For years, Wisconsin has rightfully earned the nickname “Goaltender U.”
This season, however, it’s shaping up more like “Goaltender Who?”
The Badgers have always pulled and prodded as much as they could out of their goaltenders, making a few NHL stars among mostly high-quality WCHA netminders.
That education will have to come quickly for Wisconsin to keep up with the Joneses of WCHA goaltenders.
Graham Melanson, a workhorse known for his stability, gets replaced this season by Scott Kabotoff and Bernd Bruckler, two players known collegiately for … well, for not being known.
That, combined with a young defense, could be the downfall for the Badgers early this season.
But Badgers coach Jeff Sauer, entering his 20th season at UW, doesn’t seem fazed, outwardly anyway, by his large question mark in net.
“When a team brings a young goaltender in, the guys up front play harder for him,” he said. “They want to make sure he has success because they realize it’s the most important position on the team.”
It’s certain Kabotoff and Bruckler will take turns stealing the starting spot away from each other as the season goes on, and maybe that’s the way Sauer likes it. The last time the Badgers had a goaltending battle — between Melanson and Mike Valley in 1997-98 — they won the Final Five and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Kabotoff will get the first start, Sauer said. He’s started only one collegiate game, a 6-6 tie against St. Lawrence in the 1999-2000 season. He appeared late in the NCAA quarterfinal loss to Michigan State last season, after Melanson went out with a knee injury and the game was decided.
The Badgers have to hope he’s been paying attention from the bench.
“He’s been in every rink in the league. He’s had the opportunity to see all the other teams,” Sauer said. “He hasn’t had a lot of playing experience, but I know he’s certainly anxious to play. We’ll give him the opportunity, see what he can do and we’ll go from there.”
Bruckler will be waiting for his opportunity. One of the top recruits nationally last season, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the offseason. There’s something about first-year goaltenders doing well in the WCHA, but Bruckler will have to learn the ropes.
“He’s a gifted goaltender,” Sauer said, “but he’s just a first-year player in this league, and it’ll take some time for him to gain experience too.”
With every point possibly meaning the difference between a home series and one on the road in the first round of the playoffs, the Badgers can’t afford to wait on their goaltenders too long. The same could be said for their defensemen.
Sauer pointed at Brian Fahey and Mark Jackson as blueliners he’ll need to play a bigger role this year, considering the losses of defensive mainstays Alex Brooks and Jeff Dessner.
Dan Boeser needs to again show he can play with the big boys in the WCHA. Rob Vega, the lone senior at defense, hasn’t yet proven he can be a star but could be solid.
“Getting some experience as quick as we can, that’s the key,” Sauer said.
Oh, by the way, Dany Heatley left in the offseason, taking his 57 points and a big signing bonus to Atlanta. Not that losing one of the WCHA’s biggest players is an oversight, but Sauer has his concerns elsewhere early this season.
But 57 points is an awful lot to make up for any team. Can the Badgers’ seven senior forwards find a way to keep the offense rolling?
“Well, let’s put it this way,” Sauer said. “They have to.
“Confidence or not, the thing from my perspective is, you’ve got almost two full lines of seniors that are experienced in the WCHA. It’s their turn to step up.”
The Badgers can thank their lucky stars for that group of seven seniors on offense. It makes one wonder about next season, but, hey, that’s next season. Living in the present, UW returns much of what makes it a gritty team: namely, captain Andy Wheeler and forward Matt Murray.
“With the experience at forward, that should really help carry us, to let the young guys on the team gain some experience,” Sauer said. “We’ve got half a team that’s pretty mature, pretty experienced, and we have the other half that’s going to take a learning period.”
Rene Bourque had a solid finish to the 2000-01 season, and Sauer is counting on him to complement the senior leadership with more goal production.
“Rene came on really strong at the end last year, and he’s going to be in the lineup from day one, playing a regular shift,” Sauer said. “Given what he did late last year and how he came on, he’s a real key.”
There’s enough potential at forward — in the absence of a superstar — that UW can threaten other teams with three powerful lines.
Time will tell whether the Badgers grow another star player, but it’s more likely the forwards come together as a group to get the job done.
“I think people criticized us a bit in the past for relying too much on Heatley and [Steve Reinprecht],” Sauer said, “so now we’ve got a chance to throw three, four lines at people with a little more depth, and they don’t know where it’s coming from.”
The Recruits: Youth Reigns
The lone recruit at forward is Alex Leavitt, a 17-year-old from Edmonton, Alberta. He’s a good skater and has proven he can score, but his age raises some eyebrows.
“I look for him to be in the lineup; where and with whom, I don’t know,” Sauer said. “He’s an exciting player because he has great quickness and really handles the puck extremely well.”
The Badgers also are expecting an immediate contribution from Andy Wozniewski, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman who played in the North American Hockey League last year after his freshman season at UMass-Lowell.
Joe Campbell, another defenseman, will take some time to acclimate himself to the WCHA, Sauer said.
The Schedule: Champions Everywhere
After a season-opening series with Wayne State at home, the Badgers enter a national championship double. They play at North Dakota to open the WCHA season, then host Boston College for a pair the next weekend.
BC won the national title last year, beating North Dakota; the Sioux won the NCAA title in 2000.