Men’s Hockey: Where will Badgers go from here?

In an offseason full of questions, what could happen next

· Mar 31, 2023 Tweet

Badger Men's Hockey vs Minnesota Duluth
Ahmad Hamid/The Badger Herald

After the latest disappointing season concluded, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team did something they don’t often do — fire the head coach.

Wisconsin has only had three coaches since 1982. After Tony Granato was relieved of his duties after seven seasons as the Badgers’ bench boss, Wisconsin will inherit its fourth coach in 41 years.

That being said, his replacement is only one of the many questions that face the cardinal and white this offseason. With the amount of time widening since the last time UW won an NCAA tournament game in 2010 and attendance dwindling, the pressure is on to turn this program back into a contender.

Here’s a look back at this past season and where the Badgers go from here.

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Another season to forget

The Badgers played one of the toughest schedules in the nation — the fifth-toughest, according to College Hockey News

They started out 0-4 after series sweeps on the road against No. 14 Ohio State and at home against No. 10 St. Cloud State. Afterward, they swept Minnesota Duluth, ranked No. 10 at the time, which led to them receiving votes in the polls. Things went downhill from there.

Conference play was tough sledding for the Badgers this season — the six other teams in the conference spent the majority of the season in the top 20. Every single opponent usually came in with a number next to their name and made it tough for UW on any given night.

Wisconsin started conference play 0-6 before finally earning their first conference win at home against No. 5 Michigan in early December. That capped off a five-game winning streak after non-conference sweeps against Long Island and Lindenwood, and it would become UW’s best stretch all year.

Notwithstanding a three-game skid near the midway point of the season, things started to turn around for the Badgers following the holiday break. 

They claimed second place at the second annual Kwik Trip Holiday Faceoff in Milwaukee, and they were consistently more competitive in games. They even took a game off Ohio State at the Kohl Center and played Michigan tough on the road.

The last three weeks of the regular season were some of the best hockey the Badgers played all season. It started with a home series against top-ranked Minnesota. The Badgers outplayed the Golden Gophers all weekend long and were rewarded with a victory in the series’ second game, a 3-1 win in front of the best crowd of the season.

In the final home series of the season, the Badgers started with a dud but responded with a big 6-2 win over Michigan State. The next week, UW suffered a 6-1 loss against Penn State, but they followed with an exciting 2-1 victory that snapped a lengthy conference road losing streak that dated back to the end of the 2021-2022 season. That gave the Badgers a bit of juice and hope to go into the postseason.

Unfortunately, things would come to an end in the first round of the Big Ten playoffs for the second straight year. The Badgers played two phenomenal hockey games against Michigan, who would go on to win the conference tournament, but would still get swept out of the tournament in heartbreaking fashion.

Just days later, Granato was fired and the offseason began.

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What now?

The first thing is obvious — Wisconsin needs to find a head coach. 

This hire is massively important for the future of the program. The hype around the Granato hire in 2016 was large. But since his tenure has disappointed, the program finds itself back where it was when Granato’s predecessor Mike Eaves was fired — back at the bottom.

Wisconsin won the first Big Ten tournament in 2014, but since then, the cardinal and white has finished last in the Big Ten in five of the ensuing nine seasons the conference has existed. 

The time when Wisconsin won five national championships in two decades seems like a long-lost folk tale, but athletic director Chris McIntosh still believes the ceiling and the expectation is championship-level hockey.

If that is truly the case, Wisconsin has to get this hire right.

With the rest of the Big Ten performing so well this year, another setback could translate into another decade or so of losing hockey at the bottom of the Big Ten. With attendance reaching unprecedented numbers since the team moved into the Kohl Center, the Badgers need something to renew interest in the program. 

No matter who McIntosh hires, the renewed interest is likely not something that will happen overnight. It might take a good season or two of winning hockey before fans start to routinely fill up the Kohl Center again. 

The largest hockey crowd belonged to the women’s hockey program with an announced 14,430 showing up for their Feb. 3 “Fill The Bowl” game against St. Cloud State. The UW men’s team’s most attended game was Feb. 11 against Minnesota with an announced 11,075

In the semi-near future, UW would like to see their average attendance increase. That starts with any new coach putting together the best possible roster to compete at the collegiate level. 

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To do that, teams usually need a mixture of high-end, NHL-type talent along with veteran players who have been around the college hockey block before. In recent years, Wisconsin has had one or the other, but not both. 

Take the two-season stretch spanning from 2020-2022, one of the most exciting rosters and seasons for UW in recent memory to one of the worst teams UW has fielded in their history. 

The 2020-2021 roster featured loads of talent in stars Cole Caufield, Ty Pelton-Byce, Dylan Holloway, Ty Emberson and Linus Weissbach. They were high-end players who all would leave school early to pursue NHL careers. The 2020-2021 team was successful because of these players, but it got upset early in the NCAA tournament in part due to the fact that they lacked experience.

In the year following, this model continued to hold true. Michigan, a team loaded with four of the top five picks in the most recent NHL Draft at the time, was defeated in the Frozen Four semifinal by a more experienced team in Denver. 

Meanwhile, the 2021-2022 edition of Wisconsin was a team completely depleted of all their stars and high-end talent and thus retreated to historic lows. They had the stars but not the experience in 2020-2021. In 2021-2022, though, the group had the experience but just not enough talent.

The teams that usually end up winning championships are those with the right mix. Teams need the talent to compete, but in order to win the big games, squads need experienced guys who can play, too. 

That’s the balance that any new coach will have to find with the Badgers roster in his first few seasons at the helm in the portal and in recruiting.

When it comes to recruiting, as with any sport and any school, a new coach should try to place a lid on the state of Wisconsin. Caufield and Pelton-Byce were both Wisconsin natives, and coaches should do all they can to keep those high-end players and talents in-house to Wisconsin.

Geographically, Wisconsin is in a good position to snag a couple of high-end talents from neighboring states, as well. Current star forward Mathieu De St. Phalle is an Illinois native and Cruz Lucius, another star, is from Minnesota, which produces stars left and right. 

If the Badgers can keep their upcoming recruiting class, which is quite solid, they can move on to future ones with a renewed focus as the program certainty moves forward.

Once those players are in the building, the Badgers need to do a better job of making sure these players remain here. 

In order to strike the balance of talent and experience, UW’s development of players also needs to improve.

Moving forward, there’s no reason why Wisconsin can’t once again join the ranks of college hockey’s elite. But they must get this new head coaching hire right, and if they can push the right buttons, Badger faithful could witness the dawn of a new, more exciting era for men’s hockey.

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This article was published Mar 31, 2023 at 9:00 am and last updated Mar 22, 2023 at 4:15 pm

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