As the 2017-18 season continued to get away from the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, its coaches tried to find the right button to push to develop consistency in goal.
Easier said than done, it turned out. No move resulted in a positive development that could be sustained over the course of weeks.
As coach Tony Granato’s third season with the program gets started, goaltending continues to stand out as an area of uncertainty.
That, to the Badgers’ dismay, has been the only true element of consistency in the situation.
UW ranked 56th out of 60 Division I men’s college hockey teams in team save percentage for the third straight season in 2017-18. The arrival of Kyle Hayton, an All-American goalie at St. Lawrence who played his final collegiate season after a graduate transfer, wasn’t the solution that the team thought it would be.
Now, another personnel change: Freshman Daniel Lebedeff joined the group alongside juniors Jack Berry and Johan Blomquist.
And another change: Unlike his first two seasons, when Granato had his starting goaltender selected entering the campaign, he said all three could get a chance to play in the opening weeks.
“How we’re going to play it, I don’t know,” Granato said.
What’s clear is goaltending is an area the Badgers have to shore up to become a elite team.
UW knows what it can get from Berry, who started seven of the last 11 games last season and 13 of 37 overall. He has made big saves and won big games, including a shutout of then-No. 1 Notre Dame in Chicago last season.
Granato has seen Blomquist, the third-string netminder for his first two collegiate seasons, become a workhorse in practice even if playing experience has been scant.
With Lebedeff, varying signs — plus the typical unpredictable nature of goalies in a new environment — make it a wait-and-see situation. He played last season with the Janesville Jets of the North American Hockey League after an unproductive season with the United States Hockey League’s Madison Capitols.
There have been elements to Lebedeff’s game to give scouts reason to consider him a potential pro-level talent but not yet enough production at high levels to make it a certainty.
All three can say it’s a fresh start.
“Forget about the last two years. They happened,” Berry said. “It’s time to build as a team, the culture, and be brothers. And bring these underclassmen in and teach them how Badger hockey is and the culture. I think it’s been great having them in and learning this summer. I felt like we’ve had the closest bond we’ve had.”
Berry had back surgery after last season and missed some time in the offseason, but he said at the start of the team’s workouts he was “pretty much 100 percent.”
Granato said he didn’t think Berry’s failure to find consistency last season was entirely his fault. It also had to do with the expectation at the outset that he was going to be a backup to Hayton, who wound up with a .890 save percentage and 3.09 goals against average.
Berry, who posted a slightly better save percentage (.894) and slightly worse goals against average (3.17) than Hayton as the Badgers finished 14-19-4, has to be more ready for this year’s opportunity because of last year’s challenges, Granato said.
“Him and I have had enough conversations this summer about some of that,” Granato said. “And I was honest with how it went last year. I was expecting more of him consistently. It didn’t happen.”
For his part, Berry said he can be better at using the entire week to prepare for the games on Friday and Saturday in his hunt for a consistent performance level.
Lebedeff could say the same thing. With the Capitols two seasons ago, he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and didn’t get as much playing time as he had hoped.
“It’s tough when you just have to practice and you play maybe once a month, two times a month,” Lebedeff said. “It’s hard to go into a game. You don’t have the confidence that the other goalie has who’s playing all the time and the touch for the game.”
He played last season for former Badgers player and assistant coach Gary Shuchuk in Janesville, again splitting time.
Over the summer, he returned home to Finland and worked with well-known goalie coach Jukka Ropponen three times a week, focusing on rebound control and a more controlled presence in the crease.
“We recruited him and we brought him in because we think he can be a guy that can help our program and develop into an elite goalie,” Granato said.
The coach hinted that Blomquist, who has played for the Badgers in only two games for a combined total of less than 11 minutes, might get a chance in the opening month of the season to show what he can do.
Granato doesn’t have much use for the kind of rotating starter setup that emerged last season. Yet there will be some level of the same this year, at least unless one goalie makes the job his.
“Every team needs a guy that you know what you’re going to get from on a consistent basis,” Granato said.
For the Badgers, that position is waiting to be filled.