The specific brand of winning engineered by the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team in the 2020-21 season is not easily repeatable when the pieces scatter.
The combination of a once-in-a-generation leading scorer, a similarly rare power play and a motivated and motivating group of captains provided a narrow window for success.
Has it closed? The Badgers hope not, but the departure of key players mean they’ll have to go about things in a much different way when next season arrives.
The scale probably will need to tilt from highly skilled to gritty for UW to return to the NCAA tournament in 2022. The team already has lost two of its top six forwards from this season; two more could be on the way out.
Sustainable college hockey programs can shift along with their roster makeup and take advantage of whatever a strength is in a particular season. The Badgers have to prove they’re more than Cole Caufield and Co. to show their return to national prominence was more than a one-shot deal.
“I think that the blueprint of what the locker room’s like and what our core values are as a group are in place,” coach Tony Granato said. “Now it’s our job as coaches and returning players to continue what we started this year and build on it.”
The Badgers seemed to miss a great opportunity to reorient the program in 2020 when a collection of high-end talent finished in last place in the Big Ten. That experience gave the team’s older players a pivot point that they used to keep the 2020-21 season on track. A Big Ten title and the team’s first trip to the NCAA tournament in seven years resulted.
Losing Caufield to the pros after a likely Hobey Baker Award-winning sophomore season means another course change for the team. His center on the top line, senior Ty Pelton-Byce, also has departed.
Sophomore center Dylan Holloway, like Caufield a Hobey finalist, is deciding when to sign with the Edmonton Oilers after he used his speed and power to post 33 points over his final 19 games. Top line left wing Linus Weissbach, a senior, has a bonus year of eligibility because of the pandemic but also might look toward a pro career.
Caufield, Pelton-Byce, Holloway and Weissbach were responsible for 55% of the goals scored by UW this season. All four were part of the top power-play unit for a team that led the country with a 31.6% conversion rate.
“We’re going to have to be better next year in different areas,” Granato said. “We’re not going to score probably 33% on our power play. That happens once every 20 years. So we’re going to have to contribute and score different ways. We’re going to have to be a different type of team.”
If the Badgers are looking for a different way of scoring than quick-passing, pinpoint-shooting, highlight-reel goals, they’re looking for more hard-working efforts from the likes of forwards Roman Ahcan, Dominick Mersch and Owen Lindmark.
UW could get back senior center Tarek Baker for his bonus season of eligibility. Senior defensemen Tyler Inamoto and Josh Ess are believed to be considering a return as well.
Heavy turnover could happen at the center position if Holloway and Baker join Pelton-Byce in not returning. Granato said incoming freshmen Caden Brown, Liam Malmquist and Brayden Morrison all are candidates to play down the middle along with returners Lindmark, Mersch and Brock Caufield.
Granato didn’t rule out a look at the transfer portal to fill a position of need, though the Badgers would be better served to know who’s coming back first.
More than 5% of college hockey players sought a move to a new team in March alone, and that avenue has paid off before for UW. Goaltender Robbie Beydoun arrived from Michigan Tech last offseason and helped stabilize a wayward position.
The Badgers signed a goalie, three defensemen and five forwards to start in the fall. Defender Corson Ceulemans has been projected as a first-round NHL draft pick this summer.
The exact makeup of the next roster might not be clear for a while, but Granato already knows the group will have to evolve.
“Next year we might have to be a team that’s going to grind it out, be more patient, score more goals on the forecheck, be a grittier team, be a dirtier team around the net, things like that,” he said. “We’re going to have to adjust to what’s needed to help us be successful.”
Look back on State Journal coverage of Badgers men's hockey games in the 2020-21 season
Read stories from University of Wisconsin men's hockey games in the 2020-21 season.
Bemidji State was the aggressor from the beginning and kept UW from playing the brand of hockey it has used to generate scoring chances.
The Badgers paid for a lackluster effort in the second period as the Gophers beat UW for the first time in six championship-round games.
Cole Caufield scored his 27th goal of the season 6 minutes, 50 seconds into the extra session to send the fifth-ranked Badgers past the Nittany Lions 4-3 on Monday in the Big Ten semifinals.
Cole Caufield scores twice to give the Badgers a 2-1 victory at Michigan State and the Big Ten title on the final day of the regular season.
Robbie Beydoun, playing in his home state, makes 28 saves as the Badgers keep the heat on Minnesota in the chase for the Big Ten title.
If a 7-0 victory against Ohio State at LaBahn Arena was Cole Caufield's last time playing at home for the Badgers, it was the kind of effort UW fans will want to remember him by.
Holloway scored twice on the power play to lead the Badgers past the Buckeyes.
Ty Pelton-Byce scored twice for the Badgers, including the tying goal with 26.8 seconds left after UW let two third-period leads slip away.
Coach Tony Granato went down the lineup in handing out individual laurels for good chances created, hits dished out or composed plays in the defensive zone.
The Badgers erase the sour taste of their largest loss of the season with their first victory at Michigan in their past eight tries.
A four-goal second period by the Wolverines was the difference after the Badgers took the lead.
No. 11 UW is alone atop the conference standings after completing its first series sweep at Minnesota in 12 years with an emphatic 8-1 victory against the second-ranked Golden Gophers.
Cole Caufield broke a tie with seven minutes remaining and Dylan Holloway figured in two goals in the following 2:18 as Wisconsin beat Minnesota 4-1.
Cole Caufield scores two goals for the second straight game and Linus Weissbach records his first three-point game of the season.
Robbie Beydoun stopped 19 shots for his second shutout of the season.
After falling behind 3-0 in the first period, the Badgers couldn't pull all the way back with a late push.
The Badgers scored two power-play goals to win at Penn State for the first time in five tries.
A third-period penalty kill was "probably the biggest five minutes of our season so far," Badgers coach Tony Granato said.
UW freshman Cameron Rowe makes 11 saves for his first shutout.
The Badgers outshot the Gophers but paid the price for turnovers, a slow line change and a bad penalty.
Beydoun made 35 saves as the Badgers knocked off the Gophers in their first game since Dec. 4.
Cameron Rowe made 40 saves in his first collegiate start as the Badgers split a series at the Buckeyes.
The Badgers have lost all three games since four forwards became unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol.
Sophomore Jax Murray scored his first two collegiate goals for the Sun Devils as the Badgers fell to .500.
The Badgers were missing five forwards, one of whom sources said was held out because of a positive COVID-19 test and three others who were close contacts.
Caufield had his second hat trick for the Badgers and Tarek Baker scored a key short-handed goal.
Robbie Beydoun made a career-high 49 saves for the Badgers.
Missing their top two centers, the Badgers nearly emerged with a split against the sixth-ranked Wolverines.
The Wolverines scored three times in the final 5 minutes, 22 seconds of the second period to turn a deficit into a two-goal lead going into the intermission.
Dylan Holloway's third-period goal put the Badgers ahead for good after they lost two-goal and one-goal leads.
Linus Weissbach helped provide the offense and Robbie Beydoun was a stable presence in goal in the Badgers' 2-0 victory over No. 20 Notre Dame.