While many top Division I teams are missing star players to the World Junior Championships, others have a chance to step up and get noticed.
This is certainly true at the University of Wisconsin, where top defensemen Ryan McDonagh (Team USA) and Cody Goloubef (Team Canada) are playing in the tournament and unavailable for the Badgers.
Without them, Wisconsin hosted the Badger Hockey Showdown this past weekend, winning the tournament for the first time in three years. One of the bigger reasons for Wisconsin's success is the
depth they have on defense.
2008 first-round pick Jake Gardiner (NHL rights: Anaheim) is a huge part of that improving defense.
Gardiner was a forward for much of his youth, only converting to defense while in high school at Minnetonka (Minnesota). Still, his work was enough to get him a scholarship at Wisconsin, and the Ducks liked him enough as a defenseman to draft him 17th overall.
Over the weekend, Gardiner got his first collegiate goal in Wisconsin's 5-0 semifinal win over Alabama-Huntsville, then assisted on the equalizer in a 1-1 tie against Lake Superior State (Michigan) in the championship game. Wisconsin won a shootout to take the tournament title, but the game officially counts as a tie. His play drew praise from teammate Jamie McBain (Carolina).
"Getting that first goal is a big relief off your shoulders. Obviously, he's been playing really good for us and it just hasn't gone in for him. So it was great to see him get it. Obviously, he's excited. And hopefully we can see many more from him."
Todd Milewski covers Badger hockey for The Capital Times in Madison, and he offers the following assessment of Gardiner.
There are some times you can tell he's still relatively new on defense, but it's not a completely obvious thing where he's standing out because he doesn't know what he's doing. He's picking it all up well, especially the little nuances like body position when he's one-on-one with a forward.
But I think the thing I've been most impresed with is his awareness while handling the puck. He's the kind of guy that sees the whole ice from his own zone and can carry the puck 150 feet up ice and make it look easy -- you don't see that from many players any more. As long as he understands when not to try something too risky, it's a pretty neat thing to see.
All in all, he's a pretty heady player who could be a really good pro.
Our FanHouse pal Earl Sleek, who also writes at Battle of California, is the first to admit that he doesn't know much about prospects. That's not at all sinful, because it's why we're here. Sleek does, however, make it sound like Gardiner could be on his way to the Anaheim farm system (or the Ducks' big-league roster) very quickly.
Next summer looks to be a pretty big shift in the Anaheim blueline (at least right now). Brian Burke has left a pretty clean slate for his GM successor Bob Murray -- Chris Pronger is the only defenseman signed beyond this year, and he's only got one year after this one. I'm sure that there will be some re-signings in the coming months, but it also seems that it'd be a real opportune time for some defensive prospect to make the jump to the big leagues. That probably couldn't be said for any of the last few years for Anaheim -- at least a promotion didn't seem very necessary back then.
It's a rather odd thing when you watch the Badgers, and you see three defensemen on the ice during a power play, but Gardiner is such a good offensive player that it makes perfect sense when you think about it. He has tremendous offensive skill, and while he is still a work in progress as a defenseman, there's no question his size, hands, and smarts will make the transition a complete success in the not-too-distant future.
Other players to watch
It was a light weekend of college hockey. Among the holiday tournaments was the annual Great Lakes Invitation, won by Michigan. We already told you about Louie Caporusso (Ottawa), and he had a huge weekend. Caporusso netted a natural hat trick in the first period of a 5-0 win over Michigan Tech in the semifinals, and then scored a goal in a 5-1 win over Michigan State for the title. He now leads the nation with 18 goals on the season.
Colgate junior David McIntyre (Dallas) scored with one second left in overtime as the Red Raiders beat Maine 3-2 in the semifinals of the Florida College Classic. The tournament is played annually in Estero, the home of the ECHL's Florida Everblades, and is "co-hosted" by Maine and Cornell. Cornell beat Colgate 2-0 in a shootout to take the championship after the ECAC rivals skated to a 2-2 tie.
Next week, we return this column to its normal Tuesday morning spot. Happy New Year!