It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see what’s happening on a grand scale with the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
Coach Tony Granato often has said he doesn’t bring freshmen to the team so they can wait their turn for playing time. Last season, six of the seven first-year players were in the lineup for every game, save for the times injuries kept them out.
The same is expected with many in the cast of nine freshmen this season. Granato forecast as many as 15 underclassmen in the 21-player lineup.
“That’s OK,” he said. “I know what we’re going to get out of them.”
The notion of veteran experience hasn’t been completely erased from the formula, but with the Badgers increasingly relying upon players newer to the team, Granato and his staff are putting their stamp on the program.
Players they have recruited are being offered major parts in the effort to rebuild the Badgers to take a place back among college hockey’s national powers.
But Granato is careful to emphasize nothing is being handed to the newcomers.
“There’s still going to be competition,” he said. “There’s still going to be battles for lines and lineup (spots). But they’re here for a reason. And they are going to have the opportunity to play.”
The Badgers probably aren’t yet at a point where they can be title contenders, but Granato said the players that have started with the team and the highly ranked ones who are on their way in future seasons have put UW on track to be there consistently.
That, meanwhile, has left some on the outside.
Of the 13 players who were freshmen on the 2015-16 UW team — Mike Eaves’ last as coach before he was fired and Granato was brought in — less than half have made it to their senior season.
There have been a variety of reasons for the departures. Five were let go by Granato. Forward Luke Kunin signed a pro contract after his sophomore season. Goalie Matt Jurusik left the team and eventually transferred to Michigan Tech when Kyle Hayton joined last year as a graduate transfer.
Under Granato, UW has gone young, putting the older players on notice.
“I like it because it keeps that push going,” said captain Peter Tischke, one of the six seniors on this year’s roster. “No one’s spot is secure so you’ve got to constantly work and work and work, which makes it really competitive.”
Heavy in draft picks
The past two freshman classes have included seven NHL draft picks. Last season, three of them made seemingly seamless transitions to the defensive lineup.
UW hopes first-round pick K’Andre Miller and third-round selection Ty Emberson can do this season what Wyatt Kalynuk, Josh Ess and Tyler Inamoto did as freshmen: increase the talent and competitive levels of the group of defensemen.
Linus Weissbach and Tarek Baker gave UW two 10-goal-scoring freshmen last season for the first time since Jack Skille and Ben Street in 2005-06.
Fourth-round pick Jack Gorniak of West Salem makes the jump right from the Wisconsin high school level this season and likely will be a regular in the top forward lines.
The forward depth suffered a major blow in the offseason when third-round pick Sampo Ranta, who could have been a top-line wing, wasn’t able to gain admission to school. He instead enrolled at Minnesota.
Still, the big payoff with forward recruits is due to come next season, when likely first-round choices Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte and center Owen Lindmark are set to arrive from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
The Badgers again will cross the 30 committed recruits mark this season, with the high number owing in part to the expectation many of the prospects will spend only a year or two in college.
Granato doesn’t want the Badgers to become a cycle team, where they have to wait until they have the right mix of players to compete every four years.
“I want to have it so we can maintain a certain level of performance and give us a chance every single year,” he said. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But I can tell you next year and the year after and the year after, with what we’ve got going and with the base of last year’s class and this year’s class, that’s what we’re on track for.”
It’s rare for college hockey teams heavily tilted toward underclassmen to do big things nationally. In the past 10 years, only six of the 40 teams to make it to the Frozen Four did so with freshmen and sophomores comprising 64 percent or more of the team — the same level UW has this season.
Yet it doesn’t take long to find a team with a similar class makeup to the 2018-19 Badgers reaching the peak. Minnesota Duluth had 10 freshmen and seven sophomores on its roster when it won last season’s NCAA crown.
Upperclassmen give advice
UW freshmen don’t get a chance to slowly dip their toes into college hockey’s waters. But, as a group, they have signaled they’re not experiencing the indoctrination on their own.
“You’re expected to be there right away and be on your game right away,” freshman forward Roman Ahcan said. “That’s why these older guys are here, because you can ask them what they did their freshman year. Some of them struggled, some of them did really well. So you have to ask what did you do when you were struggling and what did you do to get past that? Because the season’s only so long.”
Is the challenge of going directly into the lineup intimidating?
“No, it’s exciting,” Ahcan said. “I’m always up for a challenge, and I know all the rest of us are. So it’ll be good for us.”
Emberson got a cross-check to the throat from an upperclassman on his first day of practice. Welcome to college.
Combined with what he’s heard from the six seniors and three juniors on the team, maybe it’ll end up being a lasting message.
“One big thing I’ve heard from the upperclassmen is just battle every day like it’s your last game ever,” Emberson said. “People on the ice will respect you more if you work harder, if you beat them in a drill because that pushes them harder, that makes the team better in the end.”
In the big picture, Granato sees this year’s freshmen playing a significant role in the long-term rebuild of the team.
“Last year’s class was outstanding,” Granato said. “They did an outstanding job of bringing us some talent and some character. This is a really solid group, we think, that’s following up that class. So now we’re in good shape in the personality of our team and what we want it to look like.”