Lucas at Large: Staff solidified, Badgers seek answers on ice

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MHKY_111007_Butters_Bill.jpgA year ago, Bill Butters wasn't quite sure what he was getting himself into.

"Being an ex-Minnesota player and an ex-Gophers coach,'' said Butters (right), "there was a little friction and I felt a little stress.''

A year ago, Gary Shuchuk wasn't quite sure what he was getting himself into, either.

"I never thought I'd be friends with a Gopher,'' kidded Shuchuk, the ex-Badger. "But we're good friends. I don't look at Bill as a colleague or a coach. I look at him as a close friend that I can talk to.''

A year ago, UW men's hockey Mike Eaves hired Butters and Shuchuk as assistant coaches.

That necessitated some adjustments for everyone throughout the transition period.

"Not knowing how Mike coaches,'' Butters said, "it was all new.''

"Last year,'' Shuchuk said, "there was a learning curve for me coaching at this level.''

A year later, Eaves feels much more comfortable with Butters and Shuchuk. And vice versa.

"They know our systems,'' said Eaves, adding that he has been "able to delegate more comfortably'' with Butters and Shuchuk and knowing that "takes a load off my mind.''

As a result, Eaves said, "I can be detailed about other things in terms of individual stuff with players, so we're definitely well ahead of the curve.''

As a player, Butters skated for Glen Sonmor and Herb Brooks at Minnesota. He was a no-nonsense defenseman. As a coach, Butters was an assistant with the Gophers for 10 seasons.

Hence, he went through an understandable orientation to Badger hockey.

What's the biggest difference from last season to this season?

"I'm a little bit more relaxed,'' Butters said. "I think I know a little more, I'm a little wiser and I'm a little bit more comfortable. I also have a few players that I actually recruited (on the roster).''

That would be Patrick Daly, a defenseman from Victoria, Minn.; Joseph LaBate, a freshman forward from Eagan, Minn.; and Brad Navin, a freshman forward from Waupaca, Wis.

Eaves put Butters in charge of the blue line corps. "And I'm more comfortable with them,'' Butters said of his returning players, "and they're more comfortable with me.''

Butters' transition extended beyond the ice. He also had to adjust to a new campus and community; and a new coaching environment within the UW athletic department.

"I had a good session with Bret Bielema the other day,'' Butters said of the UW football coach. "We had a recruit in town and he (Bielema) was wonderful.

"He took about 20 minutes to talk with him while the team was practicing. Just to see that side of the Badgers (family) and how everyone is pulling for each other is cool.''

Shuchuk was once an integral playing member of the Badger family. In 1990, he was an All-American and the leading scorer on a UW team that won the national championship.

"This being my second year on the coaching staff, I really feel a part of the program,'' Shuchuk said. "I know when I can speak up without stepping on Mike's or Bill's toes.

"Now I feel more comfortable with what I'm capable of doing. What's even better is I'm still learning from those guys. The three of us enjoy each other's company.

"We just love coming to work every day. We don't see it as a job. And we want to convey that to the boys in the locker room that 'You play this game to have fun.'''

Of course, it's more fun when you're winning hockey games on a consistent basis. That will be a challenge this season with so many freshmen and sophomores on the roster and so much inexperience on the ice.

"We're a young team and we realize that as a staff,'' Butters said. "We're not putting any pressure on the players. But we're not saying 'We're young' so we can lose 20 games and that's OK.

"We want to win here and we want our young guys to grow up real quick, if they can. But we know there might be some growing pains with them early on and we're going to be patient with them.''

Butters has more answers than questions with his returning defensemen. That includes an All-American and top-10 Hobey Baker Award finalist in Justin Schultz, who led the Badgers in scoring last season.

Complementing Schultz will be team captain John Ramage. "Our blue line should be a strength for us,'' said Butters. "That should give our forwards a chance to grow a little bit.''

Butters is counting on getting contributions from Frankie Simonelli, Joe Faust and Eric Springer, the lone senior. "They'll all get some playing time,'' he pointed out.

A freshman, Jake McCabe, will also factor into the mix. "He's kind of like Jake Gardiner (who signed with Toronto),'' Butters said. "He's got a good stick; he's a good skater and a strong kid.''

That has always been a teaching point for Butters -- how a defenseman handles his stick.

"I think the guys are more used to how I want them to play,'' he said. "I'd like our guys to be more like me (as a player). But I'd have liked to have been more like them. They have a lot more talent.

"We just need to be a little more physical. I'm not asking Justin Schultz to crush guys. But John Ramage and some others have that 'crush-ability' and they should step into a few more bodies.''

Shuchuk likes the energy and emotion that Ramage brings to the rink. "He's a steady guy who plays the game with heart,'' he said, "and he's trying to share his passion with a lot of the other guys.''

The competition should be pretty intense for spots on the forward lines, he added.

"If you want to play and be in the starting lineup, you have to show us,'' Shuchuk said. "We're basically having open auditions for a lot of things; power play, penalty-killing. That's the intriguing thing.

"I'd love to be a player coming in here right now. If you weren't hyped as a goal-scorer or a first-line player, this is your chance to prove that 'This is my spot now.'''

That would also apply to the three goaltenders: Mitch Thompson, Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson. "Who wants to take the bull by the horn and be the number one guy?'' Shuchuk asked.

That will be answered in time. "That's going to be an important part,'' Butters said, "to see how we play in our zone and give those guys (the goalies) some confidence.''

Shuchuk nodded and said, "Our defensive corps is a huge catalyst.''

It's definitely a good starting point.

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