The offseason is always a worrisome time for University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves because he never knows when his roster might be tampered with.
Since Eaves took over the program in 2002, he’s had 16 underclassmen sign contracts with NHL clubs. Some of the more prominent departures have taken place after July 1, including defenseman Ryan Suter in 2004, center Joe Pavelski in 2006, defenseman Ryan McDonagh and center Derek Stepan in 2010, and center Craig Smith in 2011.
But those losses — some departures, such as Pavelski, Stepan and Smith, were unexpected — don’t deter Eaves from allowing his players to participate in summer prospects camps conducted by NHL teams. The rewards of development apparently outweigh the risks of early flight.
The Badgers have 11 players on their 2013-14 roster involved in various NHL prospects camps. Eight went as draftees and three as invited free agents.
The evaluation camps, which start in late June and run through mid-July, vary in length. College players that stay longer than 48 hours are required to pay their own way.
“I tend to look at this as part of their growth,” Eaves said. “It helps them become better players for us in that they go and they see who they’re up against. It’s a great learning experience.”
UW participants who went as draftees include incoming freshman winger Grant Besse (Anaheim), sophomore winger Nic Kerdiles (Anaheim), junior winger Joseph LaBate (Vancouver), junior defenseman Jake McCabe (Buffalo), senior winger Michael Mersch (Los Angeles), junior winger Brad Navin (Buffalo), freshman winger Jedd Soleway (Phoenix) and sophomore defenseman Eddie Wittchow (Florida).
UW free agents who were invited include senior winger Tyler Barnes (Pittsburgh), junior goaltender Joel Rumpel (New York Islanders) and senior defenseman and captain Frankie Simonelli (Montreal).
Eaves said his players tend to come back to Madison with a sharper competitive edge.
“They’re on the ice with guys that are already (in the pros),” he said. “They’re on the ice with guys that are very good players as well. They get pushed. They see another level of play and they bring that back and it becomes part of their DNA, so to speak. I think it makes them better and helps them grow up.
“Now, you do run the danger if they get caught up in thinking (about the pro exposure) all the time. You’ve got to get them to understand, ‘OK, great experience, but get back to the now.’ ”
Eaves couldn’t be sure, but he didn’t recall having an underclassmen leave largely because of their stint at a prospects camp. In fact, he said Smith came back from camping with Nashville in the summer of 2011 insisting he would return to UW for his junior season.
But then the Predators lost several veteran forwards via free agency, an opportunity became available and Smith, a Madisonian who was drafted in the fourth round in 2009, took advantage of it.
NHL camps conflict with summer school at UW, which is why senior defenseman Joe Faust didn’t make it this time. A fourth-round pick of New Jersey in 2010, he said a presentation and an exam in a business class took priority.
“They were not negotiable,” he said. “But the Devils were great about it. They understand that I came to college not just to play hockey, but to get an education, too.
“They understand it takes a lot to come to college and get a degree. They push me to get good grades.”
Faust, a finance, investment and banking major from Bloomington, Minn., attended camp with other New Jersey prospects in 2011 and 2012. He said the opportunity to measure his game against players from other hockey backgrounds and to be exposed to new systems and voices was invaluable.
“I had a great experience,” he said. “It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s an eye-opener. It can give you confidence.”
NHL teams, family advisers and family members have been known to have agendas that run counter to what Eaves has planned for the Badgers. That’s why he remains wary at least until the fall semester begins, although that’s not a reliable deadline. Suter signed with Nashville in September 2004.
Kerdiles and McCabe are both second-round picks with elite resumes. They’re expected back with the Badgers this fall, but nothing is certain. Remember, Eaves has already had an unexpected loss among his underclassmen. Sophomore center Brendan Woods, a fifth-round pick of Carolina in 2012, signed with the Hurricanes in early April.
Eaves doesn’t think allowing his players to attend prospects camps leads to early exits.
“There is that chance,” he said, “but in our estimation, it’s pretty low.”