 59 Division I programs, the Badgers rank 58th in scoring, 52nd in defense and 55th in scoring margin. The penalty kill is ranked 57th and the power play dead last.

Badger Bob is probably rolling over in his grave.

Is Wisconsin really this bad?

That's a hard question to answer. In short, probably not.

Despite losing the game, Wisconsin played its best hockey of the season last Saturday night on the road at 10th-ranked Denver. According to head coach Mike Eaves, the coaching staff thought UW was the better team.

"We actually just got the stats from Saturday night's game in Denver -- we out-chanced our opponents, we outhit them, we out-[shot block] them. The only stat that we didn't out do them was goals for."

It was the first time all season the Badgers were able to sustain consistent pressure in the offensive zone as the game went along. If that happens in the previous seven games, there's no question they have a few more wins.

And this has been building in the right direction for a few weeks. While the first four games of the season were "'burn the tape" worthy, Wisconsin was in both games vs. No. 2 North Dakota a few weeks ago and obviously played its best hockey last Saturday.

Speaking of the North Dakota series, I went back and charted the film from Saturday's loss to see if I could find more information into why the Badgers haven't been able to find that elusive first win yet this season.

If you've been following the "fancy stats" movement in the NHL over the past few seasons, you understand how much possession matters when it comes to scoring and preventing goals. Obviously the more you possess the puck, the less your opposition does. If you have the possession advantage, that usually means you have more time in the offensive end, which leads to more goals for, and less goals against.

Digging even deeper, possession is driven by carrying the puck into the zone as opposed to dumping it in. Makes sense right? One option you carry the puck in the zone and attempt to make a play at the net. The other, you give the puck to the other team and try to stop them from coming at your net. Seems pretty simple as to which option is better.

I charted every Wisconsin offensive zone entry vs. North Dakota in the Saturday game. Wisconsin entered the zone with possession 31 times. The Badgers dumped the puck in the offensive zone 33 times. That means the Badgers had a zone entry percentage of 48.44 percent. That's not great.

(In full disclosure, zone entries achieved by dumping the puck on line changes are not counted. So, Wisconsin actually dumped the puck in the zone many more times than 33, but it's not fair to use that against the team when they need a line change.)

How important is zone entry percentage? When Wisconsin crossed the offensive blueline with possession they created 25 shot attempts. When the Badgers dumped the puck in the offensive zone they created three shot attempts.

If you're creating 25 shot attempts by carrying the puck in the zone 31 times, and creating three attempts by dumping the puck in the zone 33 times, what does that say to you? Stop dumping the puck in the zone, right? Seems obvious.

The offensive line of Morgan Zulinick, Cameron Hughes and Grant Besse were the worst offenders. Zulinick (33.33 percent), Hughes (36.84 percent) and Besse (40.91 percent) had some of the worst zone entry numbers on the entire team. A big reason why these numbers were so bad was Besse leading the way with a team-high five dump-in's during the game.

The frustrating part is this line was still very productive overall. When they carried the puck in the offensive zone they were Wisconsin's best line. Besse was on the ice for 13 shot attempts, which was the best output for the UW forwards. Zulinick (10) and Hughes (seven) weren't bad either. Can you imagine the shot attempts that line would have generated if their zone entry number was even just 50 percent?

On the other end of the ice, North Dakota had a zone entry percentage of 56.45. Not a staggering number, but when combined with Wisconsin's 48.44 zone entry percentage, that's a significant difference in possession, and can easily be the difference between winning and losing.

Defensively, no one on the Wisconsin roster had an on-ice defensive zone-entry percentage over 50 percent. Besse (50 percent) was the top performer, with Brad Navin and Matt Ustaski (both at 47.37) following close behind. Wisconsin's fourth line with Corbin McGuire and Aidan Cavallini were especially bad, as they both checked in at 30 percent.

