Men's hockey

100 games of Granato: After a hot start, mixed on-ice results

Head coach Tony Granato's hiring in 2016 boosted season ticket sales by 26 percent over two years, but he's yet to get the Badgers back to the NCAA tournament.

When athletic director Barry Alvarez hired Tony Granato to replace Mike Eaves as head coach of the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, the reception inside and outside the program was nearly unanimous: The Badgers had swung big, and got their guy.

“This hire will knock your socks off,” Alvarez said of the hiring — a claim he felt so confident in he commissioned an order of customized socks bearing the quote to reinforce it.

Wisconsin State Journal beat writer Todd Milewski called the hire an “ambitious coup,” and the reception from the fanbase was accordingly positive.

Granato took over a program in decline on and off the ice, and after a 12-win improvement in his first year expectations for the six-time national champions were sky-high.

Now, as Granato approaches his 100th game in charge, the reception and outlook for the coaching staff are more mixed.

Through 99 games, the former Colorado Avalanche head coach is 43-46-10 and yet to make the NCAA tournament, with an appearance this season unlikely.

That mediocre record masks a team that’s excelled in some areas, and struggled mightily in others.

The Badgers have excelled offensively during Granato’s tenure, ranking ninth, 13th and 19th in goals per game. 

Wisconsin’s skaters haven’t backed that up in the own end, where they’ve ranked 46th, 49th and 47th out of 60 teams in goals allowed in Granato’s three years.

Goaltending has been Granato’s defining achilles heel. The Badgers have started four goaltenders — Matt Jurusik, Kyle Hayton, Jack Berry and Daniel Lebedeff — who have combined for a .891 save percentage, with none of the four cracking .900 in a single season.

Past the headline numbers there are signs of progress for the program, even if the record doesn’t reflect it. Wisconsin has improved its ratio of goals scored to goals conceded at even strength every year under Granato. From 0.73 in Eaves’ final year, the Badgers jumped to 0.88 in 2016-’17, 0.95 in 2017-’18 and a stirling 1.11 this season.

Wisconsin’s five-on-five improvement has been masked by backsliding special teams, as young players have taken their lumps on the penalty kill. The Badgers, who give five freshmen consistent penalty killing minutes, have already allowed 31 power play goals this season, the second most in the NCAA.

“The lack of experience in those roles, you always just want to see progress,” Granato said of his young penalty killers. “Those guys are good [penalty] killers, they will become great penalty killers for us and we’ve just got to give them them the experiences and they’ve got to battle through them.”

The product on the ice looks to be headed in the right direction under Granato, even if the turnaround hasn’t happened as soon as some fans hoped and expected. But the head coach’s hiring was about more than just wins and losses, it was about restoring the prominence of a program that had once served as the school’s flagship sports team.

Here again, the results have been mixed. Granato’s arrival triggered a rush of season ticket sales — which jumped 18 percent from 2015-’16 to 2016-’17 and another eight percent the following year — but that number slid back after last year’s sub-.500 showing. Overall attendance has followed the same trend, up from its low of 8,849 in Eaves’ last year but still not rivaling the 14-15,000 the Badgers drew consistently in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

While Granato has had limited success in getting fans back into the Kohl Center, he’s had no such trouble attracting talented players. Last season’s freshman class, the first class he described as “our guys,” included four NHL draftees. This year he added two more, including first-rounder K’Andre Miller. Wisconsin’s incoming recruiting class includes four more forwards with draft-worthy grades, including potential first-round selections Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield.

With his NHL experience as a selling point, Granato has succeeded in stocking the Badgers with professional talent few teams in college hockey can match.

“The people who help you get to the next level here are next to none, they’re really special here,” Miller said. “I knew getting to the next level was going to be my goal, and that made choosing Wisconsin the best for me.”

Granato’s already helped a pair of players — forwards Luke Kunin and Trent Frederic — reach that next level, with several more Badgers set to follow them. But after 100 games, he’s yet to show if he can do the same with his program.

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