Monday, May 18, 2009

No Love for the Badgers?

In the last few weeks, one reputable college hockey site (College Hockey News) and the septic tank of college hockey (Inside College Hockey) both came up w/ their very pre-season Top 10’s. Always good for some discussion, even though all the early departures aren’t done yet, and the season doesn’t start for about 4+ months. The one thing missing from both lists is the University of Wisconsin. Before I get too far, here are their respective lists.

Very Pre-Season Top 10 (CHN/INCH)

1. Denver/Miami (OH)
2. Notre Dame/Denver
3. Miami (OH)/ Boston U
4. Cornell/minnesota
5. Boston U/Notre Dame
6. Michigan/Cornell
7. Princeton^2
8. minnesota/Michigan
9. North Dakota/UMASS-Lowell
10. UMASS-Lowell/St. Cloud

CHN goes as far to list N. Michigan, Boston College and New Hampshire as candidates for their last few spots, but not the Badgers. In general I agree w/ the lists, though I don’t follow the East Coast teams enough to say much, other than the ECAC is a weak conference and their teams don’t get 10 games against TUCs until their conference tourney. After UW’s schedule is released, it will be easy to determine how quickly they will get 10 TUC games, at worst it will be 14 games in. Denver, Notre Dame, Miami (OH), Michigan, and Boston U would be on my list too. I don’t see any reason why Wisconsin can be left out of any very pre-season Top 10 though, some where between 6 and 10.

Sure the Badgers haven’t met expectations the last three seasons, which is a HUGE disappointment to all of us. Twice they were the first team out (by the slimmest of margins and arguably should have been in both times), and the other time they skated in through the confluence of a bunch of games going exactly the way they needed to go. As much as the lack of consistency is disappointing, its not like Wisconsin has been in the crapper for three years, they have been on the cusp of great things, but haven’t been able to put the puzzle together, or for that matter keeping the puzzle together late in the game last season. The top thing they need to prove is that they can play consistently from October to March (hopefully April), and inside of that play 60 minutes of hockey each night, every night. That is a big goal, so I can understand skepticism about the team’s upcoming season, but there are more positives to look forward too.

When I look at the list of teams above, the only teams I see that didn’t have some significant losses are Denver and Miami (OH). Notre Dame, Boston U, and Michigan all lost some key parts. minnesota only lost Ryan Stoa, but unfortunately for them Alex Kangas will be back in their goal. Sure Wisconsin lost Jamie McBain, All-American defensemen, Shane Connelly, starting goalie, and Tom Gorowsky, who had a great senior season, but look what is returning.

On paper, Wisconsin will again have arguably the best blue line in the NCAA, and I think this will be the year they play up to that hype. 1st rounders Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith and Jake Gardiner are back along w/ 2nd rounders Cody “Gold Medal” Goloubef and freshman Justin Schultz (who I think fans will instantly like). Craig Johnson played well at the end of last season, and John Ramage should be drafted in June and play some good minutes in Fall. Sure McBain led the team in scoring and was the key to the PP, but one of these guys isn’t going to step up to fill that role? Goloubef? Gardner? Smith? McDonagh? Take your pick.

At forward, can you say loaded w/ seniors? In a NCAA where having talented upperclassmen is a premium, how do the Badgers not get some credit for the group that will be leading the team this season? Five senior forwards scored 10 or more goals in their last full season of action: Blake Geoffrion, Ben Street, Andy Bohmbach, John Mitchell and Michael Davies. Can any other team in the country say the same thing? Ben Grotting and Aaron Bendickson might not have the big point totals, but both are key parts to the team. Derek Stepan was second on the team in scoring, and is primed for a 40 point season. At the end of last season, Stepan was arguably the best freshman forward in the WCHA. In between there is a (large) cast of kids to fill in the cracks, and someone is likely to have a surprise season, hopefully Matt Thurber or Chris Hickey (everyone has their favorites). This doesn’t even count the freshman coming in. Craig Smith and Derek Lee should both see some significant playing time.

The only big question is in goal, but look at how many unproven goalies have had success the past few seasons. In 2008, Richard Bachman dominated the WCHA. Last season, two freshmen squared off in the National Championship game. Wisconsin does not have a freshman goalie in contention to playing time, but they have some “unproven” kids. After seeing Brett Bennett play, and his success in the USHL post-season, I’m not too worried. Plus, I still have some faith in Scott Gudmandson and I’m not counting him out.

All in all, I might be on my soapbox here, but I think Wisconsin is being discounted in these very pre-season top 10’s. In the coming weeks, I have some analysis to do about next season’s team, but even w/ out the numbers, this team returns a lot of goal scoring from last season and a TON of NCAA games played. Ben Street’s return is a wild card, and I think a very good one. Talk about hungry for some action, after watching from the seats for 30+ games, he’ll be ready to bury some pucks.

Last year, Wisconsin was one of the top scoring teams in the WCHA, most of that team is back and everyone is likely to get even better, so why would that drop off and not get even better? The key to the season will be defense, mainly defense late in the game playing with the lead. I don’t want to marginalize this achilles heel from last season, but outside of goaltending, I don’t have too many other worries. I look forward to Wisconsin proving all of their critics wrong in 2009/10.