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Wisconsin men's hockey: Mike Eaves must hit home run with new coaching staff

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A look inside what's been going wrong with the Wisconsin men's hockey program and how Mike Eaves might fix it.

Mike Eaves will need to find answers as he looks for a new coaching staff.
Mike Eaves will need to find answers as he looks for a new coaching staff.
Larry Radloff Photography

In case you haven't already heard, there will be some changes on the Wisconsin coaching staff next season. Head coach Mike Eaves announced via the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday that he has fired assistant coaches Gary Shuchuk and Matt Walsh.

The Badgers are coming off the worst season in program history, finishing with a disappointing 4-26-5 record. After a meeting with athletic director Barry Alvarez on Tuesday, Eaves made the decision to replace his two assistant coaches.

"We wanted to make sure that our fan base and people know that this was not the kind of year we want to be about," Eaves told the State Journal. "Again, it was felt that significant changes had to be made to let everybody know that we're going work to get this (fixed)."

Shuchuk was spotted recruiting with Eaves as recently as this past weekend when the pair watched the Madison Capitols USHL game at the Coliseum.

When asked by the State Journal if he gave Eaves an ultimatum between firing his assistants or losing his job, Alvarez declined comment. Eaves, however, denied there was any ultimatum, although it doesn't sound like he had his mind made up until the meeting.

According to the State Journal, Eaves went into the meeting with Alvarez with "several remedies in mind but knew the option of firing his two assistants would be part of the discussion."

There had to be significant changes made. It's unfortunate that it cost two people their jobs, but there's a giant stink that currently surrounds the team that needed to be lifted. It wasn't any one person or one thing, but rather a collection of items that has accumulated to leave a giant smear on a once great program.

What went wrong in the first place?

Behind the scenes, some of Wisconsin's biggest problems revolve around significant communication issues. It's been noted privately on multiple occasions that recruits committed to play for the Badgers didn't feel "the love" from the staff after making a decision. While other schools call committed recruits every few weeks, or in some cases as much as once per week to catch up, the the UW staff rarely reaches out to chat with committed players. Other schools also communicate with junior coaches to aid in the process of development by suggesting things for committed players to work on while they prepare to come to campus. Again, something that rarely happens with Wisconsin.

Not keeping up with committed players feels like a risky strategy given the current landscape of recruiting in college hockey. Especially given the fact multiple programs, including Wisconsin, have noted publicly they will not abide by the old gentleman's agreement, and will actively recruit committed players from other schools.

There are countless additional horror stories of Wisconsin's recruiting blunders. From not returning calls from prominent player advisors to jumping into recruiting races on players laughably late in the process, low-balling in-state recruits on scholarship offers, pressure tactics in an effort to get a commitment before other schools can get a kid on campus and a host of other issues.

On the recruiting trail, it's also been painfully obvious the Badgers don't put in the same amount of time to evaluate players as their rivals. This is especially true during the season. While other schools will send an assistant to scout major events -- sometimes even missing their own NCAA games -- Wisconsin almost never sends an assistant on a recruiting trip if he is going to miss games. To my knowledge, the only time this season the Badgers sent an assistant coach to recruit on a weekend they had games was in mid-February when they were already saddled with 18 losses and the season was in the tank.

The puzzling part? That scouting trip came one weekend after Wisconsin didn't send a coach to court Brock Boeser while he was in Madison to take on the Capitols in an USHL game. Five miles from the UW campus, and the Badgers couldn't set aside a staff member to woo arguably the No. 1 recruit in the country. A recruit that had previously committed to the Badgers, but later backed out for a myriad of reasons, including poor communication. A recruit that was a legacy, with his cousin a former captain under Eaves and a current coach in the USHL with the Chicago Steel. A recruit that had double-digit family members in attendance -- mostly all Badgers fans, mind you. He committed to North Dakota six days later.

If Wisconsin is going to return to prominence on a consistent basis, Eaves must adjust the current perception of the program. The Badgers have almost become a running joke inside hockey circles for the not only last season's record, but for the way the program has been guided over the past handful of years. Wisconsin is still going to get recruits because Wisconsin is Wisconsin. But the Badgers have been missing way too much for a program that should be considered a national power.

