Thursday, October 06, 2005

WCHA Preview - 4. Wisconsin Badgers

Last year: 23-14-4, 16-9-3 WCHA (3rd). Lost to Michigan in NCAA first round.
Coach: Mike Eaves, fourth season at UW (58-50-16), fifth season overall (67-69-16)
Top returnees
Forwards: Robbie Earl, jr (20-24-44); Joe Pavelski, soph (16-29-45); Ryan MacMurchy, sr (11-22-33); Ross Carlson, jr (12-17-29); Jake Dowell, jr (12-14-26)
Defensemen: Kyle Klubertanz, soph (3-15-18); Tom Gilbert, sr (8-9-17); Jeff Likens, jr (3-14-17)
Goalies: Brian Elliott, jr (6-2-1, 1.16, .945)
Top newcomers: Jack Skille, F; Tom Gorowsky, F; Ben Street, F; Shane Connelly, G
Biggest losses: Bernd Brückler, G (17-12-3, 2.40, .914)

Assess the team's 2004-2005 season. What went right and what went wrong?:
A lot went right for Bucky a year ago. The Badgers were ranked third at one point, made some progress offensively, and again advanced to the NCAA Tournament. They qualified for the Final Five, beating Alaska-Anchorage after losing a first-round series to the Seawolves a year earlier. There's no question that Wisconsin has made tremendous progress under Eaves, but more was wanted a year ago. The Badgers thought that Brückler was the goalie to lead them to the Frozen Four, but he couldn't do it all himself. The defense broke down a little bit down the stretch, and the Badgers had a ton of problems scoring goals as they stumbled to a 4-8-3 finish. They then went to the NCAAs and got thumped by Michigan 4-1 in the first round. That has to have left a bad taste in the mouths of all these returning players, as Wisconsin brings back just about everyone who played a role in last year's 23-win team.

Assess the team's overall strengths:
Despite Brückler's graduation, the defense and goaltending should again shine. Gilbert is the only senior in the group, and he's a good player on the blue line. Klubertanz and Likens are both good offensive players, though not great goal-scorers. Sophomore Davis Drewiske has some offensive upside. Elliott put up great numbers when called on last year, and he should be just fine as the main goalie this year. The offense needs to improve, and the talent is there to make it happen. Earl is one of the more dynamic players in the league, even if his head isn't always in the game on both ends of the ice. Pavelski, Carlson, and Dowell all have 15-20 goal potential, if not more (especially Pavelski). Skille might only be around for a year or two, but he'll be a huge spark to this team once he adjusts to the WCHA style, which probably won't take long.

Assess the team's overall weaknesses:
The offense faltered down the stretch, but the defense was also somewhat leaky in front of Brückler. Earl isn't always a good two-way player, and his focus has been called into question before. No one can deny his talent, but he's reached the point in his career where sheer talent won't get it done. He needs to grow up a bit and help this team when times are tough. Overall, Eaves needs more consistency from his forwards. The defense looked tired at times late in the season, and that is probably not going to repeat itself. But the Badgers are not particularly deep here, and they know they can't afford a lot of injuries or poor play.

Best-case scenario:
Pucks start flying into opponents' nets on a consistent basis, and the defensemen stay healthy and provide solid play in front of Elliott and Connelly. If all this happens, the Badgers become a serious threat to win the league.

Realistic projection:
The Badgers were fourth in the league in offense a year ago. A similar performance will probably get them pretty far this season. But more is expected from the skill players on this team. If Elliott shows that there is little dropoff after Brückler's departure, the Badgers will make some noise this season. Realistically, I think a fourth-place finish is attainable, with Wisconsin making the Final Five and getting the chance to play their NCAA regional game(s) in Green Bay on the way to a potential Frozen Four berth in Milwaukee.

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