Returning scorers have Wisconsin looking to climb standings

A lot has been made by the preseason prognosticators about how Wisconsin, 10th last season in the WCHA, returns 15 of its top 16 scorers. As a result, the Badgers were picked as arguably the most-improved team and tabbed to finish fifth by the league’s coaches.

The two biggest concerns coming into the 2012-13 season are the loss of two-time All-American defenseman Justin Schultz to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and the likely loss of freshman forward Nic Kerdiles, a former U.S. National Team Development Program player, to a year-long suspension from the NCAA concerning his amateur status, reportedly involving a perceived product endorsement from a photo making the social media rounds.

Wisconsin is appealing the ruling.

“We’re trying to get this done as quickly as possible,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. “That is really all I can say about it.”

Losing Kerdiles’ offensive skills will hurt since the Badgers will need to score more by committee to develop balance offensively. Doing so would take away the option teams had the past couple seasons of forechecking Schultz and wearing him down to mitigate his effectiveness late. Even then, it didn’t always work.

WCHA preseason first-team forward Mark Zengerle returns after leading the Badgers in points (13 goals, 37 assists) last season. The possible league player of the year is the finisher the Badgers need, especially early in the season, along with Michael Mersch (14-16–30).

“That certainly bodes well for us,” Eaves said.

The key will be the strides made this offseason by the supporting forwards, including junior Tyler Barnes (11-15–26), sophomore Joseph LaBate (5-15–20), junior Keegan Meuer (7-4–11) and senior Derek Lee (4-7–11).

“We have more balance between the underclassmen and upperclassmen this year,” Eaves said, referring to the 20 underclassmen on the 2011-12 roster. “The freshman goalies are now sophomores and the defensemen have a year playing in the league. We have seen some things in practice that shows we are further along at this time when compared to last year.”

While it was against younger players, the Badgers’ 5-0 exhibition win over the USA Under-18 team suggests an improved defense.

Sophomore goalie Joel Rumpel (12-12-2, 2.48 goals against average, .919 save percentage) may elevate his play, especially since he will be helped by veteran defensemen in front of him including senior John Ramage, sophomore Jake McCabe and junior Joe Faust.

“McCabe really came into his own during the Denver [playoff] series,” Eaves said.

Freshman defensemen Kevin Schulze and Eddie Wittchow could develop into key contributors, Eaves added.

About the Badgers

2011-12 overall record: 17-18-2

2011-12 WCHA record: 11-15-2 (10th)

2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): Fifth

Key losses: D Justin Schultz

Players to watch: F Mark Zengerle, F Michael Mersch, G Joel Rumpel, F Tyler Barnes, D John Ramage, F Joseph LaBate, D Joe Faust, D Jake McCabe

Impact rookie: F Nic Kerdiles (pending appeal)

Why the Badgers will finish higher than the coaches poll: Improved goalie play and more point production from the 15 top returning scorers would cover up the loss of Schultz and make Wisconsin a much deeper team.

Why the Badgers will finish lower than the coaches poll: Justin Schultz did a little bit of everything for this team, so if his points are not covered by committee, there may be too much pressure on the defense, which may not be improved enough, to win a lot of 2-1 games. Losing Kerdiles may prove costly.