Looking at overall shots per zone entry, Besse (+8), Jack Dougherty (+6), Zulinick (+5) and Ryan Wagner (+5) were UW's top performers. On the other side, Adam Rockwood (-9), Joseph LaBate (-9), Jedd Soleway (-7), Tim Davison (-7), Keegan Ford (-6) and Chase Drake (-5) struggled.

(O-Carry=times UW carried the puck in the zone when this player was on the ice, O-Dumps=times UW dumped the puck in the zone when this player was on the ice, O-Shots=times UW shot the puck off zone entries when this player was on the ice, O-%=Percentage that UW carried the puck in the zone when this player was on the ice)

McGuire 5 4 1 55.56 7 3 5 30
Dougherty 14 15 16 48.28 13 10 10 43.48
Drake 7 11 5 39.89 14 10 10 41.67
Davison 7 8 6 46.67 9 6 13 40
K. Ford 8 7 3 53.33 8 7 9 46.67
Paape 7 5 2 58.33 6 5 9 45.46
Zulinick 7 14 10 33.33 10 6 5 37.5
Linhart 8 11 6 42.11 11 7 9 38.89
Rockwood 7 8 6 46.67 11 8 15 42.11
Besse 9 13 13 40.91 6 6 5 50
Wagner 12 10 11 54.55 9 8 6 47.01
LaBate 7 5 4 58.33 10 8 13 44.44
Hughes 7 12 7 36.89 8 7 6 46.67
Cavallini 5 4 1 55.56 7 3 4 30
Soleway 9 7 7 56.25 11 9 14 45
Navin 9 10 7 47.37 10 9 9 47.37
Ustaski 10 10 10 50 10 9 9 47.37
Schulze 15 16 15 48.39 15 14 13 46.67

I also tracked defensive targets, which is the specific Wisconsin defenseman that was targeted when North Dakota either dumped the puck in the zone or made a zone entry with possession.

(Zone entry targets=number of times UND attempted to enter the offensive zone on the side of the ice of this defenseman. Carry-in's=number of times UND carried the puck in the zone while attacking this specific defenseman, dumps=number of times UND dumped the puck in while attacking this defenseman, NZ breakups=number of times this defenseman was targeted but caused a turnover in the neutral zone before UND could make a play at the blueline)

Dougherty 13 6 5 2
Drake 13 5 6 2
Davison 12 5 1 6
K. Ford 8 2 5
Linhart 7 5 2
Schulze 20 10 8 2

Obviously, this is a small sample of just one hockey game. So we can't really put a ton of stock into this long-term. We also have to take into account time on ice, which isn't calculated at the college level. Kevin Schulze plays a lot more than others, so that's why his zone entry target numbers are higher than everyone else. It doesn't mean UND was targeting him on purpose, it's that he was on the ice more than anyone else in this game.

These numbers are a bit confusing. Tim Davison was by far Wisconsin's most aggressive defender in the neutral zone, as evidenced by his six breakups, but he was also one of UW's wost offender's in allowing zone entries when he didn't make a breakup.

Keegan Ford also had a good night in this department, and Drake, Dougherty and Schulze weren't bad. Again, this is probably too small of a sample to take any real insight. It's interesting, nonetheless.

The other thing I tracked in the UND/Wisconsin finale was zone exits. I recorded every time a Wisconsin player touched the puck in the defensive zone, if he turned the puck over, if he made a successful pass or chip out of the zone, if he skated the puck out of the zone, or if he made a neutral pass (simple pass to a teammate).

The biggest find in this data is that Wisconsin turns the puck over in its defensive zone way more than I expected. In terms of total number of touches, Wisconsin turned the puck over in its defensive zone almost 1/4 of the time. When you only include possessions in which they attempted to move the puck up the ice, the Badgers turned the puck over 38.2 percent of the time. That's horrendous.

So, who was good at getting the puck out of the zone for Wisconsin? To no one's surprise, Schulze was awesome. He exited the zone via carry or pass 10 times while turning the puck over just five times. Schulze's 10 zone exits were a team high.

