When the 2014-15 edition of the Wisconsin hockey team hits the ice for its first game Friday night in Alaska at the Kendall Hockey Classic, it will be doing so with a significantly different identity than the one that graced the ice last season.
Gone are veterans Mark Zengerle, Michael Mersch, Tyler Barnes and Frankie Simonelli. So are underclassmen Nic Kerdiles and Jake McCabe, who signed NHL contracts in the off-season.
In total, the Badgers lost 11 players off last year's roster, including a group of nine seniors. Those 11 players combined for 87 goals and 239 points last season.
Tasked to help replace much of that production will be an 11-member freshman class that features seven forwards. Those youthful players will certainly go through some growing pains this season, and according to head coach Mike Eaves, it's the responsibility of the coaching staff to keep pushing them in the right direction.
At Big Ten media day in Detroit earlier this month, Eaves passed on an analogy from his wife in regards to the youth on the team this season.
"[My wife] makes the analogy they're like puppies in a box," Eaves said. "They're going to try and get out of the box, and we've got to put them back in day after day until they figure it out."
Headliners of the incoming class this season include defenseman Jack Dougherty, a second-round NHL Draft pick of the Nashville Predators, and forwards Adam Rockwood and Cameron Hughes. But this freshman group also has an element of depth that should excite Wisconsin fans.
Highly-recruited defensmen Jake Linhart and Keegan Ford are complimented by forwards Ryan Wagner and Matt Ustaski, an NHL Draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets.
Eight freshmen made the trip to Alaska this weekend and six are expected to be in the lineup on Friday night against Fairbanks. Additionally, defenseman Tim Davison and forward Corbin McGuire, who both redshirted last season, are expected to make their debuts for the Badgers this weekend.
McGuire, who committed to the Badgers in March, 2009, and Davison, who gave his verbal in September, 2010, have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time.
All this newness has the coaching staff paying closer attention to the little details.
"I feel a little bit like a farmer planting his fields, getting the seed in the ground," Eaves said this week. "We have a check list of things that we're trying to get through, and just introduce it to the kids, get some reps in practice, film it, get some feedback that we just covered and move on to the next thing."
To make things even more interesting this season is the fact the Badgers are tasked with one of the most difficult schedules they've faced in recent memory. In addition to the Big Ten conference slate that features four games each against top-10 teams Michigan and Minnesota, the Badgers will host non-conference series' against national powers North Dakota and Boston University. Wisconsin will also travel to Alaska to play Fairbanks and Anchorage this weekend, and has a trip scheduled to play one game each against Denver and Colorado College in November.
"It is tough," Eaves said. "And we talk about it as a staff as we looked at creating a schedule, do we want to push it to the side of being less challenging or more challenging?
"We decided as a staff that we wanted a more challenging schedule because the only way you get better is much like that chemistry term osmosis, you get drawn up to a higher level. You're playing better teams, you get drawn up to that level of play."
While there's no question youth is an overall concern at Wisconsin this season, the one position with significant experience is the most important one on the rink -- between the pipes.
Wisconsin returns senior goaltender Joel Rumpel, a top-10 finalist last season for the Hobey Baker award as college hockey's top player. They also bring back classmate Landon Peterson, who is no slouch either, with a .904 career save percentage.
That duo should provide the Badgers a backbone to lean on while they attempt to find their footing at other positions.
"Whenever you look at a hockey team, whether it's experienced or young, you always take a look at your goaltending," Eaves said. "That is where it begins and ends in ice hockey. We have two senior guys that are very experienced and are excellent in their positions. So we feel that having those veteran goaltenders will buy time for our young kids both on the blue line and up front to get their feet underneath them, and get their feet underneath them and learn in a positive light.
"So [Rumpel and Peterson] will buy us some time and that's a good thing for this young group. We need that from our goaltenders. If they can provide that, that will accelerate the learning process."
While Rumpel and Peterson split time much of their first two seasons in Madison, Rumpel took the ball and ran with it as a junior, starting 29 games last season, winning 21 of them. Rumpel's 19 victories after Dec. 1 last season ranked second in the nation. Rumpel's .929 save percentage last season ranked seventh in the country.
