Wisconsin returns most of the key pieces of last year’s WCHA regular season champs, along with two of their top forwards from 2016-2017 that missed last year due to the Olympics. There is no question that this will be a very good team. The big question will be whether or not this can be the team that, after five straight unsuccessful trips to the Frozen Four, finally gets over the hump and wins Wisconsin’s first national title since 2011.
Key Departures: Claudia Kepler, F, Baylee Wellhausen, F, Lauren Williams, D
The Badgers lose both of their top-six left wings from last season in Kepler and Wellhausen, and a top four D in Williams. Kepler is perhaps the most significant loss as a true goal scorer that posted a Cy Young-worthy 22-3-25 scoring line last year. But all things considered, they’re not devastating losses. The Badgers have a lot more coming back, including some underclassmen ready to step in and fill those vacated roles.
Key Returners: Emily Clark, F, r-Sr., Annie Pankowski, F, r-Sr., Abby Roque, F, Jr., Presley Norby, F, Jr., Sophia Shaver, F, Sr., Mikaela Gardner, D, Maddie Rolfes, r-Sr, Sr., Kristen Campbell, G, So.
The highlight here is the return of top line center Emily Clark from Canada’s Olympic team, and Annie Pankowski, who led the Badgers in scoring two years ago, but missed all of last year as a late cut from the US Olympic team.
In their absence last season, Abby Roque and Presley Norby emerged as legit top line WCHA players. They’ll be a match-up nightmare for teams this year as they presumably drop to a second line role with the return of Clark and Pankowski. Sam Cogan and Sophia Shaver will also likely slot into the top-6 and provide some scoring punch and senior leadership.
The blue line is solid as well with top-scoring defenseman Mikaela Gardner back for her senior season, as well as redshirt senior Maddie Rolfes, who was granted a fifth year after missing muchb of 2014-2015 due to injury. The trio of Mekenzie Steffen, Grace Bowlby, and Natalie Buchbinder are all talented defensemen with U18 national team experience that could breakout now that there is more ice time available to them.
Finally in goal, Kristen Campbell returns for her junior season. Campbell, a transfer from the now-deceased North Dakota program, won the starting job and played every minute for the Badgers last season. After pedestrian numbers as a freshman in Grand Forks, Campbell put up impressive numbers last year, showing as much as anything, how dependent goaltending stats are on the team playing in front of you. I wouldn’t put Campbell in the tier of game-changing goalies, but she’ll likely see even less rubber than she did last year, and continue to put up stellar numbers as a result.
Key Newcomers: Sophie Shirley, F, Britta Curl, F, Nicole LaMantia, D, Jesse DeVito, F, Cami Kronish, G
This is a fairly modest class by Wisconsin standards, which makes sense given how little there was to replace off last year’s team. One exception is Canadian forward Sophie Shirley, who was slated to be one of the top freshmen in the WCHA last year before an admissions issue sidelined her. Shirley played last season with the Calgary Inferno in the CWHL professional league and put up an impressive 19 points in 26 league games. Shirley plays a hard-nosed style of hockey with excellent scoring ability. Coming off a year playing against pros, she should be able to step in immediately and contribute to the Wisconsin line-up.
Britta Curl is a strong forward with excellent stick skills. She played a key role on the US women’s U18 team last and should develop into a reliable scorer at the collegiate level. Nicole LaMantia is an alum of the 2017 US gold medal winners. She’s a smaller defenseman that can control the game from the blue line. She’ll probably have to wait her turn behind the many very good veteran D Wisconsin is bringing back, but should be a solid player down the road. Jesse DeVito is a top player from the east coast prep circuit and should be a solid depth add. Goalie Cami Kronish will likely have to wait her turn in net behind the returning veterans.
Overall: Mark Johnson’s program just keeps rolling along. This a deep, talented team that returns a lot from last year’s team that spent a good chunk of the year ranked #1 in the country, adds back two top line players they lost due to the Olympics last year, and has talented upperclassmen ready to step up and fill any voids left by graduation.
Their route to a WCHA regular season title will be more difficult this year, given what Minnesota brings back, but with the depth and strength in Wisconsin’s line-up, they’re likely the favorites once again to win the league.
Ultimately, Wisconsin should be in the mix with Minnesota, along with Boston College and Clarkson in the east as the four heavy favorites to win the national title. Fair or not, the success of their season will likely be measured by their performance in the Frozen Four.