Expectations are low for the 2018-19 University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, at least from the outside.
In a preseason poll released Monday, Big Ten Conference coaches picked the Badgers to finish in sixth place, the same spot they occupied at the end of last season.
Coaches unanimously chose defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk for the preseason watch list, but with last year’s standard and because of looming questions about scoring and goaltending entering the season, the team’s projection wasn’t unanticipated.
Ohio State was the choice to win the league in 2018-19, with Michigan second and Notre Dame third. All three teams played in the Frozen Four last season.
Minnesota was picked for fourth, ahead of Penn State, UW and Michigan State.
Some UW players see the diminished expectations as a way to sneak up on the rest of the league in the same way they did two seasons ago, the first year of coach Tony Granato’s tenure.
“It’s fun because it means we just get to prove everyone wrong,” UW senior wing Will Johnson said. “Instead of having to defend yourself, we get to be the guys hunting down everybody.”
In the fall of 2016, the Badgers were picked to finish fifth in what then was a six-team league. They outperformed expectations in just about every area to claim second place and then narrowly missed out on the Big Ten playoff championship.
Preseason rankings tend to be highly skewed by the previous season’s results, so the Badgers’ 14-19-4 overall finish in 2017-18 put them on course for a low slot in this season’s prognostication.
The Badgers did much better as a team unburdened by expectations, but now they’ll have to rekindle that fire against the backdrop of a vastly improved Big Ten.
“If we play well in our conference and we can compete, I think that shows that we can compete with anyone in the country,” Granato said.
UW received votes in the preseason national rankings compiled by USCHO.com but was outside of the top 20. That poll, however, gave an indication of the quality of the opponents the Badgers will face in the upcoming season.
Of 34 games on the schedule, 29 are against teams ranked in the preseason top 20. That includes the regular season-opening series against No. 12 Boston College — a team that Granato said was underrated by the voters — at the Kohl Center on Oct. 12-13.
Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan were in spots Nos. 2-4, with Minnesota at No. 13 and Penn State at No. 16. UW also has non-conference games against No. 9 Denver, No. 11 North Dakota, No. 17 Clarkson and No. 18 Michigan Tech.
The Badgers were 8-13-3-1 in Big Ten play last season after being picked for third by coaches before the season.
They have only 57 percent of their goal-scoring back from last season and start the season unsettled in goal. A defensive corps that features five NHL draft picks stands out as the highlight entering the season, which begins Oct. 7 with an exhibition game against Victoria at the Kohl Center.
Kalynuk, a sophomore who was one of six unanimous selections on the watch list and the only UW player selected for the group of 15, said there’s some motivation to be drawn from the sixth-place prediction.
“I guess maybe you could say that there’s not as much pressure on us,” said Kalynuk, a Big Ten all-freshman selection and honorable mention performer last season. “But as a group, not a single word was said about that today. Preseason polls, you can look at them whatever way you want.”
The other unanimous picks for the watch list were Notre Dame goalie Cale Morris, Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes, Michigan State forward Taro Hirose and Ohio State forwards Mason Jobst and Tanner Laczynski.
The rest of the preseason selections were forwards: Michigan’s Josh Norris and Jake Slaker; Michigan State’s Patrick Khodorenko and Mitch Lewandowski; Minnesota’s Rem Pitlick and Tyler Sheehy; Ohio State’s Dakota Joshua; and Penn State’s Denis Smirnov and Nate Sucese.