Rumpel, who hails from Swift Current, Saskatchewon, will once again be tasked with carrying the load for Wisconsin this season. He'll have a chance to work his way up the record books as well. Rumpel currently ranks ninth in victories (49) and second in shutouts (9). Rumpel also ranks second in career save percentage (.926) and goals-against average (2.16), trailing only St. Louis Blues starting goaltender Brian Elliott in both categories.
The Badgers also return practice goaltender Adam Miller, and bring in freshman Gabe Grunwald. Neither are expected to see much action this season, but Grunwald may get his feet wet here and there in hand-picked situations, as he'll be the only returning scholarship goalie on the roster next season.
While the loss of so many forward points is daunting at first glance, there are talented returning players up front who were relegated to lesser roles and minutes last season due to the depth and experience at forward. Eaves expects some of these players, who will see their roles increase tenfold, to step up in a positive manner.
"We're going to find out that somebody is going to step up to the plate here," Eaves said. "To what degree, we'll find out together, but a lot of pine trees got chopped down in the forest and a lot of these saplings are going to have a chance to grow with the sun being on them.
"I'm hoping that it's similar to what happened in Minnesota last year. They had a great year because they had different contributors every night, and I think think that's something we can find this year, then that would be a big positive for us."
One of those players is senior Joseph LaBate, who is expected to center the Badgers' top line to start the season. LaBate is the top returning scorer from last season's roster with 11 goals and 11 assists, but has always been an auxiliary piece with guys like Zengerle, Barnes, Mersch and Kerdiles taking up most of the minutes on the top power play. The Vancouver Canucks' draft pick will have the spotlight this season, as he was voted an alternate captain by his teammates and also named one of the Big Ten's top players to watch by the league's coaches in the preseason.
Also expected to bust out this year is sophomore Grant Besse, who is projected to play the right wing on LaBate's line. Arguably Wisconsin's top goal-scoring threat, Besse must expand upon his eight goals from last season. In an odd twist, seven of Besse's goals last season came at home. The Anaheim Ducks draft pick must find more game-to-game consistency to expand his production.
Redshirt sophomore Morgan Zulinick is a player that could be in line for a significant jump in points if he can turn his obvious natural ability into production. Zulinick's offensive skills immediately jump out, but like Besse, he struggled to find consistency last season. Zulinick saved his best hockey for late in the season, however, as he picked up three points in the Big Ten tournament, including a goal and an assist in the championship victory over Ohio State.
Speaking of potential that has yet to turn into production, senior winger and team captain Brad Navin is a player who must take a significant step forward if the Badgers are going to find success offensively. A Buffalo Sabres draft selection, Navin has just eight goals in 106 career games for Wisconsin. At 6'3, 205 pounds, Navin has the physical attributes to produce at this level. It remains to be seen if he can turn that size and ability into results.
Moving from the wing to center this season, at least for the time being, is sophomore Jedd Soleway. The bruising forward out of British Columbia became a fan favorite as a rookie with his thunderous body checks and gritty attitude. Soleway only recorded one goal last season, a power play tally in an NCAA tournament loss to North Dakota, but played much better than his numbers indicate. He'll be given a top-six opportunity out of the gates this season, and will also provide net-presence on the power play, similar to the role Michael Mersch played the past few seasons.
Freshmen forwards Hughes, Rockwood, Ustaski and Wagner, who I mentioned previously, will all be in the lineup to start the season and all bring a different element that can help the offense.
Hughes is a speedy center who will start the year on the wing. Not eligible until the 2015 NHL Draft, Hughes is expected to be a high selection for his ability to stretch the rink and put the opposition on their heels. Hughes had a big season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season as a 17-year-old, and will be one of the youngest players in the Big Ten this year.
Rockwood is a playmaker extraordinaire, and will remind people a lot of Zengerle. Rockwood led the British Columbia Hockey League in assists last season, and was the rookie of the year in the league two seasons ago. A winger with outstanding vision, it won't be surprising to see Rockwood given extended time on the power play because of his natural ability to set up his teammates.
At 6'6, Ustaski is one of the taller recruits in recent memory. The Glenview, Illinois native played in the BCHL the past two seasons with the Langley Rivermen, and saw his stock rise significantly after growing into his huge frame. Ustaski could still stand to add some toughness to his game, but he skates much better than you'd expect for a player of his size, and has nice ability with the puck as well.
