Wisconsin Men’s Hockey: What Went Wrong?

Author: Krissy Birdsall

During the 2020-2021 season, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey program was unstoppable. They boasted a 19-8-1 regular-season record, stood atop the Big Ten as the regular-season champions, and went into the NCAA tournament as a four seed, projected to easily make the Frozen Four.

After surprisingly early exits in both the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament, this program was predicted to still be the team to beat heading into the 2021-2022 season. Instead, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team chalked up a measly 10-24-3 record and a much lower than expected ranking in the Big Ten at tied for fifth.

Following another early exit in the Big Ten tournament, this time to the University of Notre Dame, many fans were left wondering how could a team with such high expectations completely fall apart?

Off-Season Departures Proved Catastrophic

Head Coach Tony Granato was quite aware that he was going to lose star player Cole Caulfield. The Hobey Baker Award winner led the team, and the NCAA, with 30 goals during the 2020-2021 season. What Granato did not expect was losing the next three best forwards on the team, Linus Weissbach, Ty Pelon-Bryce, and Dylan Halloway. Altogether, these four players accounted for 55% of the team’s total goals, and nearly 30% of the team’s total assists. 

This loss of star power up front was coupled with two other big losses in the backfield: the departures of defensemen Ty Emberson and goaltender Robbie Beydoun. Emberson played in 31 games during the season and was a huge contributor to the team’s success on both sides of the ice. Adding in four goals and nine assists on the season, he led this defensive group that gave up a Big Ten second-best 2.6 goals a game. Meanwhile, the loss of Beydoun, who was in his final year of NCAA eligibility, was a stable force in front of the net, starting in 21 games and boasting a save percentage of 91.3%.

These losses proved to be catastrophic for the Badgers, as the next generation of players, such as Carson Bantle and Corson Ceulemans, could not step up and replicate the success of the departed players. The team’s production rate took a complete reversal, as the Badgers only produced about 2.1 goals per game, while giving up 3.6 goals per game at the other end of the ice. 

The Goaltender Dilema

At the end of the 2020-2021 season, it seemed that freshman goaltender Cameron Rowe was going to be the next successor in front of the net. Starting in 16 games during the season, he boasted one of the top NCAA save percentages at 93.3%. Coming into this season with high expectations, the goaltender could not replicate his debut success. After struggling with an 86% save percentage, and giving up nearly four goals a game through 12 starts, the goaltender was replaced by transfer Jared Moe. Boasting a much improved 91.7% save rate through 31 games, Moe provided a little bit more stability in the defensive zone. Either way, the goaltenders tied-35th in the NCAA in saves made it difficult for the rest of the team to produce any sort of lead up top this season.

The Big Ten Just Got Better

As most teams in the Big Ten improved on last year’s statistics, Wisconsin seemed to do just the opposite. Teams such as Michigan, Penn State and Notre Dame scored almost a point more per game than last year, while Wisconsin’s rate dropped more than a point. In terms of rankings, Wisconsin’s production rate moved from one of the top-scoring offenses in the conference to the league’s worst. As individual players made more of an impact on their team, Wisconsin could not find a player who could step up and replicate last season’s success. Because of this, Wisconsin struggled to defend some of the top players across the Big Ten, and compete against a tough group of teams in the conference, four of which are ranked within the top 20 of the USCHO rankings leading up to the NCAA tournament later this month. 

Time for a Change?

Much of the blame from this season’s lackluster performance will fall on head coach Tony Granato. Although having four more years left on his contract, the head coach only has a 92-106-16 record through his six seasons at Wisconsin. It is rare for a program to fire someone who was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year just a year prior, but after a complete reversal of a season, which ended up becoming the second worst season in Wisconsin’s 59-years in the modern era, many are expecting the athletic department to take a deep look into this program in order to evaluate what will happen in the future. In the meantime, players and personnel alike will be looking to figure out what went wrong and how these mistakes can be fixed in time for the puck to drop at the Kohl Center next year.