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Wisconsin men’s hockey poised for a comeback year

The return of Wisconsin hockey royalty has the Badgers ready for a turnaround.

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Sophomore captain Luke Kunin
UW Athletic Communications

It’s going to be a great year for hockey!

Last year, well... last year was not a great year for hockey (8-19-8 overall, 3-13-4 in the Big Ten, good enough for last place). After a second straight disappointing season, coach (and noted Nae Nae enthusiast/toddler whisperer) Mike Eaves was relieved of his duties. Presiding over both a 2006 national championship and the subsequent programmatic decline, it was probably time for Eaves to take his waning recruiting (and full contract value) up north.

As always, in Barry we trust. Whom did he find to fill the void?

The boys are back in town. Let’s meet these handsome scoundrels:

  • Tony Granato: Former coach of the Colorado Avalanche (record: 104-78-17-16); former assistant with Pittsburgh, Colorado and Detroit; assistant coach for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team; played over 700 NHL games with the Rangers, Kings and Sharks, scoring 248 goals; two-time All-American with the Badgers; Hobey Baker Award finalist in 1987; Member, UW Athletic Hall of Fame.
  • Don Granato: Five years as a head coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program; coached a number of AHL, ECHL and USHL teams, including a five-year stint with the Wooster IceCats (AHL); spent 2005-06 season as an assistant with the Blues; won the 1990 NCAA title with the Badgers and was a captain in 1990-91.
  • Mark Osiecki: Successful AHL, USHL and college coach; head coach of Ohio State from 2010-13; noted recruiter and teacher of defensemen as a member of the Badgers’ coaching staff from 2004-10, including the 2006 title team; played in the NHL for six years including stints with the Flames, Senators, Jets and North Stars; three-year letterwinner for the Badgers, including serving as alternate captain on the 1990 title team.

Much has been written about how this group came back to Madison, but it is, without a doubt, the strongest batch of coaches UW could have put together.

The coaching is not the only thing to be exited about.

The Badgers enter 2016-17 with five NHL draftees on the roster (well, four, with Philip Nyberg expected to join in January once he takes his TOEFL; those darned UW admission standards). All but sophomore captain Luke Kunin are freshmen. Both Kunin (15th overall to Minnesota) and fellow St. Louisan Trent Frederic (29th overall to Boston) went in the first round, the first time since 2008 the Badgers had a player taken in the round.

Kunin (19 goals, 13 assists in 2015-16), senior forward Grant Besse (11 goals, 22 assists), and junior forward Cameron Hughes (five goals, 20 assists), who finished second, first and fourth in points respectively in 2015-16, were named captains for 2016-17. All in all, the Badgers return eight of their top 10 point scorers from last year. Matt Jurusik (8-15-7, 0.893) is the only goaltender on the roster with collegiate experience and is expected start the year in goal for the Badgers.

Kunin, who (in a ninja-level mastery act of fatherhood) was apparently cut from his first team by his dad, is now the first sophomore captain of the Badgers since the dearly departed Mike Eaves in 1975-76. He also was one of only four unanimous selections to the Big Ten preseason watch list. Besse was named to the watch list for a second time.

The incoming talent is exciting. In addition to Frederic and Nyberg, the Badgers welcome NHL draftees J.D. Greenway (third round, 72nd overall to the Maple Leafs) and Max Zimmer (fourth round, 104th overall to the Hurricanes). Dan Labosky, who spent two games in 2014-15 at Colorado College before leaving to skate with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, joins the Badgers as a sophomore. Jack Berry and Johan Blomquist will provide depth in goal.

An unfortunate side effect of a coaching change is that not everyone fits the new system. Five players, including former first line forward Adam Rockwood, left the team shortly after change of coaching staff. Rockwood transferred to Northern Michigan.

Minnesota (20-17-0 overall in 2015-16) was picked to finish first in the Big Ten preseason poll, followed by Ohio State, Michigan (last year’s Big Ten tournament champion) and Penn State. The Badgers were picked to finish fifth in the conference, ahead of only Michigan State.

The Badgers kick off the season Oct. 1 1 at the Kohl Center against the University of Victoria. Highlights of the non-conference schedule include Boston College at home (Oct. 14-16) and Colorado College/University of Denver on the road (Nov. 25-26) before Big Ten play starts on Dec. 9 on the road against Michigan. The Big Ten tournament will be held at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit this year March 16-18.

Big Ten Hockey News and Notes