Wagner is a heart-and-soul player that is able to mix his grittiness with talent to make a pretty solid all-around hockey player. A sign of the trust the coaching staff has given Wagner is that they're starting him at center to begin his freshman year on the third line. Typically, Eaves likes to keep his young players on the wing because center comes with more defensive responsibilities than the other forward spots. But the coaches like the tenacity Wagner brings to the table, and he should be an instant fan favorite with the crowd at the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin's defensive crew is an interesting mix of youth and experience after losing regulars Simonelli, McCabe and Joe Faust from last season's roster. Returning are Eddie Wittchow, Kevin Schulze and Chase Drake. The Badgers also bring back redshirt freshman Tim Davison, and bring in three freshmen who were all high-end nationally recruited players.
Along with Navin, Drake will be the other player wearing the "C" for the Badgers this season. As a fifth-year senior, Drake will see his role expanded. He came into the program as a bit of a role player, but saw action in all 37 games for UW last year. A vocal leader, Drake could be one of the most important pieces to this team in a number of different areas this season.
Schulze has some abilities you simply can't teach. As a skater, it's a treat to watch him buzz around the ice with the puck on his stick. That ability also allows him to make up for mistakes that some other players might not be able to get away with. Schulze showed his offensive capabilities from the back-end last season as he put up 16 points, and will be relied upon again as a junior to provide an impact on the power play.
While having finesse defensemen can be a good thing, you have to balance those players out with steady, hard-nosed hockey players. That's where Wittchow comes into the mix this season. Significantly improved from year one to year two, Wittchow will look to make another significant jump as a junior. The Florida Panthers' draft pick may even surprise some people with his ability to add to the score sheet this season.
After siting out the entire season last year, Davison took a redshirt and is finally looking to throw on the cardinal and white in a game for the first time. Another player with offensive ability, Davison needs to continue to work on his defensive zone play if he wants to stick in the lineup this season. But what he has, you can't teach. He's a kid with great vision and passing ability that should help Wisconsin's possession numbers.
Headlining the freshman class of defensemen is Jack Dougherty out of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Originally committed to Ohio State, Dougherty changed his mind after Mark Osiecki was let go in Columbus. The Buckeyes' loss is the Badgers' gain, as Dougherty is one of the most highly touted freshmen in the nation this season. Dougherty is strong in his own end, but should also help out the Badgers offensively and will be given an opportunity on the power play as a coveted right-handed blueliner.
A name that may sound familiar with Badger fans is that of Keegan Ford. The Waunakee, Wisconsin native is the son of former Wisconsin player and assistant coach, Pat. Keegan's older brother, Jason, is a freshman forward with the Badgers this season as well. After spending the past two seasons in the USHL with Dubuque, Keegan Ford should be an immediate contributor defensively for UW. What he lacks in stature -- he stands at just 5'8 -- he makes up for in toughness. Ford doesn't back down from anyone and is one of the more cerebral defensemen to come into college hockey this season.
Rounding out the defensive class this year is Linhart, who was one of the more highly-recruited defensemen in the country when he committed as a 15-year-old out of the Chicago Mission program. The Brookfield, Wisconsin native is a slick offensive defenseman that projects as a power play quarterback down the road. For now Linhart will have to work his way into the lineup by proving his worth in his own end of the rink first.
The one constant with a program like Wisconsin is that no matter what you return in terms of personnel from the previous season, you're still expected to win. This season is no different. While there has been significant turnover, the fans that pay good money to support this program won't accept using youth as a crutch all season long.
Growing pains are to be expected. This team will lose a few games they probably should have won. But, with the talent of Rumpel between the pipes, it's highly likely that they'll end up winning a few games they didn't deserve to win as well.
Making the NCAA tournament is an every-year expectation at Wisconsin. That doesn't change just because you have 11 freshmen on the roster. I feel as if most fans would be satisfied with a tournament berth and a .500 or better record this season.
The Big Ten coaches picked the Badgers to finish third in the league this season, behind league-favorite Minnesota and Michigan. That sounds about right. The Gophers are the clear favorites, and Michigan should be improved this season, especially on the defensive end. Ohio State lost Ryan Dzingel and Max McCormick, but could be a team that has the ability to jump Wisconsin in the standings if the Badgers struggle to find their footing.
Overall it's going to be a fun season to cover this team. While the disparity in recruiting class sizes from year-to-year are going to continue to hinder this program from becoming an elite, national contender every season, there's an abundance of talent on this roster, even if it hasn't fully blossomed quite yet.
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