Youth, inexperience the biggest challenges facing Wisconsin

Ask Mike Eaves to give a one-word description of his team and the Wisconsin coach is prepared with it on the tip of his tongue: Youthful. The Badgers enter the season with nine freshmen among 20 underclassmen on a roster that includes just one senior in defenseman Eric Springer.

But Eaves was quick to emphasize that referring to the roster as youthful is not to say it is bereft of ability.

“There is talent there,” said Eaves, who enters his 10th season behind the bench of his alma mater just eight wins away from 200 (192-138-42). “It’s going to be how quickly can these young men adapt to the pace and the speed and the strength and the skill of college hockey.”

One freshman who is sure to impress is defenseman and Wisconsin native Jake McCabe, whom Eaves said is mature beyond his years.

“His teammates can’t believe how mature he is for a young man that’s 17, not even 18 yet,” said Eaves. “He doesn’t get rattled, so that’s going to serve him well, and one of the reasons that he can step right out of high school and come into college. We think he’s going to be a very good player for us.”

Nowhere on the ice will the inexperience be more conspicuous than in the goal crease, with freshmen Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson competing with junior Mitch Thompson to replace the departed tandem of Scott Gudmandson and Brett Bennett. None of the three has played a single minute at the collegiate level.

“We’re not going to have anybody with any college experience in the nets for the first time, I think, in our school’s history,” said Eaves. “So we’ll be young there and young everywhere.”

Eaves is slightly off, but it is true that the Badgers have not been this green in goal since the 1964-65 season. The last time Wisconsin was even close to this scenario was 1988-89, when senior John Lambie, and his 11 minutes of NCAA experience, welcomed a pair of freshman named Curtis Joseph and Duane Derksen. Joseph left the Badgers after one season to pursue what would be a long NHL career while Derksen backstopped Wisconsin to an NCAA title in 1990.

With the early departures of defenseman Jake Gardiner (Toronto, NHL) and forwards Jordy Murray (Switzerland) and Craig Smith (Nashville, NHL), the saving grace for Wisconsin has to be the return of junior Justin Schultz. Certain to be a Hobey Baker Award candidate for a second straight year, Schultz led the nation’s defensemen in scoring with 47 points (18-29–47) as a sophomore and was named the WCHA’s defensive player of the year.

“When you get one of the better, best players in college hockey back, it certainly boosts your blue line,” said Eaves. “And we know that he’s going to be the quarterback of our power play, and so there’s some sense of peace with that.”

Schultz, who is 31 points short of 100 for his career, was named an alternate captain and joins Badgers captain, and fellow junior, John Ramage anchoring Wisconsin’s blue line.

Wisconsin lost 70 percent of its goal scoring (76 out of 129) and nearly half of its points (174 of 357) to graduation or early departures over the summer. Sophomores Mark Zengerle (5-31–36), Michael Mersch (8-11–19) and Tyler Barnes (5-12–17) will be expected to step up and close those gaps.

About the Badgers

2010-11 overall record: 21-16-4

2010-11 WCHA record: 12-13-3 (seventh)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Eighth

Key losses: F Craig Smith, D Jake Gardiner, F Jordy Murray

Players to watch: D Justin Schultz, F Mark Zengerle, F Michael Mersch, F Tyler Barnes, D John Ramage

Impact rookie: D Jake McCabe

Why the Badgers will finish higher than the coaches poll: Sophomores Zengerle, Mersch and Barnes pick up the scoring slack and Eaves finds himself a reliable man between the pipes.

Why the Badgers will finish lower than the coaches poll: Growing pains in goal coupled with questionable scoring depth due to inexperience.