Young Wisconsin Ready to Build on Last Year
by Zack Friedli/CHN Reporter
Judging a team’s success based solely on wins and losses can sometimes be a misleading endeavor. Last year, Wisconsin offered a perfect example of that. Despite a losing record, a 10th-place finish in the WCHA and an early exit from the conference playoffs, coach Mike Eaves’ memories of last winter are generally good ones.
“Looking back, it was really fun where they took us. They made us coach differently because of what their needs were, and I think we were able to meet those needs and help them grow,” said Eaves, who enters his 11th year behind the Badger bench. “At the end of the year, guys knew they were better, and they knew they could compete with anyone whenever they stepped on the ice.”
Eaves is quick to admit that it was a process to get to that point, though. Wisconsin boasted a roster with 19 underclassmen and two freshmen goalies, making it a struggle early on to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
“We were putting people in situations at the start of the year where they hadn’t had a lot of experience,” Eaves said. “They were stumbling and falling, but I think they learned their lessons and moved on to be a pretty decent team by the end of the year.”
For the most part, Wisconsin returns that same group of players. As a unit, those now experienced Badgers see a lot of intangible differences from this time last year.
“That one extra year under your belt is huge. Just looking around on the ice you can already tell that people kind of know what to expect,” said junior forward Mark Zengerle. “There’s definitely more confidence and trust.”
Zengerle, who posted 37 assists and 50 points as a sophomore, is the offensive catalyst for the Badgers. He’ll be arguably the best playmaker in college hockey this year, but Eaves would like to see Zengerle utilize his shot and speed a little more often.
“He needs to take what’s given and come to understand what that means. There are situations in a game that would dictate whether a shot should be taken or a pass should be made, and he’s gotten better at differentiating between the two,” Eaves said. “The other thing for Mark is using his speed to his benefit. Mark likes to play very controlled, but to be more effective, I think he’s got to learn to have a variance of speed in his game to back people off and create space for himself and his teammates.
“He sees the ice so well and he passes so well, so that’s going to be his first inclination always.”
In addition to Zengerle, the Badgers are deeper and more experienced up front than last year. Juniors Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes scored 14 and 11 goals in 2011-12, respectively, and sophomore Joseph LaBate accumulated 20 points as a rookie.
Another boost at forward could come with the addition of freshman Nic Kerdiles, but his eligibility is currently under question after a picture of him surfaced on Twitter over the summer. The NCAA has said he’s ineligible, but Wisconsin is appealing the decision. If the Badgers win the appeal, Kerdiles will likely have an instant impact. However, an upheld decision would likely mean Kerdiles becomes college hockey's latest casualty to Major Junior; the WHL's Kelowna Rockets owns Kerdiles' rights.
One player who definitely won’t be back in the Wisconsin lineup is Justin Schultz, who signed a professional contract with Edmonton this summer. Even without Schultz, the Badgers’ blue line is solid with the likes of John Ramage, Frankie Simonelli, Jake McCabe and Joe Faust patrolling the point. Still, Schultz was arguably the best player in college hockey a season ago, confidently leading an inexperienced team during his best season in Madison.
“You certainly don’t replace a Justin Schultz one-for-one, but we’ve got four guys coming back that played a lot last year, and I think gives us a good base,” Eaves said. “We have a competitive group back there, and they’ll step forward and do a pretty good job for us.”
Perhaps the biggest hole in the Wisconsin lineup to begin last season was between the pipes. UW entered the year with two freshmen goaltenders, but saw an emergence of Joel Rumpel down the stretch. Rumpel finished the year with a 2.47 goals against average and a .919 save percentage, but, should the pressure to provide an encore be too great, the Badgers have another viable option in the crease.
“What made Joel real good last year was that Landon Peterson pushed him every day in practice,” Eaves said. “We come into this year, and, as a coach, it could not be a better situation. We have two young guys that will be very competitive everyday. Rumpel knows that if he falters there will be a guy there waiting to step in and take his place. That’s a situation that every coach would want to have on his team.”
With the depth all over the ice, the Badgers are expecting to make a deep playoff run. And, if everything works out, they hope that this year can be judged based solely on wins and losses.
“We think in our room that we can beat anyone, and that’s the only thing that we really care about,” Zengerle said. “Like most teams, our goal is to win a national title. I’m sure 50 other teams are thinking that, too. But when it gets down to business, that’s when we’ll see what we’ve got.”