At the start of the 2016-17 season, it looked like Wisconsin men’s hockey was poised for a comeback year. After managing only 12 wins in the previous two seasons, former head coach Mike Eaves was shown the door, and a dream team of coaches—head coach Tony Granato and associate head coaches Don Granato and Mark Osiecki—returned to Madison to lead the Badgers back to prominence.
At the holiday break, it looks like they are well on their way.
Wisconsin (8-7-1 overall, 1-1-0 in the Big Ten) has already matched its wins total from last year. While not yet in the same class as No. 3/No. 3 Penn State (13-1-1 overall, 2-0-0 in the Big Ten), No. 9/No. 10 Ohio State (9-2-4 overall, 1-1-0 in the Big Ten), or No. 11/No. 11 Minnesota (9-5-2 overall, 3-1-0 in the Big Ten), the Badgers have already netted a road win against Michigan and knicked a home win against a top-10 Boston College team. The firm of Granato, Granato, and Osiecki have got the program healthier than it has been in years. Here’s why:
The offense is humming.
Last year, the Badgers’ offense nearly bottomed out, averaging only 2.66 goals on 30.5 shots per game. Wisconsin managed to net only 22 power-play goals all year, converting at 18.6 percent. Individually, there were some successes—Grant Besse led Wisconsin with 33 points, Luke Kunin had 19 goals—but only Kunin, Besse and Ryan Wagner had double-digit goal tallies and no Badger averaged more than a point per game.
Through 16 games so far in 2016-17, it has been a different story. Granato came in preaching a more wide-open style and the early returns have been positive. So far this season, Wisconsin averages 3.44 goals per game on 36 shots. Besse has 19 points, Kunin has 11 goals and four more Badgers (Besse, Seamus Malone, super-frosh Trent Frederic and Will Johnson) are on pace for double-digit goals. Kunin (1.06), Besse (1.27) and Frederic (1.20) are averaging a point or more per game. The Badgers’ power-play has shown the greatest improvement: through just 100 attempts, Wisconsin has already scored 23 power-play goals (23 percent), besting its goal total from last year.
There is talent in the pipeline.
Under Eaves, the talent pool waxed and waned, particularly after Osiecki departed for Ohio State in 2010. Recruiting successes like Kunin and Besse were too often wasted with unbalanced classes and talent departures.
The new staff, particularly Osiecki and Don Granato, who spent almost five seasons with the United States National Team Development Program, has done much to stabilize recruiting and bring in talented future Badgers, adding 20 known new commitments since June.
The Badgers have also locked down high-ceiling Eaves recruits while adding to the short-term talent pool. Wisconsin nabbed four recruits who signed their National Letters of Intent during November’s early signing period:
- Verona, Wis., native Tarek Baker currently plays for the USHL’s Bloomington Thunder. The 5’10 forward has scored seven goals through 20 games played this season while logging 47 penalty minutes. A 20-goal scorer in 2015-16, Baker was recently named to the U.S. Junior Select Team for the World Junior A Challenge. Baker committed under Eaves.
- Jason Dhooghe currently plays for the USHL Green Bay Gamblers. A 5’8 forward from Aurora, Ill., Dhooghe has nine points in 27 games in 2016-17 for the Gamblers. Dhooghe committed under Granato.
- Sean Dhooghe, Jason’s younger brother, is a 5’3 forward who currently plays for the United States U-18 team. A 20-goal scorer in 2015-16, Sean Dhooghe has tallied 13 points in 31 contests in 2016-17. Dhooghe committed under Granato.
- Tyler Inamoto, also a member of the U-18 team, is a 6’2 defenseman from Barrington, Ill.. A rugged defender, Inamoto has racked up 45 penalty minutes so far over 28 games played in 2016-17. Like, Baker, Inamoto committed under Eaves.
In addition to the four who have already signed National Letters of Intent, four other verbal commits—forwards Dominick Mersch (younger brother of former Badger and current Los Angeles King Michael Mersch), Grant Cruikshank (the son of Olympians Dave Cruikshank and Bonnie Blair), Sampo Ranta and the Madison Capitols’ Mick Messner—are all possibilities to join the Badgers in 2017-18.
The Badgers have found the bottom of the attendance woes.
One of the more horrifying developments of the Eaves era was plummeting attendance. Despite playing in the second-largest arena in the country (behind only Ohio State’s airplane hanger-esque Value City Arena), Wisconsin has struggled to fill the Kohl Center for men’s hockey.
Wisconsin once consistently led the country in total attendance. During the 2005-06 national championship season, the Badgers averaged 13,511 fans over 20 games. As recently as 2011-12, Wisconsin still led the country in total attendance, totaling over 235,000 fans in 20 games.
In the last four years years of the Mike Eaves era, that had fallen off significantly.
- 2012-13: Total attendance: 199,942 in 21 games; average home attendance: 9,521 (62 percent filled).
- 2013-14: Total attendance 209,570 in 20 games; average home attendance: 10,478 (68.2 percent filled).
- 2014-15: Total attendance: 196,761 in 18 games; average home attendance: 10,931 (71.2 percent filled).
- 2015-16: Total attendance: 159,284 in 18 games; average home attendance: 8,849 (57.6 percent filled).
Through eight home games this year, Wisconsin has a total attendance of 67,392 (average attendance: 8,424). With a more open, fan-friendly style of play and the entire home Big Ten slate ahead, including high-profile home series against Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan in the next few weeks, hopefully the bottom of the attendance death spiral has been found.
There are still issues. Goaltending has been rough. Sophomore Matt Jurusik (4.16 GAA, .852 SV%) has battled injuries and inconsistency, including a tendency to give up soft early goals. Freshman Jack Berry (2.61 GAA, .886 SV%) started the year very well, but has struggled of late, including giving up six goals in games at Denver and home against Omaha. The defense has shown slight improvement over last year, but there is still significant room for growth. The fans still have to come back.
But overall, this feels like a fun team on the rise. It’s about time. In a year where football, women’s hockey, men’s basketball and women’s volleyball are all dominant, it is good to see a pillar of Badgers sports heading in the right direction. Wisconsin is a program that should have national title aspirations with a full and rocking Kohl Center. With Granato at the helm, it feels like that might happen sooner than later.