Ah, the memories.
Wisconsin went to its 11th Frozen Four last season. The men’s hockey team, which owned six national titles but no Hobey Baker Award winner, given to the best player in college hockey, got to scratch that off the list. The suit-clad, mustachioed Badgers watched their senior captain, Blake Geoffrion, beat out two other very skilled hockey players and take the trophy at Ford Field’s makeshift center ice.
They’re some very nice memories.
But that’s all they are.
This season, Wisconsin has different expectations, fueled by a very different group of players. Seven senior forwards are gone. Four underclassmen, including three defensemen, left for the pros. Ten freshmen have been added, but nobody expects Geoffrion and Co.’s shoes to be filled immediately.
The 2010-2011 season isn’t so much a sequel as it is a gritty reboot.
Who’s going to score?
UW had four players reach the 50-point mark last season. Geoffrion had 28 goals, while sophomore center Derek Stepan led the team with 54 points, including 42 assists. Senior winger Michael Davies had a breakout year, going 20-32-52, while junior defenseman Brendan Smith led the nation’s defensemen in scoring, scoring 15 goals to go with 37 assists.
The Badgers can kiss those 208 points goodbye. The 12 players no longer with the team this season produced 345 of Wisconsin’s 473 points scored. Returning players accounted for just 44 of UW’s 171 goals scored.
Wisconsin’s leading returning scorer is sophomore Craig Smith. Smith was name to the WCHA rookie team last season, and had 33 points (8-25-33). The winger benefited from playing on the same line as Geoffrion, who attracted a lot of attention, especially on the power play, where he led the nation with 15 goals with the man advantage.
The goals might not come as easily this season.
“Some aspects, it’s the truth; why try to hide from it”? UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “We’re an awfully young team, and we lost a personnel, a lot of offense.”
Smith will make the transition to center this season, as the Badgers’ only returning center is captain Sean Dolan. Dolan was used as a third and fourth-line guy last season, and while his leadership role may have expanded, the senior isn’t going to attempt to become someone he’s not.
“I have to keep my game simple, and I need to keep being who I am,” Dolan said. “The leadership is a big aspect, but I can’t change what I do as a player.”
The challenge for Smith will be to produce, even though he’s going to be the man other teams will try to stop. As the Badgers’ only proven scoring commodity at forward aside from junior Jordy Murray, Wisconsin will likely look to Smith to shoulder the scoring load early in the season.
Still a strength
While the situation is unsettled up front, Wisconsin’s strength will again be its defense. While half of UW’s starters on the blueline are gone, the Badgers still have a formidable group of defensemen.
Junior assistant captain Jake Gardiner leads the group. The Minnetonka, Minn. native flashed his offensive ability as a freshman and progressed rapidly, being paired with now-gone Ryan McDonagh last season. The duo served as UW’s shutdown defensive pairing, and Gardiner has the talent and experience to do the same this season.
Wisconsin’s remaining starters cracked the lineup as freshmen last season. John Ramage was one of UW’s steadiest stay-at-home defensemen, while Justin Schultz showed he may be able to be this season’s Brendan Smith or Jamie McBain.
Craig Johnson and Eric Springer have all played significant minutes over the past two seasons and showed in spot duty last season that the defense shouldn’t skip too much of a beat.
Behind the defensemen, Wisconsin returns two senior goaltenders in Scott Gudmandson and Brett Bennett. The two rotated starts to begin last season, before a shoulder injury to Bennett helped Gudmandson take the reins.
Gudmandson showed flashes of dominance and enjoyed playing on a potent offensive team, but with so much youth spread out amongst the top lines, the Badgers expect to be in tight, defensive-minded struggles throughout the year.
That puts a lot of pressure on the goaltender, but its pressure Gudmandson is ready to take on.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” Gudmandson said. “If this year we have to win games 1-0, then so be it. I just want to help this team win.”
Like it or not, youth will be served on the men’s hockey team. How well that youth performs is another matter entirely.
Part of the Badgers’ strength last year was an experienced senior class that got career years from most of its members. But each player knew what his role was on the team, something that can’t be understated.
“Up front I think we’re going to have to mix and match,” Eaves said. “I think we’re going to be surprised by some of the abilities of our young freshmen – I hope so. Because they’re going to have to contribute right away.”
UW will expect points out of freshman Mark Zengerle. Last season, with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League, Zengerle had 120 points in 60 games, earning him part of the league’s scoring title.
“We’re young, we have talent,” Eaves said. “Our ability to win games is going to be in direct proportion to how quickly we mature as a team and we come together as a team.”
Two of the Badgers’ newest additions will make their debuts this season behind the bench. Former Badger Gary Shuchuk and former Gopher Bill Butters will replace the departed Kevin Patrick and Mark Osiecki as Eaves’ assistant coaches. Both Patrick and Osiecki left to take head coaching positions of their own.
Both players and coaches had nothing but praise for the new assistants.
“It’s been great. They’re two great guys and they interact well with the team,” Smith said. “It’s been great so far, and we’re pretty excited to work with them and go to battle.”
“They both know the game from the inside out; they’ve played the game at the highest level,” Eaves said.
The smart money says the Badgers will not replicate their title-game appearance from last season. Wisconsin was a veteran team with great leadership and a deep lineup.
This season might be more akin to the last time UW face a rebuilding – or reloading – year, following their 2006 national title.
But Eaves isn’t about to say what his squad will or will not do.
“That’s a tough question to answer, because one of the things you don’t want to do is put limits on these young people,” Eaves said.
Smith was more cautious in his assessment.
“I think we’re just going to try and get better every day,” he said. “Right now, we’re just taking it slow and trying to be sharp… try to go 2-0 in St. Louis.”
The Badgers could very well surprise the college hockey world this year. Last year’s accomplishments and the strength of this year’s freshman class was enough to earn UW a No. 13 ranking in the preseason polls.
Last season featured its share of surprises, as well. Geoffrion was not expected to return for his senior year, but did. Nobody expected him to explode offensively, in addition to the leadership and two-way play he brought. Davies and Brendan Smith far surpassed their previous career bests in scoring as well.
This year, Eaves has a brand new crop of fresh faces and a long season to learn exactly what he can reap from them.
“We talked about it as a staff – it’s like a Cracker Jack box,” Eaves said. “You know there’s a prize in there somewhere, and you don’t know what it is. So you get to the bottom and [we] find out together.”