On the topic of Grant Besse, University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves knows his analysis might sound unusual.
“I would say he’s been our best forward consistently all year,” Eaves said of the sophomore right winger.
The issue is that Besse has achieved that status against the backdrop of an awful start by the Badgers, who are 1-8-1 heading into their Big Ten Conference series opener with Penn State tonight and Saturday night at the Kohl Center.
Accordingly, Eaves acknowledged Besse’s performance doesn’t leap off the page, but it should be appreciated nonetheless.
Not only does Besse lead UW in goals with three, points with six and shots on goal with 31, his all-around game is trending upward amid growing pains brought on by an exceedingly young lineup.
“It starts with his play over the puck and getting to the puck,” Eaves said. “He’s a lot stronger. He’s a lot more (of an) authoritarian presence when he’s around the puck.”
Besse, listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, has added eight pounds of muscle — as well as confidence and smarts — to a skill set that already featured an electric shot. He’s used in all situations — even-strength and special teams — and is coming off an active showing against Ferris State.
During a 1-1 overtime tie and a 5-3 win — decisions that ended an eight-game losing streak — Besse totaled eight shots, four blocked shots and two goals.
A prolific scorer at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in Minnesota, Besse has begun to get a grip on the offensive mantle after 11 players left after last season. Seven forwards were part of that exodus, including the top four scorers. Their voids have been filled courtesy of a 13-member freshman class.
Besse, a fifth-round NHL draft pick of Anaheim in 2013, said he didn’t lack for confidence last season when he showed 8-6-14 in 36 games, but his role was different than it is now.
“We had other guys who would step up and score goals and make plays,” he said. “I think now that those guys graduated or turned pro, I’ve kind of found my way to one of those spots. That, in and of itself, is going to give me more confidence to play and do some stuff with the puck that maybe I didn’t have the confidence to do last year.”
Eaves uses a series of analyticals to grade his players: shots, blocked shots, goals, hits, assists, takeaways, turnovers — offensive blue line as well as defensive blue line — and faceoff totals when applicable.
He said Besse’s growth is best exemplified by how tenacious he’s become around the puck. Eaves invoked the name of Pelle Eklund, a former NHL standout with Philadelphia from 1985-94 who had a knack for using his 5-10, 175-pound frame to keep the puck away from others.
Said Eaves: “175 pounds in the right position is way better than 220 pounds in a bad position.”
So it goes with Besse.
“He’s buying into that,” Eaves said. “He’s understanding that. He’s experiencing that now.”
Besse, who scored 163 goals in four prep seasons, has bopped around the top two lines thus far. He started out with senior Joseph LaBate as his center, but lately has been paired with freshman Cameron Hughes.
“He’s really starting to hit his stride,” LaBate said of Besse. “You can see he’s playing with so much confidence. He wants the puck, and that’s the biggest thing.
“He’s a guy that can do a lot with the puck. When he wants the puck and is playing with confidence, he’s a great player.”
Besse said his priority is to become more consistent. He said he’s better than he was in this area at the start of the season but he can do better. He added that his primary asset is experience.
“Kind of knowing what to expect from the college game and, at the same time, knowing what coach Eaves expects out of you,” Besse said.
Right now, that’s a lot.