As a freshman and through the first half of last season, Max Zimmer didn’t have the confidence to be a top-six forward in the lineup.
It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities. He was listed on the first or second line for 18 of his 35 appearances in his first year.
Although the goal count didn’t show it, Zimmer started to feel a change after the midseason break last year. That self-assured approach is what he’s taking into his junior year.
“I’m going out there knowing that I’m good enough to be out there, knowing that I’m good enough to play on the top two lines, power play,” Zimmer said. “Bringing that confidence into the game and being able to make those plays every single game instead of just a couple shifts a game or once every three games.”
In assembling the top two forward lines this season, coach Tony Granato has to work around not having the three players who were in those groups the most last season.
Ryan Wagner and Cameron Hughes graduated, and Trent Frederic signed a pro contract after his sophomore season.
That leaves openings for the key offensive spots. If the line combinations they have used in the opening weeks of practice are an indication, the Badgers are looking toward their veterans.
So another chance is there for Zimmer, who has produced just six goals in 60 collegiate games after he scored 16 in 55 outings in his one full season in the United States Hockey League.
So far in practice, senior Seamus Malone and sophomore Tarek Baker have centered the top two lines. Most often, the wings with them have been Zimmer, senior Will Johnson and sophomores Linus Weissbach and Sean Dhooghe. Senior Matthew Freytag also has been in the mix.
The five freshman forwards have been competing for time on the lower lines as UW prepares for its exhibition opener against Victoria on Sunday and the first regular-season series against No. 12 Boston College on Oct. 12-13.
That means returning players such as Zimmer are being asked to play a more active role in goal-scoring. Granato said he has seen the prospect of that emerging for Zimmer since both started with the Badgers in 2016.
“He’s matured in lots of different ways that we’re really excited about the potential for what he can bring,” Granato said. “But again, you’ve just got to do it now.”
Zimmer also has been working with one of the power-play units in practice, another sign of where UW coaches think he fits with the team’s group of forwards at the season’s onset.
“It’s not just them having confidence in you,” Zimmer said. “It’s me having confidence in myself and me knowing that I can do it, proving to them that they have me in the right spot.”
With player limits relaxed in the exhibition game against Victoria, all 25 players on the UW roster are scheduled to have some role.
In a competition that’s critical to the Badgers’ success, all three goalies — juniors Jack Berry and Johan Blomquist and freshman Daniel Lebedeff — will get a chance to face outside competition for the first time this season.
When the Badgers defeated Victoria 10-1 two seasons ago, their goalies faced only 10 shots, so the matchup might not provide enough information to make major decisions.
“I think we’ll let it play out,” Granato said. “Both (Berry and Lebedeff) will play early in the season. And if one of them can establish that they are the starter as we get into league competition, then we’ll decide.”
Berry and Lebedeff figure to be the main players in the race for the starting job, but Granato said Blomquist, the third-stringer over his first two seasons, also will get a chance.
Plan for three
With the Big Ten Conference using 3-on-3 overtimes this season to assign an extra point in the standings, the Badgers have to consider what arrangement of three skaters they’ll send out.
It’s not what Granato would do every season, but the team’s strength on defense has him looking toward employing two blueliners with one forward.
“The strength of our team is defense,” Granato said. “A lot of our offense is going to come from our back end.”
The 3-on-3 sessions are used only in conference games that are tied after the five-minute, 5-on-5 overtime, but Granato said he’s going to push to play one after Sunday’s exhibition game regardless of the outcome.