Morgan Zulinick surprised many in the Wisconsin hockey community on Friday afternoon when he announced he was leaving the men's hockey program. Zulinick, who has a three-year-old son back in British Columbia, said he wanted to return home to spend more time with his family.
"I've decided after three years here at Wisconsin, my heart is back home with my family and my son, Noah," Zulinick said in a release from the school. "I've found my desire to be back home with Noah outweighs my desire to continue on playing hockey. I think I really need this."
Unfortunately, that leaves the Badgers without their third leading scorer from last season. Zulinick notched five goals and fifteen points to finish third on the team in scoring last year. In 78 career games, Zulinick registered nine goals and 33 points.
With the graduation of Joseph LaBate, Zulinick trailed only junior-to-be Grant Besse in the returning points category, and was one of just a handful of Badgers left in the stable with proven play-making ability at the Division I level.
An updated look at Wisconsin's roster shows only 13 forwards scheduled for next year. 12 are required on game days, and most teams have upwards of 15 or 16 on the roster during the season. Thanks in part to laissez-faire recruiting in recent years, the Badgers don't have ready-made replacements that have the ability to step into the lineup next season.
Even within that group of 13 players, there are still questions to be sorted out. First of all, we don't know if Alex Shuchuk will return to the Badgers next season. If his father wasn't on the coaching staff last year, the chances he's offered a spot on the Wisconsin hockey roster is extremely slim. Now that his father has departed, it remains to be seen if Alex will stay at UW, or look for opportunities elsewhere.
There's also the potential issue with Luke Kunin. As I wrote recently, there are strong rumors that Kunin may not currently posses the academic credentials to get into school. I haven't heard an update on his situation in a while, so he may have cleared the necessary hurdles by now, but as of a few weeks ago there were still people inside hockey circles that questioned if he would play college hockey next season or regroup and try again for 2016-17.
Regardless of the status of Kunin and Shuchuk, the Badgers have at least two forward spots to fill for the upcoming season. If Kunin and Schuchuk aren't on board, there's a possibility Wisconsin has four spots remaining in the class in addition to Matthew Freytag and Seamus Malone who will be on campus in the fall.
As you would expect, there aren't many impact forwards available to be recruited for next season. Anyone with a pulse already has a commitment to a school. The two that don't, Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk, are major long shots. Tkachuk is expected to sign with the London Knights of the OHL after the U18 World Championships, and Matthews is likely to end up in the WHL.
One possibility would be Eaves pursuing forwards that are already committed to other schools, but have yet to sign a national letter of intent. Wisconsin, along with a host of other schools, has said it no longer plans to abide by the gentleman's agreement on recruiting committed players. Not that it stopped Wisconsin in the past, as the Badgers flipped Joe Faust from Princeton, Jason Ford and Davis Drewiske from Bemidji State and almost flipped Matt Lindblad from Dartmouth.
The biggest problem in that scenario is NCAA regulated "dead periods" for contact. According to the rules, NCAA coaches can't contact prospective student athletes during the Frozen Four from April 8-12. That dead period opened up for 12 hours on Sunday, April 12 from noon-midnight. The dead period picked up again from Monday the 13th through April 16 during the week leading up to national signing day.
What does that mean for Wisconsin? With Zulinick announcing that he was leaving on Friday, Eaves only had a 12-hour period on Sunday to contact recruits before national signing day on Wednesday, April 15.
What's significantly more likely is the scenario where Eaves pursues forwards that are committed to other schools but have been pushed off to the 2016-17 season. That's what Denver did to Wisconsin when they brought Patrick Wiercioch to campus one year before he was set to join the Badgers.
Any way you look at it, Eaves and his future coaching staff have a herculean task to put together a respectable roster of forwards next season. Sure, Besse can put the puck in the net, and Cameron Hughes and Adam Rockwood have shown signs of being elite collegiate players down the road. But Wisconsin finished 56th out of 59 teams last season in scoring offense, and also lost its second and third leading scorers in LaBate and Zulinick. The Badgers also have only two recruits committed to fill upwards of six spots on next season's roster.
Does that seem like a recipe for taking a four-win team back to a national prominence?
Sure, Malone finished 11th in the USHL scoring race with 26 goals and 58 points in 58 games for Dubuque, and Freytag added 30 points in 49 games for Tri-City. Both players look like they have the ability to make an impact as soon as next year. But does that output from the incoming recruits combined with Wisconsin's returning scoring give you the encouragement that the Badgers are ready to jump back into the national race to be competitive again as soon as next season?
I didn't think so.
There's also the problem that Wisconsin won't have any senior forwards next season. So, if the Badgers end up with the traditional 15 forwards on the roster, what happens the following year? Realistically, only Besse is a flight risk, and that's probably a stretch. Trent Frederic joins the team in 2016, but he's likely an early departure at some point. So, once again, you likely have a class of forwards that is empty by the time they are seniors, which only adds to the serious issue of unbalanced classes. Of course the alternatives are to either cut players, or simply recruit over the top and go with 17 or 18 forwards.
I hate to sound negative all the time, but it's hard to get overly excited about the future when you can still see significant issues with the roster construction of this team. Rumors out of Madison have said that Eaves plans to overhaul his recruiting strategy in the off season. Maybe he has a miracle or two up his sleeve to turn things around for next year.
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