Winning seasons are nice, league championships are even better. In the end, the only team sincerely happy is one skating around the rink with the NCAA championship trophy raised above their heads. When you're a program of Wisconsin's prestige, that's the goal heading into every season.
So, is this team good enough?
The peaks and valleys of the Mike Eaves coaching have been drastic at times. The Badgers have played in two national championship games -- winning one -- but have also missed the NCAA tournament five times during Eaves' 11-year tenure.
Wisconsin appears to be on the upswing heading into the 2013-14 campaign, coming off one of the best finishes in program history a season ago in which they won the Broadmoor Trophy as WCHA tournament champions.
Prior to last season, Eaves told the media in a preseason press conference the next two years were important in terms of striking while the iron is hot.
"If you look at history, you would say these are the two years we need to harvest our crop, so to speak," Eaves said. "That's what we need to do."
One common trend we've discussed on this site previously is the ability to project the Badgers' success with the amount of veteran forwards they carry on the roster. As I noted in a recent article, in the four years under Eaves that Wisconsin has had more upperclassmen forwards, the Badgers have a .649 winning percentage, reached the NCAA tournament three times, appeared in two Frozen Fours and captured one national title.
In the seven seasons Wisconsin has carried more underclassmen up front, the Badgers have a .521 winning percentage, have made the NCAA tournament less than half the time (three out of seven seasons) and have made zero trips to the Frozen Four.
It's no coincidence the two highest-scoring Wisconsin teams during Eaves' career behind the Badger bench also happen to be the two teams with the most veteran forwards. It's also no surprise those are the two Eaves-led clubs that played for a national championship.
As you can see by the graphic above, the Badgers' roster has nine upperclassmen up front this year. Not only that, but it has six senior forwards, which is the second-most over Eaves' tenure.
More importantly, it's not like these upperclassmen are guys who have been riding pine the previous few seasons and are suddenly going to be thrust into action. Three of the Badgers' top four returning scorers -- Michael Mersch, Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes -- have all played over 100 games at Wisconsin.
The other, sophomore Nic Kerdiles, was one of just two freshmen in the country last season to average over a point per game. Given Kerdiles' pedigree and history with the U.S. national teams, the Badgers boast four of the top forwards in the Big Ten heading into 2013-14.
While it wasn't all because of him, obviously, Kerdiles provided a spark the Badgers were missing early in the season while he was serving a 10-game NCAA suspension for violating amateurism rules. During those first 10 games, the Badgers went just 1-7-2 while averaging 1.80 goals-per-game. With Kerdiles in the fold for the final 32 games, Wisconsin went 21-6-5, averaging 2.94 goals per game.
The other six upperclassmen aren't short on experience, either, as every junior and senior forward has played in at least 70 games during his time in Madison.
Overall, Wisconsin will return 81.25 percent of its scoring from last season. The 2013-14 season will mark the second year in a row the Badgers have returned over 80 percent of their scoring.
Looking at Wisconsin's returning output compared to its Big Ten competition, the Badgers' lineup returns the most points (239) and goals (91) in the league. In comparison, Michigan and Ohio State return 86 goals, followed by Minnesota (79), Michigan State (73) and Penn State (70).
Efficient power play
There's no doubt Wisconsin's power play was one of the worst in the country last season, checking in at just 13 percent over the course of the season. The Badgers struggled last year to replace All-American Justin Schultz, and it showed in a painful unit that looked lost much of the season.
During Schultz's time as a Badger, Wisconsin's power play was 20.7 percent (2009-10), 21.6 percent (2010-11) and 20.6 percent (2011-12) before falling off last season after he signed with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.
Despite the Badgers' seemingly never-ending struggles with the man advantage last season, they were actually much better in the second half of the season. Wisconsin scored just six power play goals in the first half of the season, but doubled that number with 12 in the second half.
One of the biggest reasons Wisconsin had success down the stretch was the effectiveness of a second power play unit. In fact, the Badgers' top unit didn't score a goal in the final eight games of the season, while the No. 2 unit chipped in five goals over that stretch.
The second unit was effective because it kept things simple, got pucks to the net and finished opportunities when presented.
During Eaves' 11 years behind the bench, Wisconsin has averaged more than three goals per game in five seasons. In four of those five seasons, the Badgers have made the NCAA tournament. Both Frozen Four teams averaged over three goals per game.
The common theme? A solid power play unit.
Three of those five seasons in which the Badgers averaged over three goals per game, the power play was over 20 percent. The other two teams weren't bad on the man advantage, either, checking in at 18.2 percent and 19.6 percent.
The power play must be a point of emphasis for the Badgers this season if they are going to put together a special season. When teams aren't afraid to put you on the power play, they can be more aggressive and attack you differently. Theoretically, a team with a good power play should get more time and space in five-on-five action.
