Behind the scenes: UW coaches tasked with finding "right" players when deciding lineup

Senior Cameron Hughes and junior Seamus Malone struggled to muster many scoring chances in Wisconsin's 6-2 loss to Notre Dame. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Whenever you see any finished product, you’re usually oblivious to all of the intricacies and processes that helped shape and design what you end up viewing. The same holds true in sports. When you see a team on the field or the ice, it is nearly impossible to appreciate the behind the scenes work and preparation, including nuance, detail and perfectionist planning that led to what you observe during the game. Specifically, for the Wisconsin hockey team, a significant amount of that forethought and preparation is dedicated solely to the formation of its lineup.

For Wisconsin’s hockey team under head coach Tony Granato, everything regarding the formation of the lineup is fluid. Whether deciding the specific line pairings or resolving who actually makes the active roster, the Badgers’ lineup is always evolving. Accordingly, all 28 Wisconsin hockey players, at some point this season, are going to get their shot to play. Opportunity is an integral part of the Wisconsin hockey philosophy. If you work hard, if you have the right attitude on and off the ice and, most importantly, if you have an unrelenting drive to help UW win, you are going to get your chance.

This strenuous and time-consuming task of forming lines is twofold: first, deciding which players should be on a line together, and, second — which is sometimes even more of a daunting challenge — deciding which of the team’s 28 players will make the 20-man active roster for any given game. Therefore, line formation necessitates a collaborative effort from the entire organization, especially Granato and associate head coaches Mark Osiecki and Mark Strobel.

“It’s our whole staff, including our players,” Osiecki said regarding forming line pairings. “Tony does a really good job communicating with some of our older players and our leadership group to get a feel for the lines. You want players to be comfortable with who they’re playing with, so it’s definitely a collective process.”

Part of the reason why forming line pairings is so difficult is that there are so many factors at play. Coaches debate top-down, philosophical questions such as whether to balance their lines or put their best players together. Another question revolves around handedness. Often, coaches have a philosophy about which wing left-handed and right-handed skaters should play on.

Arguments can be made for having lefties on the right and righties on the left and vice-versa. For example, defensive zone coverage or a shot on goal might be better if your stick is centered toward the middle of the ice rather than toward the outside, but it may be tougher to work the puck on the boards using the backhand. Wisconsin, however, has less options with regard to wing preference based on handedness due to its unique roster makeup — the Badgers have only four righties (and only one righty defenseman).

Another factor taken into account by coaches when constructing their team’s lines is whether or not to leave players in their natural positions. For example, some coaches prefer to leave a natural centerman with two natural wingers. UW, on the other hand, has demonstrated that it instead values versatility and will therefore interchange players to different, potentially less natural positions if it thinks it increases line chemistry — as showcased last season by playing three natural centers, Luke Kunin, Trent Frederic and Matt Ustaski, on the same line.

“Everyone has to be able to play all positions. Everything needs to be interchangeable,” Osiecki said. “Typically, a center is going to start in the face-off dot and you go from there. You work your way out especially in the D-zone, and from there it’s controlled chaos. At times, you might be the low forward and at times you might not be the low forward. It all has to be interchangeable.”

Throughout the year, Wisconsin will show looks with different players in different positions, including changing up who is playing in the middle. Deciding who are going to be the four centers in a game isn’t merely arbitrary, as the centerman is tasked with different defensive zone responsibilities and often also quarterbacks the offense. In particular, though, Wisconsin puts extremely high value on face-off ability for deciding who gets the call to play between the wings.

“It’s a puck possession game, so obviously it starts with the faceoff. It’s the only controlled setting in hockey, and if you have a controlled situation where you can try to possess the puck, that’s important,” Osiecki said. “That’s what hockey is right now. It’s all puck possession, so you do put a lot of emphasis on winning the face-off and who can take face-offs.”

Clearly, there are many factors that play into deciding line combinations, making it a demanding task for Granato and his staff. Still, only 20 players can make the lineup each game, and determining which 20 to play can be even more challenging than deciding who each player skates with.

“There’s a lot that goes into the decisions that we have on who’s in. I wouldn’t say I lose sleep over it, but it’s never a fun decision to have to tell players they’re not playing. I was a player and I was scratched too. I know what that feels like,” Granato said. “You can only dress 20 guys so you have to pick the lineup that you think is going to give you the best chance to win that night, and I stay with that philosophy throughout the year.”

These lineup decisions are not only stressful for the coaching staff, but, obviously, for the players as well.

“It’s tough,” junior forward Dan Labosky said. “Obviously you want to be in there to help the team win every day, but all you can do is just keep your confidence, practice hard every day and just wait for your opportunity.”

Labosky was in and out of the lineup last season, only playing in 15 of UW’s 36 games. Still, he says that despite the frustrations of not playing, he understood that he could still help the Badgers, even if he wasn’t skating that night. That sentiment still holds.

“We watched a little video this week where there were nine army guys and they all got over this wall. Essentially, you have to make sure every single guy is doing their job. Even if you’re not playing, you’re making guys better in practice,” Labosky said. “Everybody has a clear defined role and you have to play it. There are no weak links on our team so you don’t want to be that weak link.”

That mentality of always trying to improve and playing your role is exactly what Granato values when he is making lineup decisions. There is a famous quote from the movie “Miracle,” where Herb Brooks states, “I’m not looking for the best players; I’m looking for the right ones.” Granato whole-heartedly believes in that sentiment and tends to put those “right ones,” who he defines as the hard workers and determined skaters, into the lineup.

“I’m going to go with that [Miracle] quote. The best players don’t always help you win. You’re going to pick the 20 guys that give your team the best chance to win,” Granato said. “Aidan [Geno] Cavallini is a perfect example of that. Last year when he got into our lineup, he probably wasn’t one of the best 12 players at that certain point in the season, but he understood his role and he understood what it took to win. He added character and different things to our lineup that somebody with more skill may not have been able to add.”

Cavallini only played in one of Wisconsin’s first four games last year, but played in 31 of Wisconsin’s ensuing 32 games. “Geno” exemplifies that even if you don’t make the opening night roster, you can still find a way to make an impact and play down the stretch.

“Like Geno, Matt Ustaski also didn’t play a lot of games and then at the end of the year he scores a goal that gives us a chance to go into overtime against Penn State. He played a big, big part. He played top line,” Granato said. “You don’t just start a season and say these are going to be your 20 guys.”

According to Granato, as long as you are working hard — as long as you work like Cavallini — you will eventually get your shot. Granato doesn’t hide it — he values and rewards effort.

“When you’re a coach, you’re looking for inspiration. You’re looking for guys that play with passion and, if it’s just that, and the time is right, and your team is struggling a bit or your flat or you need something like that, some sort of spark, then absolutely [I will put a guy in the lineup based on effort],” Granato said. “Every coach will tell you the same thing — they’re looking for energy, they’re looking for the guy that does everything that’s asked of them.”

Over the course of a season, Granato and his staff will consider a manifold of factors including handedness and face-off ability in their decisions. Deciding the lineup is a continuous, interchangeable and evolving process. The active roster to start the year will almost certainly not be the lineup at the end of the season, and, for UW, effort is valued above all else. According to Granato, determination creates opportunities, and dedication creates wins. And fortunately for UW, Granato sees a lot of that heart in this year’s group.

“There will be guys in and out of the lineup [this year],” Granato said. “I look forward to seeing those guys that aren’t in the opening lineup doing what Ustaski and Cavallini did all year last year — that’s staying ready for their chance and making the most of it.”

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Cardinal.