Dougherty had eight zone exits, which was second behind Schulze, but he also turned the puck over six times in his own end. Drake had a really good night in his own end, with seven zone exits and just three turnovers. Davison struggled, with six turnvoers and just two zone exits.

UW is 0-8, how did this happen?

Simple answer. Eaves and the UW coaching staff have disregarded Wisconsin's unbalanced recruiting classes. They're obviously aware of it, there's no way they can't be. But they simply choose to ignore the impropriety between classes.

Since Eaves took over the Wisconsin program in 2002, the Badgers are on a four-year cycle. In year one they are very young and inexperienced. In years two and three they grow and get better. And in year four, they are expected to contend for a national championship.

This is significantly driven by experience in forward classes. In Wisconsin's three best years under Eaves, 2005-06, 2009-10 and 2013-14, the Badgers had at least nine forwards who were upperclassmen. All three of those seasons the Badgers were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and in the first two, UW played for a national championship.

The problem is the rest of the years, when Wisconsin isn't loaded up with veteran forwards. For example, this season, when UW has just three upperclassmen forwards, and has started the season 0-8.

If this was a one-cycle thing, I feel like most fans would understand. It's hard to adjust the recruiting cycles in just a few years. The problem, however, is that Eaves has been running the Wisconsin program for 12 years, and we're still on the same four-year recruiting cycle with absolutely no change on the horizon.

So, basically, Eaves has made it loud and clear that the Badgers are going to be good once every four years, and will only compete for a national championship in years in which they are significantly loaded by seniors.

The problem? When those seniors lay an egg like they did last season in the first-round vs. North Dakota. What happens when you lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament? Disastrous.

Going back a few years earlier, what happens during that 2006 season if Wisconsin doesn't win the national championship? What if Brian Elliott doesn't play out of his mind vs. Cornell? What if one of those shots off the posts goes a quarter of an inch the other way and the Badgers are sent home?

Something to think about.

Regardless, this four-year recruiting cycle is not healthy. I can't be the only one who thinks that. This is the third trip through the cycle and the Wisconsin coaching staff has done absolutely nothing to rectify the issue. The numbers are painfully obvious. There's a reason why Wisconsin hockey has been relegated to a second-rate program, and it's because they choose to only be good once every four years.

Year Seniors Juniors Soph. Frosh. Goals For Avg. Record Win % Results
2014-15 3 0 4 7 1.38 0-8-0 .000 ---
2013-14 6 3 1 4 3.24 24-11-2 .676 NCAA participant
2012-13 2 6 4 3 2.67 22-13-7 .593 NCAA particpipant
2011-12 0 2 8 5 2.84 17-18-2 .486 Missed NCAAs
2010-11 3 1 2 8 3.15 21-16-4 .561 Missed NCAAs
2009-10 7 3 3 3
3.98 28-11-4 .698 NCAA runner-up
2008-09 2 7 3 4 3.27 20-16-4 .550 Missed NCAAs
2007-08 1 2 7 4 2.85 16-17-7 .487 NCAA participant
2006-07 4 1 3 7 2.27 19-18-4 .512 Missed NCAAs
2005-06 4 5 3 3 3.37 30-10-3 .733 NCAA champion
2004-05 1 5 7 3 3.10 23-14-4 .610 NCAA participant
2003-04 2 1 6 7 2.86 22-13-8 .605 NCAA participant
2002-03 2 4 2 7 2.33 13-23-4 .375 Missed NCAA's

What does this mean for Mike Eaves' future?

This is another question I don't have a good answer for. I'm not a person who calls for coaches to be fired. I think that's the easy way out. It's lazy analysis.

That said, Wisconsin, and specifically coach Eaves, have to be much better. 0-8 is an unacceptable record at any time. Being the worst team in the country is unacceptable. This is Wisconsin. Wisconsin should never be 0-8. Ever.

