Getting ready to begin the inaugural year of Big Ten men’s hockey, it should come as no surprise that Eaves and his team are going into this season with more excitement than prior years.
At a press conference Monday, Eaves described how the team has a newfound energy heading into the opening series of the season against Northern Michigan this weekend at the Kohl Center.
“[It’s] very similar to being a freshman in college or a rookie in the National Hockey League, it’s all new. And when it’s all new, it’s exciting,” Eaves said. “There’s a newness, there’s an excitement that comes with all the new teams and buildings we are going to go into, so that’s exciting.”
The Badgers find themselves ranked No. 3 in the NCAA preseason rankings. One reason for this is the experience of the team, returning 21 players from last year’s WCHA Tournament champion team.
“It always helps. I mean, there’s no question,” Eaves said. “When you go into a season like this, any season, the older you are, those kids coming in have more reps so you kind of hope that’ll take over.”
The strength of this year’s team goes beyond just the presence of veteran leadership, though. According to Eaves, a big indicator of how successful a team will be is how strong they are up the middle, and the Badgers have the players to be that. Eaves recalled the last time he saw one of his teams showing this level of strength in the center.
“It would rank up there with the teams that, you know, when we had success. They would rank up there with those teams. The  team, the  team,” Eaves said. “There’s no secret when you’re going to be a successful hockey team, that’s one of the elements, being strong up the middle.”
While Eaves looks highly upon the personnel on his team, he does have some concerns. With moving players around, adjusting lineups and bringing in new players, his biggest concern deals with the unknown chemistry of the team.
“There’s still a lot of unknowns about the chemistry. We moved Mark Zengerle up with [Morgan Zulinick] and [Tyler Barnes], and we’ve got Nic [Kerdiles] in the middle,” Eaves said. “It looks pretty good in practice, but you’re still not sure.”
Two of the biggest unknowns of the team are freshman forwards Grant Besse and Jedd Soleway and how Eaves plans on incorporating them into the Wisconsin offense.
“[It’s] unknown. Somewhere they have to fit, though,” Eaves said. “They do some good things. How quickly they can adapt to the pace and the speed and strength of college hockey will determine where they can fit in.”
Eaves still has a few more practices until his team hits the ice against Northern Michigan Friday. The Badgers haven’t won a season opener since the 2007-2008 season and Eaves explained how getting a limited amount of ice time before the first game is a big reason as to why the Badgers have struggled in past season openers.
“We are just getting on the ice. I mean we’ve been part-time for a couple weeks, we’ve had a red-white scrimmage, now we are going to have three days of practice, a walk-through and then we play,” Eaves said. “We have very little time to prepare.”
Along with winning their home opener, the Badgers hope to get off to a stronger start this season than last year’s starting record of 1-7-2 in the first 10 games, forcing them to play catch-up toward the season’s end. Eaves seems to believe his team values highly the importance of a quick start.
“The young men in the locker room all know that. They are very much aware of it. There were storms that we had last year, and who’s to say we aren’t going to have some storms here now,” Eaves said. “We are certainly going to be on our toes, ready to get out of the port on a good note and get off to a good start.”