Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said a roster full of upperclassmen is the reason the Badgers are favorites to win the Big Ten men’s hockey conference’s inaugural season. Gophers junior co-captain Kyle Rau agreed with the conference coaches’ preseason vote by proclaiming Wisconsin “definitely deserving.”
The Gophers were picked No. 2, announced Thursday morning at the first Big Ten hockey media day at Xcel Energy Center.
Rau, however, didn’t feel as strongly about the conference coaches’ other vote: players to watch. Of the 13 individuals named, Rau was the only unanimous selection. The news of the preseason honor was delivered to Rau via text message from former Gophers standout and current Nashville Predators prospect Zach Budish. Rau said he didn’t know how to respond to the text, unsure what Budish was referring to. He eventually had an opinion.
“I mean, it’s preseason, Rau said. “I haven’t done anything to earn it.”
That’s not exactly true. Gophers coach Don Lucia has big plans for his forward this year. Rau appeared in all 40 games last year as a sophomore and collected 40 points — 15 goals, 25 assists. More impressive, he tied for the national lead with seven game-winning goals and led his team in power-play points throughout the regular season.
These are just a few of the highlights that have Lucia excited for how Rau will outdo himself this season. In fact, Lucia is so eager to get his forward more opportunities to score that he’s considering moving him from wing to center.
“That was always his natural position. We need Kyle to score. He’s our leading returning scorer and we need the puck on his stick as much as we possibly can,” Lucia said. “That is one of the reasons why we’re really strong and considering moving him back to center, so he has more touches.”
Sophomores Adam Wilcox and Mike Reilly were mentioned with Rau as the Gophers players to watch. Wisconsin led all teams with four players to watch. Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State each had two players to watch. Penn State, only in its second year with a varsity hockey program, had none.
Lucia also addressed the challenges that losing five players to the NHL will create. But he said in the first few days of practice, he’s seen that his team can make plays.
New conference, new excitement
The extra heads and camera lenses in Thursday morning’s sessions reminded coaches of tournament excitement — even though the season hasn’t even started. The Big Ten hockey conference is already doing what it’s intended to, Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said: Create hype.
Anastos couldn’t help but start his day by exclaiming how busy it would be. He was scheduled for interviews with the Big Ten Network, Fox, ESPN, NBC, a quick stop at a news conference, then onto one-on-one sessions. It was more than most programs are used to, especially at this time of the year.
Every coach and player in attendance praised the benefits and exposure of the new conference. Longtime Michigan coach Red Berenson said he remembers a Stanley Cup- like atmosphere whenever he and the Wolverines played the Gophers in the 1950s. He hopes that’s what this conference will help re-create.
Said Gophers co-captain Nate Condon said: “I guess this year is going to be different for us, obviously, with the different rivalries. But I hope everyone understands from the greater perspective … that they’re going to develop more as the Big Ten keeps going year by year. I think it will be fun for us this year to have the first shot at the league title.”