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Wisconsin hockey mailbag: Mike Eaves, special teams and more

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Where I answer your questions with scorching hot takes. Or something like that.

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Trying something a little bit different this week. In lieu of a preview for the Ohio State series, I'm going to answer some questions from loyal Bucky's 5th Quarter readers.

In case you're curious, the Badgers are on the road this week in Columbus. Friday's game will be televised on the Big Ten Network, while Saturday's game can be seen on the American Sports Network. Both games will be available to be streamed for free with a cable/satellite subscription on BTN2Go.com.

We had a really good response on the questions. If people like this feature, it's something we may do a little more regularly in the future. Let's jump into the questions.

Hypothetically, if Mike Eaves was fired, do you think Mark Johnson would leave the women and coach the men? If not, who else do you see as a possible replacement?

-Peter N.

I think Mark Johnson loves his job with the Wisconsin women's hockey team. With that said, I think he'd jump at the chance to take the men's job if it was available. At age 57, this may be his last opportunity to get a job like this. I'm not saying he'd be the most qualified, but I'd be stunned if he didn't apply.

Other obvious potential replacements include Mark Osiecki, Tony Granato, Don Granato and George Gwozdecky. Other names that need to be in consideration include Rand Pecknold (Quinnipiac head coach), Norm Bazin (UMass-Lowell head coach), Mike Hastings (Minnesota State head coach), Chris Bergeron (Bowling Green head coach), Mike Cavanaugh (UConn head coach), Dane Jackson (North Dakota assistant) and I'm sure a bunch of others that I'm missing.

What's the deal with the special teams? I think a lot of the badgers' problems just come down to youth/inexperience but I can't for the life of me figure out why they often look worse with a man advantage than they do at even strength. I've followed the badgers for a while so I know the conservative penalty kill is nothing new for Eaves but it seems like both the penalty kill and the power play are worse than they should be.

-Chuck D.

If we're being fair, Wisconsin has been better on the power play lately. After starting the year 1-for-29, the Badgers are are 12-for-63 (just over 19 percent). That would put them around 24th in the country, which isn't awful. Granted, they were 0-7 last weekend and looked horrendous at times, so who knows.

Sometimes I'm just not really sure what the hell they are doing on the PP. At the start of the season the best offensive player on the team (obviously Grant Besse) wasn't even on the No. 1 unit. How much sense does that make? They were so concerned with having Jedd Soleway out in front of the net they lost focus of what they were trying to do.

Some recent problems have them forcing EVERYTHING through Besse. He'll set up on the half wall with the puck and the other four guys on the ice will just stand there and wait for him to make a play. 1) Besse's game isn't to set other people up, it's to fire pucks a billion miles per hour into the net. 2) No one gives him options to make a play.

I think they have the tools to score goals on the PP going forward but it needs to be much less forced. If you watch good power play's like Minnesota, they are constantly moving and creating problems by zipping the puck around the zone and getting defenders out of position. Believe it or not one of the advantages UW has is having defensemen like Kevin Schulze and Jack Dougherty that can do that sort of thing.

One last thought, they need to shoot the puck when they get a chance, especially Dougherty. I despise people that yell "shoot" on the power play but Wisconsin doesn't shoot enough. Dougherty has a bomb and I'd like to see him use it more often.

I think this Badger team has a lot of potential and has already flashed some of the young talent. In my opinion these freshmen will develop and be good college hockey players (special stick tap for Ryan Wagner, I love his game and grit) but are young and continue to make rookie mistakes. I think the issue is also that the upperclassmen (Besse not included) were recruited to fill classes and not be foundations of said classes. They continue to make poor decisions with and without the puck that leads to a lot of bad turnovers and scoring chances. It is hard to hide rookies when the older players are making as bad of decisions on the ice. In a year or two, this team will be back at the top of the B1G, especially with the talent coming in, but do you think this year will temper recruiting momentum?

-Jared L.

I pretty much agree with everything you've said here. Wisconsin's biggest problem isn't that they have a lot of freshmen. This is the third time the Badgers have gone through this cycle with Eaves so it's not like they haven't had to deal with a huge class of rookies before. The problem is the lack of talent remaining in the upper classes.

The last time Eaves had a huge group of freshmen was the Zengerle/Barnes/Mersch class. Wisconsin was still able to win 21 games that season because they had elite veterans like Justin Schultz, Jake Gardiner, Jordy Murray and Craig Smith that were able to put the puck in the net. This current team doesn't have anything remotely close to that to rely on. So when you have a number of recruiting busts and then have to rely on a large freshman class you end up with two wins going into Valentines day wekeend.

As for the recruiting momentum, there is no doubt it's going to have an effect. It already has.

What does the the current Projected Wisconsin Recruiting Chart for defenseman look like now that there have been a few mid-season changes?

-Sean D.

It's a bit tough to project without knowing exactly what the coaching staff wants to do. A player like Cullen Hurley throws a big wrench into things because I have no idea what the coaching staff projects him as going forward. I'd like to say defense but you never know. Regardless, he's a walk-on kid and you don't know how much he can be relied upon for significant playing time should that situation arise.

