Photo Credit: Larry Radloff/INCHWriters.com
When you think of the Wisconsin hockey program you think of their six national championships. You think of elite former stars like Chris Chelios, Dany Heatley, and Brian Elliott. You think about a rabid fan base, and large crowds at the gigantic Kohl Center that during a big rivalry series can hold upwards of 15,000 screaming fans in cardinal and white.
You certainly don't think of a half-full building, a 1-7-2 start, and a loyal fan base questioning if the man leading the program is still the right guy for the job.
Wisconsin has a long tradition of success, and even reached the pinnacle under current head coach Mike Eaves in 2006. But with the exception of a run to the Frozen Four in 2010, things have been trending in the wrong direction in Madison for quite some time.
If Wisconsin doesn't make the NCAA tournament this season -- and they look like a long-shot to do so with their slow start -- it will mark the third consecutive season without NCAA birth. It will also be the fourth time in five seasons, and the fifth time in the past seven seasons that the Badgers' have failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Given that a quarter of the teams in college hockey make the NCAA tournament, it's an understatement to say that missing the tournament five-out-of-seven years is unacceptable for the prideful Wisconsin hockey program.
So what the hell is going on?
Obviously if there were clear cut answers they would have been taken care of already. Mike Eaves is a smart guy and despite recent results, I think he's one of the best on-ice coaches in the college game today. Guys like Zach Parise who played for Eaves on the international level have called him the best coach they've ever played for.
To me the problem dates back to the last NHL lockout in 2004-05. When they finally agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, college hockey took a major hit. The NHL made it possible for teams to sign college players for a rookie max of under a million dollars, and the NHL raided the college ranks.
Wisconsin has been one of the schools that has been hit the worst. Since Wisconsin's last run to the Frozen Four in 2010, no team in college hockey has lost more talent in terms of early departures than Wisconsin. In total the Badgers have lost nine underclassmen over the past three off-seasons.
For comparison sake, Boston University is second with eight early departures, followed by Denver (seven), and Michigan State (five). Notre Dame, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, and Boston College all have had four early departures since 2010.
To compound the early departure problem, Wisconsin went through a major transformation with their assistant coaches after the 2010 season. Mark Osiecki left to take the head coaching job at Ohio State and Kevin Patrick left to take the head coaching job with Muskegon in the USHL.
To replace his veteran assistants, Eaves made a pair of curious hires.
To replace Patrick, Eaves choose rookie coach Gary Shuchuk. While Shuchuk's credentials as a former NHL player and alumni of the school are certainly critical, the highest level of experience he had in the coaching ranks was at the midget level.
To fill the rather large shoes of Osiecki, Eaves chose longtime friend Bill Butters, despite his hiatus from coaching on the collegiate level for over 15 years. Prior to his time on the Badgers' bench, Butters was an assistant coach with his alma mater Minnesota starting in 1985 and ending in 1995.
The moves raised a few eyebrows at the time, and many of those same skeptics are still scratching their heads.
Individually, hiring Shuchuk or Butters would have been fine. Hiring both of them at the same time was a risky proposition that hasn't come close to netting the results that Wisconsin has come to expect as an elite hockey school.
That finally brings us back to the current season, which can be classified by most as an embarrassment. At this point the Badger hockey program is a bit of a running joke in college hockey circles with their 1-7-2 start to the season.
Obviously they've hit some adversity this season as well. Before the season even started they lost incoming blue-chip freshman Nic Kerdiles when he was ruled ineligible for violations of the NCAA's amateurism code. An initial year-long suspension was reduced to ten games after an appeal by the school.
They've also been dinged up on the injury front. Senior forward Derek Lee missed a pair of games after a scooter crash in October. A few weeks later Mark Zengerle -- one of college hockey's elite point producers -- was lost for 4-6 weeks when he broke his finger in a game against Colorado College. Most recently freshman Morgan Zulinick suffered a thigh injury and is set to miss his second straight weekend.
As if the team needed any more drama, Bill Butters stepped down from his position as assistant coach on November 7th, leaving the program in the lurch just six games into the season.
In the process the Badgers' have been anemic on offense, recording just 18 goals in ten games this season. Wisconsin's 1.8 goals per game average is tied for 53rd in the country (out of 59 teams).
With the exception of junior winger Michael Mersch, there isn't a player on the Wisconsin roster with more than two goals this season. Players like Tyler Barnes (1 goal), Derek Lee (0 goals), Joseph LaBate (0 goals), Brendan Woods (0 goals), and Brad Navin (1 goal) have played well below expectations this season.
The good news for Wisconsin is that they're going to get some of their firepower back, and soon. Kerdiles' suspension is finally over, and he's eligible to play on Friday night against Denver for the first time this season. Additionally, Zengerle's finger is healing ahead of schedule, and he'll make the trip, although it's unlikely that he'll suit up this weekend.
Can those two provide the spark that this club has been missing this season? Hard to say to at this point, but things probably can't get much worse.
Personally, I don't think that Wisconsin is as bad as their record shows to this point. There have been quite a few games this season that they've been the better team for two periods but couldn't finish, and it cost them in the final result.
I've yet to see this team play a full sixty minute game so far this season. If they can start to get some more consistent efforts night in, night out, they can turn this thing around. Will it happen? That remains to be seen.