DULUTH, Minn. — If you need to put a face to the new strategic approach being taken by the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team this season, you could try Michael Mersch.
The Badgers are in the process of changing their basic forechecking system from a 1-2-2 to a 1-1-3, a move made in part to take advantage of a smart, veteran lineup dominated by strong skaters.
The read-and-react format allows for more improvisation by the three forward, but its aggressive tempo demands shorter shifts and heightened awareness.
"It's definitely a new system," said Mersch, a junior right winger. "I've never done it before ever in my career, so all the old guys — us juniors and seniors — are getting familiar with it."
UW coach Mike Eaves and assistants Bill Butters and Gary Shuchuk decided over the summer to make the change. Having 12 returning forward — a blend of size, speed and creative instincts — and a desire to generate more offense provided the framework.
"It's exciting for us as a coaching staff," Eaves said. "It certainly revitalized (us) because we had a project this summer in terms of looking at tape, figuring out what we wanted to do, calling people and asking, 'What are the details of this?' Then finding those things out and trying to implement them.
"We are a new team this year. We're creating a new identity for this group of people. We feel we have the pieces together."
UW players say the new system is less rigid offensively because it allows forward to go where their playmaking instincts take them and is sounder defensively because there are three bodies fortifying the neutral zone.
The next step in the system's evolution will take place tonight and Saturday when the Badgers open their farewell season in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with a series vs. Minnesota-Duluth.
UW, which moves under the banner of the Big Ten Conference in 2013-14, had mixed results in 2-1, 4-2, non-conference losses to Northern Michigan two weeks ago. Eaves said moments of dominance were undone by times when lengthy shifts gave way to fatigue and two blown third-period leads.
"If you're playing a 1-2-2 or you're letting people come to you, you can stay out there 45, 50 seconds," he said. "But if you're playing a more aggressive, up-the-ice, stay-in-their-face (style), 35, 40 seconds is plenty long."
Repetitions in the new system and extra conditioning work topped the bye week agenda.
"It's going to take some time to get it down to perfection," junior center and leading scorer Mark Zengerle said.
The new approach puts a premium on awareness — the first forechecker reads the play and reacts to the puck and the second forechecker responds in kind — but how does it make the Badgers better?
"You're going to be making more hockey plays, getting more turnovers from it and, hopefully, we'll score some more goals," Mersch said.
"What we're trying to do is be aggressive, to play with the puck as much as we can and when we don't have the puck get it back as fast as we can," junior defenseman and assistant captain Frankie Simonelli said.
It's an intriguing work in progress, one that will be tested this weekend.
"It's get up and go and it's hard to play against," Eaves said of the new system.
"But, again, the details need to be in line."