I talked about the possibility of Caleb Jones a few weeks ago. It's probably not going to happen but it does make some sense. I really think Matthew Berkovitz needs another year in the USHL for not only Wisconsin's benefit but for his own benefit.

Also, I'm not sure how long it's going to take Tony Stillwell and Adam Parsells in the USHL to get to a point where the coaching staff is comfortable bringing them to campus. Both are very talented players, but until they spend a significant number of games at that level it's tough to tell. I think Stillwell will be the first option as he's a little more ready at this time, but he's still very small and won't be able to get away with skating out of trouble like he does at the high school level right now.

It's also unclear exactly what year Tyler Inamoto comes in. If I had to project his timeline I'd say he goes back and dominates at Shattuck Prep next season, goes to the USHL and gets his feet wet as a senior, and then comes to Wisconsin one year after a very solid second season in the league.

As always, this stuff is fluid. A commitment from a guy like Dante Fabbro can shake a lot of this up. It's really tough to say at this point but I think this should give a better idea at what the future holds on the defensive side of the puck.

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Earlier in the season, you said that this team was too talented to play this badly. How would you characterize the progress made, if any, by this badgers squad?

Jon G. sent in a bunch of questions, so the following group is all from him. I'll try to answer them individually the best that I can.

Let's start with my initial statement. I was wrong. Boy, was I ever wrong. The question is funny because I asked almost the exact same thing in a press conference to Mike Eaves. It was following the 6-0 loss to Michigan after the Wolverines swept the Badgers. Here is his response:

"How do you measure that? Inches? We've improved and there's lots of room to grow, but I don't know how you quantify it. When you grow a plant in the ground and you plant the seed, you can measure how it's growing. How do you do that with a group of young people? I can tell you that they've gotten better, but there's lots of room to grow. How's that?"

I'll leave it at that.

Your November piece addressed the cyclical nature Wisconsin hockey recruiting. We've heard ad nauseam about how youth and inexperience have hampered this teams development and success. Aside from these factors, what else is holding them back?

I touched on it above but special teams and lack of veteran talent is almost more crucial than the youth. Wisconsin has had teams under Eaves that have still been able to win 20 games with nine freshmen in the lineup. You can use the youth as a crutch all day, but it's the veterans that killed this season.

How bad would this team be without Joel Rumpel?

I'm not sure that's a fair question. Rumpel has stolen points for this team this season, there's no question. But I think Landon Peterson is a capable player and if he would have been a full-time starter would have been successful. So, while I think it's a shame Rumpel is going out with a sour note because of the lack of talent around him this year, I'm not sure I can answer that without giving Peterson some credit. But, Joel has been really, really good at times.

Care to predict the Badgers regular season conference record the rest of the way?

Someone asked me this a few weeks ago and I said Wisconsin would end up with five wins. I think the Badgers win one game against Ohio State this weekend, one against Ohio State at the Kohl Center and one against Michigan State at the Kohl Center. So that would leave UW with a regular season record of 5-25-4, going 3-7 down the stretch with series at Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan and home series vs. Michigan State and Ohio State.

Which freshman do you predict will make the biggest leap from year one to two?

Cameron Hughes. Easy answer for me. He should be playing junior hockey again this year in my opinion. It's unfortunate that the situation was so dire at Wisconsin that he was forced to come to campus as an underage player. He's shown serious flashes of being a really good player, especially lately. His injury in the Penn State serious is unfortunate because he looked really good. I think he's going to take off next year.

Halfway through year 2, how do feel about the B1G hockey experiment?

I've made my piece with it. The old WCHA was awesome but there are a lot of advantages to the current setup as well. All we can do at this point is look at those positives and hope the league continues to grow.

There don't appear to be any B1G hockey expansion plans in the near future. But let's rampantly speculate. If you're Delany, which other B1G schools are at the top of your list? Any conference outsiders?

It's a tough question. I've talked to people close to the situation at Nebraska but they don't see it as a realistic option. They built that new basketball facility but they don't have the time to host a hockey program there. Apparently between the sports already planned to play there and concerts, they are booked full for like eight years or something.

It's possible they could play where the Lincoln Stars play, as most people don't know this but the university owns the building. But that place is not a Big Ten caliber facility.

Illinois and Northwestern are the other two schools I seriously think can make a run at this thing. Both have serious interest, but it's going to take that one huge donor to take the plunge. The key factor again is securing enough financing for a facility.

As for outsiders, I still think it's possible that Notre Dame and Arizona State join the Big Ten. People may call me crazy but that door was opened when the Big Ten allowed Johns Hopkins into the league for Lacrosse. When you think about that move plus the league adding Rutgers and Maryland? Nothing would surprise me. Notre Dame is looking to leave Hockey East, and the Big Ten footprint is perfect for them. The biggest issue is the TV contract they have with NBC Sports. We'll see. Probably a crazy idea but It wouldn't be shocking.