Friday, August 22, 2008

Season Preview: Sophomores

So far I’ve covered the seniors and the juniors, now its time to take a look at the most diverse class: the sophomores. The sophomores are almost completely intact from last year w/ the exception of Kyle Turris’ departure to the Phoenix Coyotes. This group’s performance this season will be important to the overall success of the Badgers, especially the Dmen. Those Dmen make up the heart of the experience on the blue line and include Ryan McDonagh, Cody Goloubef, Brendan Smith and Craig Johnson. At forward, Patrick Johnson, Sean Dolan and Podge Turnbull return, while Scott Gudmandson returns between the pipes to back-up Shane Connelly. 60min pointed out that Tom Bardis will be a sophomore, I still don’t know anymore about him than I did last week.

Let’s take a step back before we move forward. In comparison between the freshman class of 2006 (the juniors) and that of 2007 (the sophomores), I think the highly touted class of 2007 far exceeded what was accomplished by the 2006 class, which was rather touted as well. I think the numbers themselves would tell this tale, but just the performances I remember from both seasons, the current sophomores were a bigger factor in the team every night than the freshman in 06/07.

During the 06/07 season the only freshman who really impacted the team was Jamie McBain. Others played a role throughout the season (Davies, Bendickson, Grottting), but Blake Geoffrion really underperformed based on expectations.

On the flip side, several members of the class of 2007 over preformed based on expectations especially Ratty Johnson and Dolan. McDonagh definitely cleared the bar set for him, while Goloubef did the same in the 2nd half of the season. Turnbull and Smith were disappointments to varying degrees.

One player I didn’t mention was Gudmandson. The sample size of his games was too small to really gauge his success last season. Listening to the radio during road weekends, Coach Howard is pretty high on Gudmandson and it sounds like his progression through the system is moving along well. While I expect Gudmandson to play in a few more contests this season, Connelly is still the starter and Gudmandson will be waiting for his chance, which he’ll definitely get in 08/09.

As mentioned earlier, Ratty Johnson, Dolan and Turnbull return as forwards. Ratty had a good summer when he was unexpectedly drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 7th round of the NHL Entry Draft. This speaks volumes for Ratty’s season. Ratty is likely never going to be a scoring force for the Badgers, which was part of the legend of his father Mark Johnson, but Ratty is already creating his own niche in the minds and hearts of Badger fans. Though small in stature, he plays like a giant, not backing down from anyone in his conquest to “own” all of his opponents in the WCHA.

Dolan’s performance last season was even more of a surprise than Johnson, at least to me. Dolan and C. Johnson were the last two members added to the class after early departures. I figured Dolan was going to be in street clothes most of the season, instead he anchored the “grind” line, which was by far the most consistent line on the team. Turnbull started the season w/ Turris and Ben Street, but quickly was moved back to the 4th line where he spent most of the season. Turnbull was a good scorer in the USHL and his freshman season was definitely an adjustment to the higher level of play.

In this small group of forwards, Wisconsin has a strong trio of what could be 4 year players. I expect small increases in production from all three of these young men this season. The potential is there for them to be among the top scorers as a juniors/seniors. If Geoffrion departs for the pros following this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ratty Johnson wear the Captain’s C the following 2 seasons.

Last week in reviewing the juniors, I discussed the importance of the junior forwards production to the success of the Badgers. This week the 2nd key to the success of Wisconsin’s season is the play of the sophomore blue liners. With McBain as the only upperclassmen on the blue line, the sophomores are going to have to play beyond their age and experience. The headliners for this group are a trio of high draft picks. Out of them McDonagh and Goloubef have already proven themselves capable of handling the rigors of WCHA play. McD was strong all season, and should return to the top pairing w/ McB, where they will arguably be the best in the NCAA. McD returns as our top PK guy, though I doubt he’ll see a lot of PP time due to our depth of offensive Dmen. Overall, McD is in a close race w/ McB for the best defensemen on the team.

Goloubef had a strong second half, which really bolstered his draft stock. I expect much of the same from him this season. His offensive numbers from last season don’t really touch on how talented he is in that facet of his game. He was stuck behind McB, Smith, Klubertanz and Drewskie on the PP depth chart for most of last season. I think his role on the PP will be expanded this season (he’ll probably get a lot of PK time too), and might be paired w/ Smith in some capacity.

Smith returns from a rather up and down freshman year. He started the year off well, playing a role in Wisconsin’s initial offensive outburst, but honestly went down hill from that point. Half way through the season Smith suffered a back injury which kept him out of action until the NCAA Regional where Eaves tried him at wing against North Dakota. Smith seemed to get down on himself following poor play, which he needs to snap out of. I would also argue that pairing him w/ Klubertanz was a mistake. Everything I read points me to believe Smith is working hard to improve his defensive game. Overall he is too talented of a player to not improve and impact the team in a positive way this season. Unlike McD and Goloubef, Smith is a big question mark coming into this season.

Lastly is walk-on C. Johnson. Johnson didn’t see any action until the WJC’s, and in a limited role I thought he played pretty well. Johnson never played special teams and in most games sat the bench in the 3rd period. He certainly wasn’t flashy, but he did a good job in his end of the ice. Johnson’s impact on the team will again be minimal this season, but if he continues to progress and grow under the tutelage of Coach Osiecki, he will be an important member of the team in his upperclassman seasons. It is likely that Johnson will be the only Dman from this class to see his senior year, and his experience and leadership will be important in the future.

I hope you pick up on how important the sophomore Dmen will be this season for the Badgers. McD will be expected to log a ton of minutes at EV and PK, Goloubef a lot of minutes at EV and PP, and some at PK, and Smith a lot of minutes at EV and PP. Outside of McB (who will log a ton of minutes in all facets), these will be the go to blue liners. When things need to get done there aren’t seniors to look to for help, they are going to have to do it themselves. While I feel strongly McD and Goloubef will do there job, I need to see Smith play well in both ends before I’ll be confident in him. Very similar to the group of junior forwards, if this group doesn’t bring their best every night, it could be a long season. Check out the new poll question to vote for which of these blue liners will have the biggest impact.

Overall I think the sophomore class is the most important on this team moving forward. The blue line has to be manned correctly for the team to succeed and that rests on their shoulders. Ratty Johnson and Dolan both play significant roles on the team in their own way, and this needs to continue. While Gudmandson’s effect on the Badgers won’t be felt unless Connelly is injured or benched, Wisconsin could have another All-American on their hands in 08/09 in net.

Next week, these previews wrap up w/ the freshman. While Jake Gardiner and Derek Stepan are high draft picks who are expected to contribute out of the gate, their teammates will be looking to hit the ice hard and make an impact.