Thursday, August 14, 2008

Season Preview: Juniors

Last week, I previewed the senior class of the Men’s Hockey team, now it’s on to the juniors. With the changing landscape of College Hockey, having a large junior class is a huge bonus for any program looking to compete for a National Championship. With the best players leaving after their freshman and sophomore years, upperclassmen are at a premium. Wisconsin is fortunate to have 8 juniors suiting up in 08/09.

Of the 8 juniors, 7 of those young men are forwards, including Aaron Bendickson, Andy Bohmbach, Ben Grotting, John Mitchell, Blake Geoffrion, Michael Davies and Tom Bardis. I’m not actually sure if Bardis is considered a junior or a sophomore. Since he transferred and sat out a year, I’m not sure if that counted against his eligibility or not, but regardless I’m counting him as a junior for this discussion. Zach Bearson was part of this class until the recent announcement that he is no longer part of the team. The sole upperclassman blue liner is Jamie McBain.

Of all the offseason news, McBain’s return to Wisconsin was the biggest. As last season ended, I felt that if McB returned to Wisconsin’s lineup for 08/09 that the Badgers would be legitimate contenders for large trophies come next March/April. As an individual player, he is that important. Had McB left to join the Carolina Hurricanes organization, the Badgers would have been left w/ a huge lack of experience at defensemen. As it stands, McB is the only upperclassman on the blue line, and while not a captain, his leadership and experience will hold sway throughout the season.

McB was part of Wisconsin’s best pairing last season w/ Ryan McDonagh. Despite their youth, they gave the team the most consistent performance every night, shift to shift. Assuming that pairing remains the same to start this season, Wisconsin will arguably have the best pairing in all of College Hockey. For those who attended the Regional, McB’s play was nothing short of spectacular, especially on the PP, and when that carries over to this season, he will be a force to be reckoned w/.

As important as McB’s play will be to Wisconsin’s success this season, the large group of junior forwards is the first of two keys to Wisconsin’s 7th National Championship. Of the 7 returning players, 5 played in almost every game last season including Geoffrion, Davies, Bendickson, Grotting and Mitchell. When Josh Engel returned to the blue line, Bohmbach filled in the last forward spot during most of the 2nd half. Bardis practiced with the team all season, but sat out due to his transfer from St. Lawrence.

Geoffrion highlights this group. He made leaps and bounds during his sophomore season. On top of high expectations for this season, Geoffrion will serve as Co-Captain w/ Ben Street. Similar to McB, Geoffrion’s return to Madison was not set in stone due to his status as a Nashville Predators draft pick in 2006, but fans are happy to have him back. Goeffrion plays on the PP and PK, can score goals, work in the corner for the puck, and knock someone on their ass. Despite the departure of line mate Kyle Turris, Geoffrion’s point production should continue to rise, as he makes more things happen himself.

The most improved player on the team in 07/08 was Mitchell. Along w/ Grotting, they formed two-thirds of the most consistent line (centered by Sean Dolan) the Badgers had last season. Mitchell showed some scoring touch and due to his improvement and size, even had a few NHL teams calling on him. More will be expected of Mitchell this season, though I hope the coaching staff does not break up that line, since they worked together well and should be able to carry a little more of a scoring role this season.

Another player who definitely needs to step up his game in 08/09 is Davies. He is slowly developing into a consistent two way player, though his play in his own end is sometimes suspect. There is no doubt that Davies can score goals and should be a fixture on the PP this season. How much additional scoring burden can Davies fill? Will Davies take his game to the next level? A lot of questions surround Davies, and hopefully Coach Eaves doesn’t have to banish him to street clothes for a night to motivate him this season.

Grotting and Bendickson played in every game a year ago, and I expect that to continue this season. While Grotting isn’t going to provide Wisconsin w/ a lot of offense, he is an energy player who gets his job done. If he plays w/ Mitchell and Dolan again this season, that trio should continue to do good things that don’t show up on the score sheet, but often impact the outcome of the contest. Bendickson on the other hand is a player who I think is ready to make a dent in the offensive production of the Badgers. I first noticed Bendickson’s play during the second half of 06/07. He hustled every shift and that continued during 07/08. Bendy spent most of 07/08 on the 4th line, which limited his scoring chances, and he was a solid contributor on the PK. Somehow, someway, Bendy will take his game to another level this season.

Rounding out the junior forwards are Andy Bohmbach and Tom Bardis. W/ the strong incoming group of freshman forwards, both will likely be fighting for playing time this season. I don’t really know enough about Bardis to comment further, but what I saw from Bohmbach during late 07/08 impressed me. If he continues that this season he should see a lot of ice time. Similar to Grotting, he is not a scorer, but provides a “checking” line player who does some of the hard work that makes a team succeed.

I think in any class of players this big there are going to be surprises. For instance last season, as a sophomore Mitchell’s improvement was a huge surprise. As freshman, the play of Dolan and Patrick Johnson were not what I was expecting from them, they far exceeded it. How will it be this season? As I stated earlier, the play of the junior forwards is the first key to Wisconsin’s success this season. The Badgers lacked upperclassmen scoring from the forward position last season, w/ the exception of Street. These young men have been through 2 WCHA seasons, they know what to expect. While the sophomores and freshmen will contribute, if the junior class doesn’t show the way and put some goals up on the scoreboard, it could be another long season on offense.

Next week the attention turns to the veterans of one WCHA season, the sophomores. The other key to Wisconsin’s season will be discussed as this classes group of highly touted defensemen move into the spotlight.