High expectations: Wisconsin is ranked No. 3 in the preseason Big Ten Coaches Poll

Seamus Malone helped the Badgers earn a win on Saturday after a lackluster loss on Friday.

Image By: Jon Yoon

Entering last season, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding Wisconsin. The Badgers had just come off a dismal 2015-’16 campaign (8-19-8 overall, 3-13-4 Big Ten ), finishing last in the Big Ten in one of their worst seasons in program history. Still, there was still optimism for the team surrounding a few elite players, and, more importantly, a new coaching staff led by a Badger product in head coach Tony Granato.

Despite the new coaching staff, however, the Badgers were still not expected to thrive in 2016-’17. In the preseason Big Ten Coaches Poll, UW was only predicted to finish No. 5 in the Big Ten (out of six teams).

This prediction, though, held inaccurate. The Badgers finished last season with a 20-15-1 overall record, and they went 12-8-0 in conference, earning them a second place regular season finish in the Big Ten. Additionally, the Badgers were just a bounce away from making the NCAA Tournament, as they finished No. 17 overall after a close overtime loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament.

Accordingly, after making such a boundless leap last year in Granato’s first season, the expectations surrounding the 2017-’18 Badgers team are much higher than in recent years. In the 2017 preseason Big Ten Coaches Poll, Wisconsin was ranked No. 3 (of seven teams, with the new addition of Notre Dame). Minnesota is ranked No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 2, with Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State following in that order.

Granato has been an integral part of the Badgers playing significantly better and turning around their team expectations. He does, however, have a lot of veteran and talented players that are a big part of the reason many are so high on Wisconsin this year.

Sophomore forward Trent Frederic, senior forward Cameron Hughes and transfer graduate goalie Kyle Hayton all made the 17-player Big Ten Preseason Watch List, with Frederic being one of two unanimous selections. Frederic was second on the team in points in 2016-’17 with 33, Hughes was third with 32 (but led the team in assists with 25) and Hayton was an ACHA Second-Team All-American for St. Lawrence last season.

The biggest task for those three, especially Frederic and Hughes, will be filling the void of Luke Kunin, who left after last season to play pro hockey after an incredible two year stint with UW. Kunin has had some early success with the Wild, as he scored two goals a few weeks ago in the Traverse City prospects tournament, and was second on the team in ice time in the Wild’s first preseason game with 20 minutes and 13 seconds. Last year’s captain led Wisconsin in points in 2016-’17 with 38, while putting up 22 goals — seven more than any other Badger.

All three of those stars will likely make the loss of Kunin seem less impactful, but they won’t need to do it on their own, as the trio will get plenty of help from a fairly deep veteran core. Specifically, junior forward Seamus Malone, junior forward Will Johnson and senior forward Ryan Wagner all have significant top-two line experience, and are talented players who can all put the puck in the net. Wisconsin’s top two lines should be difficult for any opposing defense to handle, on top of a group of talented secondary forwards like sophomore Max Zimmer, senior Jason Ford and senior Matt Ustaski, among others.

Defensively, Wisconsin should be much better this season led by senior defenseman Jake Linhart. The Badgers only lost one defender from last year’s squad in Corbin McGuire, and will likely see improvements from redshirt senior Tim Davison, junior Peter Tischke and sophomore J.D. Greenway. Wisconsin is also looking for big things on the back end out of freshman Tyler Inamoto, who had a lot of success in recent years with the U.S. National Team Development Program.

Aside from the talent on the Badgers roster, they also have a lot of leadership. This offseason, the Badgers had to replace a captain and an assistant captain in Grant Besse. To fill the void, the Badgers not only replaced those two, but added an additional two assistant captains, highlighting how deep their leadership runs. Hughes, who was an assistant captain last year, will wear the “C” in 2017-’18, and Frederic, Malone, Wagner and Linhart will all wear assistant captain patches.

As is common in college hockey, expectations don’t always match results. Before last season, the Badgers were predicted to have another off year, but instead thrived. Accordingly, it is only speculation as to whether Wisconsin can take another step forward and match its new expectations. But, it won’t be long until the Badgers find out if their talent and leadership will propel them to dominance in the Big Ten. In fact, Wisconsin kicks off its season in less than two weeks, as Michigan Tech comes to the Kohl Center on Oct. 1 for an exhibition game. After that, the schedule is in full swing, as Ohio State comes to Madison on the 6th.

Still, for now, the Badgers can take pride that in such a short time, they have gone from the bottom of the Big Ten to re-establishing themselves as a potential force in college hockey.

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