Ryan Suter understands that his decision to sign with the Nashville Predators Wednesday morning left a void in his former University of Wisconsin teammates' locker room. The Badgers' preseason workouts were already underway, after all, and their season begins in just over a month.
"I would be very disappointed if someone left, I guess, at this point of the year," Suter said during a press conference Wednesday to formally announce his departure. "We just started the four-man groups and just started school and started living together. You think you've got your family for the year and all of a sudden something like this comes up and it's just all gone."
Sophomore wing Robbie Earl played with Suter for the U.S. National Team Development Program for two years prior to their freshman seasons at UW.
"Disappointed, losing, you know, a friend for the past three years," he said. "I can't say I was shocked but I was just disappointed in the situation.
"We built a friendship and it's hard to let go but I'm happy for what he's doing."
Suter and Earl were part of a freshman class that rejuvenated Badger hockey. After a miserable 13-23-4 campaign in 2002-03, Wisconsin was an overtime goal away from advancing to the Frozen Four last season.
The team finished 22-13-8 with 10 freshmen and 10 sophomores on the 29-man roster. With only six seniors departing and another strong recruiting class this year, the Badgers approach the 2004-05 season anticipating a run at the national title.
The loss of the team's most talented blue liner, with the season just within reach, raises questions about the viability of that dream.
"He leaves a big hole. He is one of the best defensemen in the country, there is no question about that," junior captain Adam Burish said. "He was a huge part of our team. But at the same time...we enjoy having people question us."
Wisconsin's players and coaches, after all, insisted during their surprising run last season that the NCAA Tournament and a run at the Frozen Four was a realistic goal, despite the team's poor showing the previous season.
"People doubted us all year and said, ‘you won't be able to make the NCAA Tournament after the year you had before,'" Burish said. "When these questions are asked and people doubt us, we tend to lift our level of play because of the guys we have. We enjoy being the underdog.
"Now, there are going to be these questions asked defensively about us. Saying, ‘you guys have too big of holes to fill'…Within the team we know we will be able to and we are going to enjoy proving people wrong."
There is no denying the fact, though, that Wisconsin could use a defenseman or two. Wisconsin had nine blue liners last season, but of the six seniors, four were defensemen, including two—Dan Boeser, Andy Wozniewski—who were among Wisconsin's leaders in ice time.
Along with Boeser and Wozniewski, Suter and returnees junior Tom Gilbert and sophomore Jeff Likens were mainstays on the blue line. The sixth spot on the active roster typically rotated between Matt Olinger and Tom Sawatske. Sawatske, though, left the team in the spring for want of more playing time and will skate for the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League this year.
Gilbert, Likens and Olinger will be joined by four freshmen: Davis Drewiske, Josh Engel, Kyle Klubertanz and Joe Piskula.
"(Suter) was a guy that these young defensemen looked up to," Burish said. "He was one of the guys they were going to follow this year; one of the guys that was going to help lead these young guys and to forge them into a good defensive corps.
"So they were shocked…But at the same time they realized they kind of had, in the back of their head, a little smile that said, ‘boy, now I'll have a real chance. Now I'm going to be looked to to contribute.'"
"It is going to increase the repetitions for all the guys," associate head coach Troy Ward said. "They have no choice but to get better."
The freshmen quartet certainly needs to become good in a hurry, but they also need to stay healthy. With only one defenseman to spare, a rash of injuries along the blue line could be devastating.
"There's a different element of coaching to this group now," Ward said. "From a repetition standpoint to the practice length to understanding the minutes certain guys are playing and how hard they practice during the week. If our program stays at seven, obviously we have to make some adjustments relative to the week."
Ward said the team is considering bringing another freshman in this season, either in the fall or during the Christmas break. Sophomore wing Ross Carlson joined the team between semesters last season and gave the team a scoring jolt with 17 points in 23 games.
Ward also said that all summer the team has considered using a forward such as junior Nick Licari at defense, but only on the power play. He said they had not given serious thought to moving a forward to defense outside of special teams play quite yet.
The Badgers were a defense-oriented team last season, allowing just 2.11 goals per game while scoring only slightly more (2.79). This year, the Badgers return most of their forward firepower but have a green blue line.
However, Wisconsin still has senior All-American goaltender Bernd Bruckler, who set school records with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
"If he stops the puck again like he did last year I think we'll be fine," Earl said.
Wisconsin preparing for life without Suter
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