Sconnie Sports Talk

2015-16 Wisconsin Badgers Men’s Hockey Preview


It may be the new emphasis on speed and up-tempo play on the ice this season, but the 2015-2016 Wisconsin men’s hockey team has moved on from last year in a hurry. An abysmal 4-26-5 season didn’t leave the Badgers much to look back on, as the team struggled to generate scoring-averaging just 1.7 goals per game en route to a last place finish in the Big Ten and the worst record in school history. When it came time to clean out the locker room, the once-unparalleled Kohl Center atmosphere reflected the frustrations of a confused fan base, and a team yearning to prove that it was more than its record.

An offseason of change has given the Badgers an opportunity to do just that in 2015-2016. Aside for head coach Mike Eaves, the Badgers cleaned house in the coaching department, bringing in new associate head coach Luke Strand and assistant JB Bittner. With the new coaches comes a new focus on pace-of-play, something the Badgers lacked last season. Practices, such as the closed scrimmage last Saturday, are infused with a new energy and competitive edge that should make the Badgers tougher out of the gate in games. Coming off a season in which UW scored just 13 first-period goals and surrendered 32, a quick start will be key for keeping the Badgers in games for 60 minutes. Another point of emphasis this season must be on improving the power-play, which operated at a meager 11.6% last year. While the scrimmage saw flashes of potential from the PP unit, they still went a disappointing 0-5 on opportunities during 10 minutes of work.

While the loss of seniors Chase Drake, Joseph LaBate, Brad Navin, and Matt Paape will be tough to overcome, the new-look Badgers are not short on leadership. Senior defensemen Kevin Schulze and Eddie Witchow, as well as senior goaltender Adam Miller, are players who have experienced the highs of a Big Ten championship and the lows of the program’s worst season, and are more than capable of leading this team in the locker room and on the ice. Outside of the senior class, players like junior forwards Grant Besse and Jedd Soleway have been major contributors to the team for multiple years, and will look to take on larger leadership roles on this season’s edition.

While leadership doesn’t seem to be an issue for the Badgers this season, replacing last year’s scoring may be more difficult. Returning just one of their top scorers from last season (Grant Besse, 22 points), UW needs younger players to step up in replacing Joseph LaBate (graduation) and Morgan Zulinick. Zulinick left the team after three years in order to return to Canada to be with family, including his three-year-old son. Look for sophomore forward Cameron Hughes (13 points last season) to take on a bigger role offensively, as well as freshman Seamus Malone, who was impressive handling the puck in Saturday’s scrimmage and is coming off a monster season in the USHL last year.

Picked to finish last in the Big Ten preseason poll, Wisconsin is looking to surprise coaches and pundits who are expecting more of the same from this season’s team. Even after winning just four games last season, the Badgers aren’t shying away from a fairly tough schedule this year. Early season games against Boston College and Boston University will be a challenge, but will provide a good look at how the new-look Badgers’ tempo-based philosophy stacks up with the nation’s best. A month-long stretch from 11/6 to 12/5 sees matchups against North Dakota, Denver, and Michigan, led by preseason player to watch JT Compher, which will be a major early season litmus test as the Big Ten season begins to unfold. Taking games from any of those series will show great growth in this team, which should give fans optimism heading into the heart of the schedule. Home series against rivals Ohio State (1/8, 1/9) and Minnesota (1/22, 1/23) are sure to carry lots of hype, especially if the team is playing well entering January.

The Badgers open regular season play tonight (Friday) at the Kohl Center, taking on Northern Michigan. UW is 3-5 in games against Northern Michigan over the last five seasons, but hope to reverse that trend with a series win this weekend. Games on both Friday and Saturday start at 7:00 PM.