Thursday, August 28, 2008

Season Preview: Freshman

So far I’ve looked at all the returning Badgers in the senior, junior and sophomore classes. Now its time to tackle the freshmen, the biggest unknown on the team. When looking at this group, I ponder two main things:

1) How quickly will they adjust to the rigors of the WCHA from the level they previously played? For some it might be mid-season, for others it might take until Fall 2009 before they are adjusted. 4 of these young men spent last season (2 of them multiple seasons) in the USHL. One came directly from high school and two teammates come from Shattuck St. Mary’s, which I would consider a step above HS hockey, but below the USHL.

2) Will this group be able to make up a significant portion of the scoring that departed from last season? This may be a function of #1. Of those who moved on, they tallied 27-66-93 last season. That is a lot to make up. Most of that came from Kyle Turris and the scoring from the blue line by Davis Drewiske and Kyle Klubertanz. The returning players should also improve, but a good chunk of that lost production will be on the shoulders of the freshman.

Last season, Wisconsin had the #1 ranked class in the nation, and overall they made large contributions to the team. Kyle Turris, Ryan McDonagh and Cody Goloubef arguably met expectations last year, while Patrick Johnson and Sean Dolan exceeded them. Only Brendan Smith could be labeled a disappointment. The freshman class of 2006 (the current juniors) were highly ranked as well, yet their contributions were not on par w/ their expectations. While Jamie McBain did his part, Blake Geoffrion and Michael Davies did not, and Nigel Williams left the team after a few weekends. How will this year’s freshman do?

The freshman class of 2008 should be ranked pretty high as well, featuring 3 NHL draft picks. In 2006, forward Chris Hickey was a 7th round pick of the Minnesota Wild. This past summer, forward Derek Stepan was a 2nd round pick of the NY Rangers, while classmate Jake Gardiner was the 1st round selection of the Anaheim Ducks. Joining Stepan and Hickey at forward are Matt Thurber and Jordan Murray. Joining Gardiner on the blue line are Ryan Little and Eric Springer. There is a strong Wisconsin connection to this class. Thurber is from Beaver Dam, Little is from Fond du Lac and Springer grew up in Wrightstown.

Starting w/ the blue liners, Jake Gardiner comes to Wisconsin w/ high expectations. Before the start of last season w/ Minnetonka HS, Gardiner switched from forward to defenseman. The move vaulted him up the draft board. Gardiner was considered one of the best skating blue liners, if not the best, in this summer’s NHL draft. W/ his background as a forward, he adds to Wisconsin’s list of offensive dmen, and should see time on the PP this season. Gardiner’s recent switch to the blue line is also his biggest weakness. Coach Oz will definitely have Gardiner under his wing for the next few seasons as he attempts to mold him into a solid defensive force. Gardiner is a high risk high reward player for the Badgers, who as a freshman is likely to make his share of mistakes in his own end. Fans should be patient, w/ some hard work Gardiner should be a star in the coming seasons. Stats last season: 28G, 20-28-48

Though not as heralded, Ryan Little will join Gardiner on the blue line this Fall. Little played the last few seasons for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. Last season he served as team Captain, bringing leadership to the Badgers, and was an USHL All-Star. He is solid in his own end, which on a team of offensive dmen, should earn him some playing time. He does take a lot of penalties, and needs to learn to stay out of the box. Little should be a solid four year player for Wisconsin. Stats last season: 58G, 2-11-13, -21, 100 PIM

Another USHL All-Star joining the Badgers is Eric Springer. Springer had a very successful season w/ Sioux Falls of the USHL last year. Springer was a later addition to the class. I don’t know much more about Springer, though I think based on his play during his only season in the USHL, the Badgers landed themselves a steal. Springer is another offensive defenseman, which could limit his playing time this season, but he should be here for 4 years and do some good things. Stats last season: 60G, 8-23-31, +21, 94 PIM

Headlining the talented group of incoming forwards is Derek Stepan. Stepan spent the last two seasons w/ Shattuck St. Mary’s where he was 2nd on the team in scoring (both seasons) and a huge factor in their back to back National Championships. Stepan should add some much needed offense to the team and help fill the void made by Turris’ departure. His draft stock rose throughout the season, and I remember reading that he was the most dominant player on the ice during Shattuck’s playoff run. Stats last season: 60G, 42-62-104, 16 PIM

Joining Stepan is his teammate Jordy Murray. Murray is the veteran of three seasons on Shattuck’s varsity squad and was 3rd in scoring the last two seasons. Murray’s dad Andy is the current coach of the St. Louis Blues, and his brother Brady played for North Dakota. Some pretty good hockey bloodlines. Murray is a small player, but should hopefully remind Badger fans of Ryan Lasch or Garrett Roe, both smaller forwards who have had a lot of success at St. Cloud. Last season stats: 60G, 38-57-95, 68 PIM

The Badgers also welcome one of the top forwards in the USHL from last season in Matt Thurber. Thurber won a championship of his own helping the Omaha Lancers to the Clark Cup. An All-Star last year, Thurber was near the top of many different statistical categories. He was tied for 14th in scoring, 4th in assists, 5th in +/-, and 1st in short handed goals league wide. Thurber averaged about 3 assists per goal, and should provide much needed playmaking for the Badgers. Stats last season: 58G, 14-41-55, +23, 71 PIM

Rounding out the freshman class is forward Chris Hickey. Hickey was a late addition to the class after issues arose about his draft status w/ the Wild. If he would not have entered Wisconsin, the Wild would have had to sign him, or give up his draft rights. Regardless, Hickey is a nice addition to the team. Hickey spent last season w/ Tri-City of the USHL, and before that played out his senior HS season as teammates w/ Ryan McDonagh. Not sure how much room there will be for playing time for Hickey, but he should provide Wisconsin w/ a solid two way forward. Stats last season: 55G, 15-16-31, -24, 34 PIM

The main thing w/ the freshman class is that there are a lot of unknowns. I have high hopes for all of these kids, but I don’t want to get them too high. Last year I thought Kyle Turris could have a 20-30-50 season, and when he “only” produced a 11-24-35 season, I was disappointed most of the time. Really in retrospect, a 35 point season for a WCHA rookie is pretty darn good. The switch from the BCHL is a huge jump, and while I thought KT should have buried a few more goals, his season should be considered a success.

As high draft picks, Gardiner and Stepan should produce a lot, but I think their seasons will be considered a success if they improve from day one and are markedly better by season’s end, same for their teammates. Personally, I think Matt Thurber is going to have the best season of all the frosh, and I can’t wait to see him play. He has been playing against older competition in the USHL for three years, and I think he is ready to make NHL teams wish they had drafted him this past June.

6 weeks to go until the first puck drops out in Boston and some of these question marks started producing answers.