It has been tough sailing for Wisconsin men's hockey over the past year, to say the least.
The Badgers struggled to a program-worst four-win season in 2014-15 and continued losing in the offseason, as forward Morgan Zulinick, defenseman Jack Dougherty, and incoming goaltender recruit Luke Opilka all left the team early for varying reasons.
But the UW players believe they are better for those hardships, and with a year of college hockey under their belts, and motivated by last season's results, the Badgers are coming into 2015-16 with renewed passion.
"The word that comes to mind is redemption," head coach Mike Eaves said. "I know that the returning guys feel like they have something to redeem and show people that this is not who we are."
Leading the way for Wisconsin this season is junior forward Grant Besse, a preseason player to watch pick by the Big Ten media and the Badgers' top returning scorer. The Minnesota native netted 11 goals and 22 points last season and Eaves sees room for those numbers to grow in Besse's third year.
"(Junior year) is a year where young men can have a breakout year," Eaves said. "They've had two years under their belt to mature physically, mentally, and emotionally, and now they know the league."
Behind Besse, though, is where the questions begin. Wisconsin's next top two returning scorers—forwards Cameron Hughes and Adam Rockwood—combined for only 26 points (6+20) last season. With only six upperclassmen on the roster, the Badgers need to see significant year-over-year growth from second-year players like Hughes, Rockwood, and others, to take a leap forward if they are going to begin to right the ship.
"I think after a year of growth and development, those guys are ready to step up," Eaves said. "We feel like these young men are going to make a step and we hope it is a big step."
If scoring again does not materialize, the Badgers don't have goaltender Joel Rumpel to fall back on. Rumpel was the team's rock last season, making an average of over 34 saves in UW's four wins. Aiming to replace him are a trio of goaltenders with a total of two career appearances between them—redshirt junior Adam Miller, redshirt freshman Gabe Grunwald, and freshman Matt Jurusik. Eaves likes to split time between goalies, so each one will likely get the chance to prove himself when the season begins.
"It's a three-way battle," Eaves said of his goaltending situation. "Every practice or small area game that we do is going to be their marking period. If they do well there, that will bode well for who gets the starts."
Jurusik is the one to watch. He came in late in the recruiting process as a replacement for Opilka after a season with the NAHL's Janesville Jets in which he won 33 games and boasted a .939 save percentage and 1.57 goals against average.
"When we were out there asking about young goaltenders and who had the potential to be 'that guy,' Matt's name came up consistently with the people that we talked to," Eaves said of Jurusik. "We'll have to see what his transition period is, but we feel that he is a good young goaltender."
The issues that ail this program are more than can be solved in just one season, but Eaves and his new coaching staff hope they are putting the right pieces in place to start getting back on course. Only time will tell if that is the case.