So, what's the plan moving forward? Who is Eaves going to hire to fill the two open spots on the coaching staff? Those are the million-dollar questions at the moment.

These two hires are absolutely critical. Obviously the Badgers need to knock these hires out of the park so they can have quality recruiters and quality coaches on board, but they also need to change the perception of the program. They need to lift the stink surrounding the program. As I said, it's unfortunate that changes had to be made, but in an effort to breathe life into the hockey program, necessary steps were taken. If Eaves can land two quality replacements, it's possible to get this thing back on track.

It's crucial that Eaves hires at least one assistant with significant (recent) coaching and recruiting experience at the Division I level.

It's crucial that Eaves hires at least one assistant with significant (recent) coaching and recruiting experience at the Division I level. He failed to do that when he chose Shuchuk and Bill Butters to take over in 2010 after Mark Osiecki left to take the head coaching job at Ohio State, and Kevin Patrick left to be the head coach with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the USHL.

Eaves repeated his mistake by hiring Walsh to fill in for Butters after Butters resigned early into the 2012 season. While Butters' resignation left Eaves with one hand tied behind his back -- obviously it's tough to replace a coach mid-season, since all the good coaches already have jobs -- Eaves could have found a more qualified replacement in the offseason. Instead, he chose to simply remove the interim tag from Walsh.

Possible replacements

The fans have been clamoring for Osiecki's return to Madison. The former Wisconsin defenseman is currently an assistant coach for the Rockford Ice Hogs, the top farm club for the Chicago Blackhawks. Osiecki would certainly be a home run and his family does still live in the Madison area, but you probably shouldn't get your hopes up.

Another name that has been floated is former North Dakota assistant and current head coach of the USHL's Sioux Falls Stampede, Cary Eades. Wisconsin fans will remember Eades for the famous water bottle game, in which he was squirted with water by Wisconsin's John Newberry. Eades would provide versatility as a coach, as he has experience coaching both forwards and defensemen at the Division I level. As a head coach in the USHL, Eades also has firsthand experience with recruits in the top junior league in the nation.

I'd back up the truck full of cash to lure one of the top recruiters in the nation to Madison.

An ace recruiter is either at, or near the top of the wish list for the Badgers. Wisconsin could land one by luring away Ben Barr from Western Michigan. An up-and-coming coach, Barr is Andy Murray's associate head coach, so it won't be easy. What Wisconsin has is money, and plenty of it. I'd back up the truck full of cash to lure one of the top recruiters in the nation to Madison.

Luke Strand is another interesting name that has popped up. Currently the head coach and GM of the Madison Capitols, Strand has strong recruiting ties in the state of Wisconsin and applied for the job when Walsh was officially hired in the summer of 2013. Strand has a commanding presence and likeable personality that should make him a fine recruiter. He also has a strong coaching resume with stops in the USHL, Division III and the American Hockey League.

One name that could surprise people is Troy Ward. After being fired by the WHL's Vancouver Giants earlier this season, Ward is back living in Madison. His kids attend UW-Eau Claire, and while there are a number of issues that would have to be worked out between he and Eaves -- most notably the fact that Eaves fired Ward in 2005 -- it's not that crazy of an idea. Obviously Ward's credentials as a coach are elite, but it remains to be seen if this is a relationship that could be mended.

Dan Boeser, previously mentioned in this article, is another up-and-coming coach that could be looking to make the jump to college hockey. Boeser opened this past season as an assistant coach with the USHL's Chicago Steel, but was elevated to the interim head coaching position after Scott McConnell had a mutual parting with the team.

Two names out of the NAHL that have been floated around are A.J. Degenhardt and Chris Tok. Degenhardt,  the head coach of the Coulee Region Chill, and Tok, who runs the show with the Austin Bruins, are both former Badgers and well respected in hockey circles. Tok has the advantage of having Division I coaching experience after spending four seasons as an assistant at Michigan Tech.

I could keep on running down names until I'm blue in the face, but I'm not going to waste your time. At the end of the day, Eaves needs to find two candidates that can return the Wisconsin hockey program to its rightful place.

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