Potential Power Play 1
Let's take a brief look at a couple of power play options, the first unit being a traditional Mike Eaves power play. Over the past five-to-six seasons, Eaves has used an offset umbrella with a right-handed shot at the point. Last season, Frankie Simonelli and Derek Lee played that spot (when Lee was healthy), and Schultz held that position the previous three seasons. Prior to that, it was Jamie McBain who directed traffic from the QB position on the power play.
I personally think it's time to let Jake McCabe run the show back there, even though he's left-handed. McCabe is the best defenseman in the Big Ten, and one could argue the top defenseman in the entire country. Not only is he incredibly skilled, he has an elite awareness level of where to direct the puck. That's key when trying to find the open man to get the opposition's penalty-killers out of position.
From there, the other positions fall into place very easily. Kerdiles must be on the top group this season. I thought he was wasted last year in terms of special teams for most of the season. As a left-handed shot he can open up for the one-timer on the back side and he's actually one of the most underrated passers on the team.
The other positions are easy to fill in, as well. Mersch is the big body out front for screens and tips, Barnes is an animal digging pucks out of the corner and making nifty plays in tight spaces, and Zengerle can make the pass from the half-wall as well as any player in college hockey today.
Potential Power Play 2
The second power play unit, as I have it set up, will be similar to the second unit the Badgers used last season. I have them set up as a box-and-one with Joseph LaBate the man in the middle. Simonelli has a cannon from the point, and Schulze is experienced enough in his second year to be a play-making defenseman from the point.
In this setup, you need a right-handed shot down low on one side, and Jefferson Dahl fits in nicely here. Not only did he show flashes of busting out offensively last year, you need an effective center on both units that can win faceoffs and control possession.
On the other side you can take your pick between freshman Grant Besse and redshirt freshman Morgan Zulinick. Besse played almost the exact spot last season in high school at Benilde-St. Margaret's and absolutely torched opponents by getting his shot off from this area. Zulinick has arguably the best hands on the Wisconsin roster, and could be a fill-in for multiple roles on the man advantage.
I'm talking about it last, but it's arguably the most important piece to a championship team. When the Badgers took home the national championship in 2006, there was no doubt Brian Elliott was the MVP of that team. In fact, it's a joke he didn't win the Hobey Baker that season. The Badgers went 27-5-3 with Elliott between the pipes, but were just 3-5 when he was out with a knee injury.
Wisconsin feels like it has its best goaltender on campus since Elliott in Joel Rumpel, and if the Badgers are going to go all the way, he's going to have to be a big reason why. No disrespect to the other goalies to come through Madison since Elliott, but no one has had the talent or moxie Rumpel does.
A lot of people forget that Elliott rode the pine for much of two seasons in Madison before finally being anointed the starter in his junior season. Rumpel is already ahead of Elliott in that regard, starting 55 games in his first two seasons compared to Elliott's 15.
While he may not be Elliott, there aren't many better goaltenders in the country than Rumpel, and that's a significant advantage for the Badgers heading into what they feel like should be a special season. Out of all the goalies returning to college hockey this season that played in at least 60 percent of their teams games last year, only Providence's Jon Gillies had a better save percentage than Rumpel last season.
As you already know, the Badgers are blessed with two goaltenders they feel could start for almost any program in the country. The other obviously being Landon Peterson, whose .926 save percentage and 2.01 goals against average are very impressive.
While the Badgers have the advantage of rostering two outstanding players between the pipes, it's time for Eaves to give the keys to Rumpel right out of the gates this season. Given the fact that college hockey teams only play two games a week, it's hard for goalies to get in the groove when they only play in one game, or sometimes not even that.
While there's something to be said about keeping your No. 1 goaltender fresh, it's more important for (arguably) the most valuable piece of your team to get into a rhythm early in the season. As Wisconsin fans are certainly aware, the difference between making and missing the NCAA tournament can come down to a single game. Having your best player between the pipes as often as possible can only help when it comes time to crunch numbers on selection Sunday.
So, is this team good enough?
In a word, yes.
Now, that doesn't mean a whole lot now, given the fact it takes a little bit of luck in a lot of different areas -- most notably, health -- but what it does mean is that this team has the tools to go all the way if the pieces fall the right way.
While this club might not be the most offensively-gifted club Eaves has ever put on the ice, the Badgers are going to score a lot of goals this season. Given the fact they have one of the best goalies in the country on the other end of the ice keeping pucks out of their net, the Badgers should win a lot of hockey games.
That said, they need to be much better this season in a lot of the other areas. Not only on the power play, but in areas like the penalty kill, as well. One of the most underrated players for Wisconsin over the past few seasons has been Ryan Little, who was a beast killing penalties for the Badgers. He's gone now, and someone is going to have to step up in his place.
One of the advantages they will have this season is having assistant coach Matt Walsh on board for a full season. A lot of people forget the whirlwind of emotions felt when Bill Butters resigned just a few weeks into the season last year. Walsh was tossed into fire early, and by all accounts did one hell of a job.
Can this team win a national championship? Absolutely. Will it? I have no idea, but it's going to be a fun journey to watch.
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