The 2011-12 Wisconsin men’s hockey season saw the team compile its first sub .500 record since the 2007-08 campaign. But a year later, the expectations surrounding Badgers hockey are much loftier. 

The losing record came to the chagrin of Badger fans, but a rebuilding year was somewhat expected with a roster full of youngsters that included seven freshmen and 10 sophomores skating for the Badgers. At his weekly press conference Monday, head coach Mike Eaves said he believes it’s time to reap the benefits of another year of experience and development.

Gauging the level of maturation from last season will be evident immediately, as the first official day of practice coincides with the first game of the season when the team faces off with the U.S. Under-18 team at the Kohl Center Saturday. Before Saturday, the team has only been allowed to practice and skate together for two hours a week.

“These practices have highlighted this first game – they have a meaning and a purpose,” Eaves said. “Our very first official day we play a game that night, so I’m interested to see how that pays off, if we have that character there. We play our first day, we need to stay focused.”

The two-hour limit on the week for warming up, skating and drills has put a significant strain on the team, but what they lack in time, this season’s Badgers make up for in experience.

When asked if the coaching staff has evaluated the talent of his incoming class, Eaves pointed to the fact that this team has few freshmen on the roster – a major change from a season ago. The few they have get to show their skills after watching the more veteran players ahead of them set the standard of play.

“The thing about this year’s team as opposed to last year and the year before, they’re able to go to the back of the line and watch several times how things are being done and have a better idea when their time comes,” Eaves said. “They have good examples to look at before they have to jump in.”

The learn-by-example method is one the Badgers sorely missed last year. Fielding a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores, there where times when Wisconsin lacked the necessary experience to ensure success.

“[When] I look at anyone that was in our sophomore class last year, [they were] thrown into a significant situation right away and by the end of the year they had matured to where you could definitely see growth,” Eaves said.

With freshmen who get to sit back and watch how the college game gets played and upperclassmen who bear the brunt of the responsibility for steady play, Eaves has a proven system in place that has yielded successful hockey on a consistent basis.

The steep learning curve, but relatively little pressure placed upon the freshmen gives them a chance to improve their skillset to the point where they can challenge for time on the ice.

Not wanting to lose their spot on the ice, the extra push from those in the backup lines gives motivation for better play from those in the front. Eaves said he saw this last season with his two goaltenders.

“Part of the maturation was the fact that [Joel Rumpel] thought Mr. [Landon] Peterson was right off his shoulder in practice and in the games he got to play, he played very well,” Eaves said. “As a coach and coaching staff, we would like to have that situation in all positions.”

And UW’s men’s hockey team has the potential to make a deep playoff push this year.

In their 50th season of existence, the team enters the season ranked No. 15 in the nation. The 10-member junior class makes up the biggest portion of the squad, and they are flanked by seven additional sophomores.

The team returns 15 of its top 16 scorers from last season, and winning at home is something of a tradition at one of the toughest environments in college hockey – the Kohl Center. So where might this team end up when playoff time comes?

The head coach is optimistic.

“Based on history, these are two years we need to harvest our crops,” Eaves said. “And that’s what we’re looking to do.”