The enemy of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team has been the clock, which is an odd thing to say before the season’s first game has started.
With only eight total hours of practice allowed over the past four weeks, however, there hasn’t been enough time for Badgers coach Tony Granato and his staff to detail everything they’d want to before Sunday’s season debut against Michigan Tech at the Kohl Center.
“You can’t throw everything in there,” Granato said. “You can’t throw a forecheck, neutral-zone play, (defensive)-zone coverage. You can’t throw 40 things at them because you want them to learn it all really fast.”
The answer for Granato and the 12th-ranked Badgers has been to set priorities, but it has helped to be in a vastly different situation than the one that the team was in last season.
When Granato installed a fast-paced, attacking style upon taking over last season, 26 players had to be brought up to speed.
With 20 of those players back for the season that’s about to start, the teaching component isn’t as daunting.
“Last year, switching the coaches and having them come in and throw in a whole new playbook was a tough start for us,” said junior forward Will Johnson, who was one of four UW players to reach the 10-goal plateau last season. “But it just feels so much better this year. We’re feeling comfortable. We know what the coaches want from us and we know what we’re going to do.”
Led by reigning Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year Trent Frederic, the Badgers have five of their top seven point-getters back from last season.
The newcomers, meanwhile, are expected to be difference-makers. Graduate transfer goaltender Kyle Hayton has lived up to his reputation as an intense competitor in practice, Granato said.
Three UW skaters — forwards Sean Dhooghe and Linus Weissbach and defenseman Tyler Inamoto — were ranked among the top 30 freshmen nationally by scouting service ISS Hockey.
“They’ve been all good,” senior captain Cameron Hughes said of the rookies. “They’re hard workers. They’re all eager to learn and they’re not afraid to ask questions. I think they’re feeling very comfortable, and that’s what we want from them.”
Starting today, the time limits get less severe for college hockey teams.
NCAA rules restrict coaches to two hours of practice with their teams per week between the start of the school year and Saturday’s opening day of the season.
In the four weeks since the fall semester started, the Badgers have practiced with coaches for 40-minute sessions.
The main topics covered in the closed practices, Granato and players said, aren’t much different than what the coaching staff introduced a year ago: playing fast, limiting turnovers and being aggressive in recovering the puck from the opponent.
The starting point is different.
“The veterans have a pretty good base of knowledge on how we want them to play,” Granato said. “So I think the freshmen are coming in here and having the advantage of skating with 18 other players that know what’s expected.”
Confidence is again a major theme with the Badgers, but that’s another area that bears little resemblance to the start of last season.
Coaches made targeted efforts to boost players’ self-belief, and the improved results were evident in a 2016-17 season when UW finished 20-15-1 and within an overtime goal of the Big Ten playoff championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
UW isn’t digging itself out of a hole at the start of this season in either the program’s recent fortunes or players’ trust in what’s being asked of them.
“I’ve got nothing against the coaches but at the (start of last season), we had no idea,” Johnson said. “We’d never played against an opponent, so we were going out there kind of blind, saying, ‘Will this play work?’ Or, ‘Will this style of offense work?’ Now we know that it’s all going to work if we do our jobs.”