This article first appeared in Sunday's State Journal.
In order to take honest stock of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey program at this juncture, some facts must be acknowledged.
UW is deep in the second division of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association because its top goal-scorer, top assist man and another double-digit goal-scorer turned pro after last season before exhausting their UW eligibility.
Center Craig Smith (19 goals) and defenseman Jake Gardiner (10 goals, 31 assists) are NHL regulars in Nashville and Toronto, respectively, while winger Jordy Murray (18 goals) is in Europe, having capitalized on a one-time-only contract offer to play in the Swiss National League.
Their early departures came a year after the Badgers saw four players leave early for the pros following a trip to the NCAA title game, including their leading scorer and half of their top six defensemen.
Center Derek Stepan (54 points) and defenseman Ryan McDonagh are NHL regulars with the New York Rangers, All-American defenseman Brendan Smith has seen action with Detroit, while defenseman Cody Goloubef is working his way up the minor-league ladder with Columbus.
Stepan and Craig Smith left UW after their sophomore seasons, while the rest were juniors when they departed.
While UW is hardly alone in losing underclassmen to the pros, no other program in the country has lost that much front-line talent during that time.
Those early departures, coupled with the exodus of 13 seniors over the past two years, have created a perfect storm of issues that add up to what you see from the Badgers on the ice this season. They are 12-14-2 overall, 7-13-2 in the WCHA — good for 10th place out of 12 teams — heading into the final six games of the regular season.
With one senior and five juniors on the 26-man roster, this is the least-experienced team Mike Eaves has had since taking over as UW coach in 2002. Bear in mind that Beaver Dam center Matt Thurber, who would be a senior, transferred to Northern Michigan after being dismissed from the team following a criminal matter. In addition, Eaves decided not to bring in an immediate replacement for Craig Smith, who turned pro in mid-July.
That unprecedented concentration of youth — including three goaltenders with zero collegiate starts when the season began — is reflected on a variety of fronts. The Badgers have beaten ranked teams such as Minnesota, North Dakota and North Michigan, but have just one victory on the road. Their resume in close games — 0-3-2 in overtime, 4-5 in one-goal games, 3-4-2 when tied after two periods — is another sign of inexperience.
UW is on the verge of failing to secure home ice for the opening round of the WCHA playoffs for the fourth time since winning the NCAA title in 2006.
The Badgers are also on pace to miss qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the past six seasons.
There is a common denominator to all those lapses that is difficult to quantify, but the impact seems clear. Prior to each, UW lost an elite freshman or sophomore forward to the pros, disrupting a vital flow of talent.
Eaves recruits with the general expectation that most top-end prospects are going to be around through their junior seasons, but Stepan, Craig Smith, sophomore center Joe Pavelski (2006), sophomore winger Jack Skille (’07) and freshman center Kyle Turris (’08) had different ideas.
The decisions by Pavelski, Stepan and Smith not only caught Eaves off guard, their late signings left huge holes that were impossible to fill. The fact all three became NHL regulars in their first year away from UW is an indication they made the right call, but the trickledown effects of Stepan and Smith leaving early are still being felt.
Having Stepan would likely have helped the Badgers last season when they won 21 games but were 5-9 in one-goal games and finished seventh in the WCHA and out of the NCAA field.
Having Smith this season would surely ease the heavy production load now heaped on sophomore center Mark Zengerle and All-America junior defenseman Justin Schultz. Having Smith, from Madison, also would allow Eaves to better balance out a lineup that’s comprised mainly of grinders and promising youngsters ill-equipped for the roles they’re being asked to play out of necessity.
But for all their youth and lack of depth at forward, the Badgers should be better than they are on defense. The blue-line unit has three cornerstones of experience — Schultz, senior Eric Springer and junior captain John Ramage — but has been woefully inconsistent.
You have to go back to Eaves’ miserable first season in 2002-03 to find a time when UW has had a goals against average (3.00 per game), shots allowed (30.4 per game) and penalty killing ratio (73.9 percent) that were this poor.
Even when Eaves was lacking in go-to players up front, you could count on a stingy defense.
From 2003-04 to last season, the Badgers were never outshot for a season and never allowed more than 2.7 goals per game.
While defense is played in five-man units and freshmen Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson have been the starters in goal, more was expected on this front.
It’s the only true surprise out of a team that’s a year away from another upswing.