Apparently College Hockey News either reads my thoughts or is just wise themselves as they see the freshman class as being a key to the Badgers success this season.
I was thinking about this during the break. Four freshman have been regulars in the lineup almost every night for the Badgers: Derek Stepan, Jordy Murray, Matt Thurber and Jake Gardiner. Ryan Little has played in the majority of the games, Eric Springer a few less, while Chris Hickey has seen the least action, he played well in Duluth helping the Badgers get 3 big road pts.
During the last two seasons, inconsistency has been used as the main reason why the Badgers struggled, and the finger then always pointed back to the youth on the roster. In the Fall of 2006 it was the huge class (mostly forwards) who are now juniors and in the Fall of 2007, another huge class was adding to the huge 2006 class, now sophomores . This year the team is a little older, while the senior class if very small, the junior class is huge and is providing some leadership. This team is still young though, but the freshmen aren't playing like freshmen.
Even the bad start to this season didn't have as much to do w/ youth as it did w/ a team that just couldn't quite pull all the pieces together for enough minutes in a game to get a win, especially on defense. During that bad start, Jordy Murray and Jake Gardiner started off strong. As the 1st half progressed, Derek Stepan started to catch fire (hasn't stopped yet) and Matt Thurber began contributing to the scoreboard. Ryan Little and Eric Springer keep getting stronger on the blue line. When I watch this group of kids on the ice, I don't get the feeling they are frosh, and that is comforting, knowing while they will still make mistakes they seem to be limited.
In 2006, it took the entire first half of the season for some of the frosh to finally find their place on the team and adjust to the WCHA. Jamie McBain had a nice second half that season, along w/ Aaron Bendickson (from an energy prespective) and Michael Davies (from a scoring prespective). Nigel Williams left town for the OHL early on, while Blake Geoffrion, John Mitchell, Ben Grotting and Andy Bohmbach struggled most of the season.
In 2007, the freshman fared better, yet the team struggled. Kyle Turris burst on the scene, but didn't make the dent in the WCHA most thought he would. I still think the Robert Morris series obscured his stats for the season. Patrick Johnson and Sean Dolan didn't take too long to find their individual niche on the team. Scott Gudmandson found himself in net for a few games. On the blue line, Ryan McDonagh and Cody Goloubef adjusted as the season went on, while Brendan Smith struggled and Craig Johnson did a good job in his own end when given the chance.
While the 2008 freshmen class doesn't have the big names like the 2007 class, overall their impact to the team at the half way point has been more significant, and I only see them all getting better as they see more ice time and opportunities arise to help the team succeed.
Coach Eaves had a nice quote from the article on why recruits choose Wisconsin over other recruiting powerhouses like minnesota, Michigan and New Hampshire:
“The biggest selling point for kids is the campus and academics,” he said. “The lakes and the rolling hills of the campus is a beautiful sight. Secondly, the tradition that Wisconsin hockey has. The program has six championships in the modern era and the pride we have along with the Kohl Center is a lot of fun. Playing in front of the crowd is a memorable thing for a lot of the kids here.”
The 2009 class looks very promising as well as recent verbals like John Ramage and breakout seasons like Craig Smith's have me excited already. Justin Schultz, Derek Lee, Tyler Barnes and Keegan Meuer aren't too bad either. We might even see Mark Zengerle come in early depending upon how things shake out.