Mike Eaves, by nature, is more of a forward-looking type of person than a dwell-on-the-past type.
Which is fortunate, considering the train wreck in his rear view mirror.
Coming off the worst season in the modern history of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey program, Eaves understandably is eager to turn the page.
The process of putting the memory of last season’s dismal 4-26-5 record behind them begins Friday night when the Badgers open the season against Northern Michigan at the Kohl Center.
“We don’t talk about it,” Eaves said of last season’s debacle. “We haven’t. We talked about it more at the end of the last year. But the focus has been on what we’re doing this year and the type of things we want to put into place as far as systems.
“We’ve got a whole new staff. … Ten new freshmen. There’s a lot of new things going on, and as we watch them play, there are moments we see brilliance and there are moments we hang our heads a little bit and say, oh, boy, back to the drawing board. But that’s what you expect when you’ve got 23 underclassmen.”
While there are new faces all around — including associate head coach Luke Strand and assistant coach JB Bittner — there is a core of returning players who are as eager as their coach to move on. And unlike the newcomers, they share the common motivation of avoiding a rerun of last season.
“I think it’s the biggest thing, just because you have to get not only ourselves, but our fans and everyone involved to forget about last year,” senior defenseman Eddie Wittchow said. “It’s obviously tough to forget but as long as we get off to a good start, I think it will be easily forgotten.
“We definitely use it as a little motivation for redemption and to recover from last year. We don’t want to be back in that same situation as last year and that drives you to move on from that.”
Wittchow is part of what figures to be a deep group of defensemen. For starters, Eaves plans to pair Wittchow with redshirt sophomore Tim Davison and senior Kevin Schulze with sophomore Jake Linhart, with sophomore Cullen Hurley and freshmen Jake Bunz, Patrick Sexton and Peter Tischke competing for playing time.
Behind them, however, things are a mystery as three inexperienced goaltenders are vying to succeed Joel Rumpel. Senior Adam Miller, redshirt freshman Gabe Grunwald and freshman Matt Jurusik have a combined 42 minutes, 7 seconds of collegiate experience — all of it belonging to Miller, who didn’t play at all last season.
Eaves said he hadn’t made a call yet on the position, and wouldn’t until the last minute.
“We see good things from all of them,” Eaves said. “You know what, like so many decisions that are made in sports or in life, you have to make a gut call.”
Wittchow, a captain along with Schulze, is confident all three of the contenders are up to the task, despite the lack of experience.
“My whole career here we’ve been blessed with great goaltending,” he said. “I think all three of the guys have what it takes to play at this level.”
Of course, all the defense in the world is of minimal value if the Badgers don’t find a way to boost their offensive output. The Badgers scored two or fewer goals in 28 of their 35 games last season, which included eight shutouts.
Leading the attack will be junior Grant Besse, who led the team last season in goals (11) and points (22). Eaves expects that production to grow this season and is counting on other veterans to step up, specifically junior Jedd Soleway and sophomores Cameron Hughes, Adam Rockwood, Matt Ustaski and Ryan Wagner.
He also expects freshmen Luke Kunin, who came from the U.S. National Team Development Program, and Seamus Malone to make an immediate impact.
“One of our challenges last year was scoring, and I think these two young men come in with a history of doing that,” Eaves said. “You take a look at Luke Kunin and the fact that he played about 20, 25 college games last year and put up some good numbers, so he’s got a little step ahead of Seamus.
“But both guys have that offensive flair and they’re gritty, and they do a lot of good things. We’re hoping they can step in, and they’re going to be given kind of that opportunity to do that right away.”
Besse has been impressed by what he’s seen so far from Kunin and Malone in practice and is excited at the prospect of a faster style of play.
“It’s a little different from the past two years,” said Besse, who is the assistant captain. “We’re going up and down the ice a little more and we’re getting a little more freedom.”
Although the Badgers were picked to finish last in the Big Ten in a preseason coaches poll, Besse said the team enters the season with the same lofty goals as always — winning the NCAA and Big Ten titles and the Big Ten tournament.
“Going into a season with high expectations is going to push you that much harder to accomplish them,” Besse said. “Obviously, last year was difficult. But we’re just trying to look past what happened last year and get excited for the new year. All the returning guys know how much it stunk last year to go through that and that’s motivated us through the summer to get better so we won’t let that happen again.”