Did Mike Eaves and the rest of the Wisconsin coaching staff know what they were getting themselves into last season?
No, Eaves said. “In so many different ways.”
It may not have been a reflection of the coaching staff, but the Badgers proved they were in over their heads most nights, winding up with the worst season in program history. When Wisconsin, a program that has five national titles under its belt and is only three years removed from winning the WCHA regular-season title, has to scrap just to get eighth place in a 10-team league, something isn’t quite right in Dairyland.
For Eaves, it was unfortunate that this was his first season at UW — a bad first impression indeed. For Eaves, it also was fortunate that this was his first season with the Badgers — one that will be dismissed as transitional.
And after a trying year together, Eaves and the Badgers will start over and try to climb back up the WCHA standings, using one of the best recruiting classes in the nation as a starting point.
“Now, after being through it for a year, we look down with some experience behind us and with some intrinsic knowledge of what’s going on,” Eaves said. “It’s a much better feeling.”
It had to be a good feeling, too, for Eaves when Ryan Suter decided to put the NHL on hold and attend UW. Anticipated as one of the top newcomers in the WCHA, the defenseman was selected No. 7 overall by the Nashville Predators in the June NHL entry draft. A big payday awaited, but Suter opted instead to return to Madison, where he grew up and where his father, 1980 U.S. Olympian Bob Suter, operates a rink.
Suter, a product of the U.S. National Team Development Program that Eaves coached before starting at Wisconsin last year, is expected to be the focal point for the Badgers this season — heavy pressure for an 18-year-old freshman and perhaps some cover for a Wisconsin team that might be a year or two away from a serious run at the top of the league.
But, by all accounts, Suter is a level-headed person who might take all the attention in stride.
“The one thing good about Ryan is that his dad is pretty grounded. He’s a pretty blue-collar guy,” Eaves said. “I think if Ryan’s head gets up in the clouds, [his dad is] going to bring him down. … But I’ll tell you, for an 18-year-old to go that high, there’s certainly going to be thoughts of, ‘OK, what am I going to do when I sign my contract?’ or, ‘When am I going to go?’ Part of our job, hopefully, will be to keep him grounded and be almost day-to-day and moment-to-moment. Because by doing that, he’ll be the most effective right now, which he needs to do.
“He’s one of those rare young men that has such a presence on the ice. It’s what he does best. You see a performer on the stage, they’re so at home on the stage. To them, it’s like us going for a walk — it comes so natural. And this is where he feels the most natural, playing the game of hockey. Everything else kind of bores him a little bit. This is what he’s done well his whole life. He works hard at it. He takes great pride in it.”
As much as Suter will be watched, the performance of two other players on the defensive side of things likely will be more important to the Badgers’ well-being.
Eaves said his preparation for the season this summer mirrors that of many other players — intense, thanks to the memories of last season.
“You can say it was unfair, but that’s understating it,” Eaves said of Boeser’s 2002-03 season, in which he missed 10 games. “I think he’s had a summer where he had total time to prepare both mentally and physically. He’s got great motivation because of the type of year he had, the things he went through, to come out here and just have a totally breakthrough year in terms of having his best year in college. Who knows where that will lead?
“You kind of hope that happens for him. The price that he’s paid this summer, he is probably in the best condition — he’ll tell you it’s the best condition he’s been in in his life. I’m hoping that he can take some of his God-given gifts and with his strength and conditioning that he’ll play to a higher level than he’s ever done before.”
But Brodeur was going to be ineligible for this season because he played in a major junior exhibition game, and he later decided not to attend UW at all. The Badgers found Brian Elliott, an Ottawa Senators draft pick, to come in as the backup, but it’s clear that this is Bruckler’s ship.
The Brodeur saga was something of a fitting close to Eaves’ first year at Wisconsin. Off-ice incidents were the dominant stories for the program last season — forward Alex Leavitt accused Eaves of being physically abusive with him, then captain Brad Winchester was arrested for allegedly punching a police officer.
The on-ice activities weren’t much to write home about, either. The Badgers managed a paltry 2.33 goals per game (2.18 in conference games), and scored more than two goals in only 14 of 40 games. Their power play was a horrendous 11.2 percent in conference.
Up front, they’re counting on senior Rene Bourque to put together some more points if he’s going to be the leading scorer; another good season from sophomore Ryan MacMurchy; Nick Licari to continue the improved play of the second half of last season; and Pete Talafous to put together his skill with his potential.
All told, they’re looking for things to change.
“[The players] came to us and said, ‘Coach, we want to ensure we don’t have the same type of year that we had,’” Eaves said. “I think that’s one of the reasons the guys paid the price this summer, to ensure that. They stayed around and they conditioned and they did all those things.
“Last year, you don’t dwell on it. You take your lessons from last year and you apply them to what you’re doing today and now because that’s the only thing you can control. We don’t even think about the past, other than in our hearts when we ask ourselves why are we working so hard today — it’s because we want to ensure a different future.”
The Badgers don’t host Alaska-Anchorage or Denver, and they don’t travel to Minnesota-Duluth or North Dakota. … For the first time since the 1988-89 season, the Badgers won’t play a game in Milwaukee. The Badger Hockey Showdown has been moved to the Kohl Center in Madison. … In a second-half stretch, the Badgers play four straight series against teams that were in the NCAA tournament last season — Colorado College (on the road), Minnesota (on the road), North Dakota and St. Cloud State.