By numbers alone, Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team was always going to be reliant on its underclassmen this year. Sixteen of the 25 rostered players are freshmen or sophomores, along with 13 of the 20 who took the ice in the season opener.
Add in that this year’s freshman class came in highly touted and deep with talented prospects, joining a sophomore class that produced nearly 30 percent of the team’s goals last year, and there was plenty of anticipation about the impact they would bring.
“It’s a group and a class that can give us a good foundation for a long, long time,” head coach Tony Granato said before the season.
And yet, even with the hype and high expectations, the youngsters have come out of the gate producing even more than Granato and the coaching staff anticipated.
Through four games Wisconsin’s underclassmen have scored 16 goals, 84 percent of the team’s total, and they lead their Division 1 peers in a plethora of statistics: total goals, total points, goals per game and percentage of the team’s goals. If Wisconsin’s freshmen and sophomores hadn’t found the net a single time this season, the Badgers offense would still rank top 12 in the nation.
Wisconsin’s (0-0-0 Big Ten, 3-1-0 overall) youngsters will be looking to keep up that torrid start as they face off against a Michigan Tech (0-0-0 WCHA, 0-2-0 overall) team that gave up just 2.66 goals per game a year ago.
“I’ve been bragging them up for the six weeks of practice, and to have them back it up on what they’ve done in practice is exciting,” Granato said of the freshmen after the season opener.
Wisconsin has emphasized competition every day coming into the year, and the presence of so many young, talented players pushing for more playing time has produced competition up and down the lineup.
“Everyone’s competing for spots, and that’s a good thing. It pushes everyone to be better,” sophomore defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk said. “That’s how you build great teams, when the younger guys are pushing the older guys to continue to get better.”
The young players, the freshmen in particular, have been thrust into important roles on all units — even-strength, power play and penalty kill. Performing well right off the bat in such high-pressure situations has required a level of comfort and chemistry that’s hard to develop in just two months on the ice.
Last year was the first that the freshmen lived together in the dorms, and it’s created a notably cohesive culture among both last year’s class and this one. Even more than most teammates, Wisconsin’s freshmen rely on each other for almost every part of their life, whether it’s eating meals or making it to class.
That comfort with each other has shown on the ice as well, with most of the freshmen choosing to stay for sometimes as much as 30 minutes after the end of practice, working with each other on whatever part of their game needs a little work.
“It’s just fun, the guys stay out after playing little games and stuff,” freshman center Mick Messner said. “It’s nine guys, and those other eight guys are my best buddies.”
Unranked at the beginning of the year, Wisconsin is up to No. 14 in this week’s USCHO.com poll. If it ends up competing for an NCAA tournament spot, the reliance on young players could prove a handicap for the Badgers, but for now they’re riding the energy of their hot start and hoping to keep it up for at least another weekend.