When Wisconsin men's hockey head coach Mike Eaves and his coaching staff set out to pair up their defenders before the season, it was clear the group had a chance to be special. With a combination of blue-line scoring potential and gritty, physical defense, the coaches had the luxury of matching players to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. Of the six Badger defensemen, five have already been drafted by NHL teams, including three in the first round, despite the fact that there is not a senior among them.
Led by juniors Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith and Cody Goloubef, the talent on the Wisconsin defense compares favorably with any other team in the country. Both starters, McDonagh and sophomore Jake Gardiner are first-round draft picks.
However, while the accolades are great, Eaves noted that talent does not mean anything if it is not applied correctly.
""Potential and about 75 cents will get you a cup of coffee,"" Eaves said. ""Our job is to help them develop that potential. [Assistant coach Mark] Osiecki is one of the best coaches I've seen in my tenure as a coach in working with young defensemen.""
So far, the results have been impressive. Heading into this weekend's matchup with North Dakota, the Badgers are tied with the Fighting Sioux for the WCHA lead in scoring defense, surrendering only 2.0 goals per game. The Badgers lead the nation in fewest shots allowed, giving up 22.7 per contest. McDonagh, a captain and defensive enforcer, said doing the little things like blocking shots and being in good position lead to positive results.
""I just try to be a player that is always tough to play against for an opposition's forwards,"" he said. ""I don't want to give them any time to create anything, I try to be physical and set the tone early.""
While the unit is playing well on the defensive half of the rink, the UW defensemen have provided scoring as well, particularly Smith. He is in the midst of a career-best seven-game scoring streak. During that stretch, the 2007 first-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings racked up five goals and 10 assists for a grand total of 15 points. Those numbers earned him WCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors for two consecutive weeks. He currently leads the WCHA in scoring with 24 points (7 goals, 17 assists), and has 11 more points than any other defender in the league.
""Brendan is so patient with the puck and he always makes great reads,"" defensive partner and true freshman John Ramage said.
For Smith, who has struggled at times throughout his career with keeping a defense-first approach to his game, having a stay-at-home defender like Ramage as a partner is a definite advantage.
""To have [Ramage] as a D partner for me is unreal,"" Smith said. ""Sometimes I stay in the offensive zone for a little bit too long but he always has my back. He is very smart for a freshman.""
Fellow freshman Justin Schultz has made an impact as well. In his first year at Wisconsin, the 2008 second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks jumped right into the rotation and has played the point on the Badgers power-play unit.
""It's been a fun shock because normally you don't see that in defenders as a freshman,"" Eaves said.
Within a few years, every member of the Badger defense may get the chance to contribute to a professional hockey team. But for now they are putting on a very impressive show in Madison.