I compared Coach Eaves' data over the course of his time at UW with similar programs to Wisconsin during the same time period. Keep in mind that Dave Hakstol has only been at UND for 10 years and Jeff Jackson has only been at Notre Dame for nine years.

Coach School 12 Yr. Win % NCAAs Frozen Fours Nat'l Titles Reg. Season Titles Playoff Titles
Eaves Wisconsin .577 7 of 12 2 1 0 2
Lucia Minnesota .637 9 of 12 4 1 5 3
Hakstol UND .647 10 of 10 6 0 2 4
Blasi Miami (OH)
.626 9 of 12
2 0 3 1
Berenson Michigan .659 10 of 12 3 0 4 4
York BC .698 11 of 12
7 3 6 6
Jackson Notre Dame .613 6 of 9 2 0 2 3
Umile New Hamp .613 10 of 12
1 0 4 1

When compared to other top programs and coaches in the country, Eaves has the lowest winning percentage compared to all of them. Eaves' teams at Wisconsin have also made the NCAA tournament at the lowest percentage compared to these other seven schools. The Badgers are also the only team to not win a regular season conference championship during Eaves' tenure in Madison.

What does that say to you? It says that Wisconsin hasn't been living up to expectations. Like I said in the introduction of this piece, the Badgers are a premier program and should NEVER play second fiddle to anyone.

Another interesting comparison is George Gwozdecky. As Wisconsin fans know, Gwoz played for the Badgers from 1974-78. Gwoz was recently fired as the head coach at Denver, which is a similar program to Wisconsin, after going 300-149-45 over his last 12 years. That's a .653 winning percentage, as compared to Eaves' .577 over the same time period.

Gwoz also won one more NCAA Championship (2 compared to 1), went to the same amount of Frozen Fours (2/2), won more league playoff championships (3 compared to 2), won more league regular season championships (3 compared to 0) and went to more NCAA tournaments (9 compared to 7).

That said, for the fans that are calling for Eaves to be fired, it's not that easy. Bucky's 5th Quarter, through an open records request, acquired the employment contract of coach Eaves.

According to the contract, If Eaves is fired by the University, Wisconsin is obligated to pay his current salary, each year for the period of four years, or for the remainder of the term, whichever is less. Eaves' current base salary, according to open records, is $225,000. Eaves also receives $80,000 per season from the UW-Foundation, but that's not part of his base salary.

Eaves' current contract runs through 2019. That means if Wisconsin were to fire Eaves, they would have to pay him $225,000 for the next four years. The contract stipulates that the University can pay that in one lump sum, discounted using the applicable Federal Rate under the IRS code 1274(d).

I'm far from a tax expert, so for the sake of ease, let's just say he has a $900,000 buyout. Is that something that Barry Alvarez is prepared to pay? I'll let you be the judge of that.

For the record, UW assistant coaches Gary Shuchuk and Matt Walsh are on one-year contracts. Shuchuk will receive $117,312 as the top assistant this season, while Walsh is set to pull in $90,041.

What's next?

Thankfully the Badgers are back on the ice this weekend. Wisconsin hosts non-conference foe Ferris State for a two-game series at the Kohl Center Friday (7:00 p.m. CT) and Saturday (8:00 p.m. CT).

The Bulldogs have been Jekyll and Hyde all season long. They defeated Michigan early in the season but dropped a game to Alabama-Huntsville last week. Ferris also swept Alaska-Anchorage, but split series against Michigan State and Northern Michigan.

If Wisconsin is going to put some hay in the barn and make up some ground on the rest of the country, it starts this weekend with the first of 12 games at home over its next 14 total games.

"Now we come home and we get to play a lot at home here and I think some good things are on the horizon for this young group," Eaves said. "They're going to be rewarded for the efforts they're giving each other, they worked their Fannies off and they're playing some pretty good hockey right now."

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