Before they get into the question of whether they were worn down physically or mentally by the amount of time they spent on the ice last season, Jake Linhart and Peter Tischke want something to be known.
The University of Wisconsin men’s hockey defensemen absolutely loved it.
Linhart and Tischke emerged as the backbone of the back line a year ago, and they had the kind of minutes that would make former UW defenseman Ryan Suter proud.
Time on ice isn’t tracked officially in college hockey like it is in the NHL, where Suter has three of the five highest season averages since he entered the league in 2005, exceeding 25 minutes in each of the last seven years.
Unofficially, Linhart and Tischke both played around 28 minutes a game last season as a UW team that lacked defensive depth came to depend on them.
“I was excited to play those minutes every night,” Linhart said.
“It was the best time that we’ve had playing hockey so far,” Tischke said. “It was pretty cool that we got that many minutes.”
The workload may not be as eye-popping this season for the players that formed the Badgers’ top defensive pair, and they may not have the same amount of time together.
UW added three NHL draft picks to the defensive ranks this season in fifth-rounder Tyler Inamoto and seventh-round selections Wyatt Kalynuk and Josh Ess. With only Corbin McGuire gone from last year’s group, that puts 10 players in the competition for six spots.
What Linhart and Tischke can do this season, Badgers coach Tony Granato said, is elevate their play again.
“What they did for themselves is they learned that they’re elite players,” he said. “That was last year’s breakout for both of them. They realized that when they’re on the ice they can impact the game.”
Different skill sets
Also former defensive partners with the Chicago Mission youth program before they went to different junior teams, they bring different attributes to the game. That seemed to serve them well when paired last season.
For Linhart, a senior from Brookfield, it meant using his puck-moving confidence to start plays from his own zone and continuing to be a presence in quarterbacking the power play.
Tischke, a junior from Hinsdale, Illinois, wins puck battles with his 6-foot-1, 215-pound body, and he can get out of tricky situations with smooth skating.
Both ended last season even in plus-minus, meaning they were on the ice for as many even-strength and short-handed goals scored by the Badgers as scored by the opponent. As a team, UW allowed 11 more even-strength goals than it scored.
“We relied on them a lot, in a lot of different situations,” Granato said. “We probably overplayed them at certain points. But they earned it. And the step that they made and the development they had and the growth they’ve had as players, if you ask them why, I’m confident now. I can make plays. I can shut players down. I can have an impact on the game. They’ve got to feel really good about that.”
“It helped a lot that I had some success after last year,” Tischke said. “That helped my confidence even more than (I thought) it would have.”
Both Tischke and Linhart credited the coaching staff, especially defensive guru Mark Osiecki, with using video of NHL players to help them draw connections to where they were and where they could be.
Granato, meanwhile, got them connected with NHL teams to participate in offseason development camps that are largely reserved for teams’ draft picks. Neither Tischke nor Linhart, both 21, was selected during his three years of eligibility.
NHL camps offer pointers
Linhart said he had a few offers but ended up working out with the Minnesota Wild.
“They harped on individual skill development,” he said. “It wasn’t so much evaluation. They didn’t want to focus on that. They didn’t want you to be nervous. Really, they just tried to emphasize individual skill development. Definitely some of the drills, some of the off-ice stuff, I’ll take away for sure.”
Tischke was visiting his girlfriend in California when he got a call from the Los Angeles Kings with an camp offer.
His takeaways? “Probably just how hard they compete every shift and how you can’t take a shift off because those guys know what they’re doing and they know they have to compete every shift,” he said. “Just making sure that you’re dialed in. Everything has to be hard — all hard plays. If you make any soft plays, it’ll get picked off and end up in the back of your net.”
They’re bringing that experience back to UW and into a situation that’s more clearly defined than it was last season.
A lot of the lineup questions didn’t have answers as Granato’s coaching tenure with the Badgers started last fall. Linhart and Tischke quickly made themselves indispensable.
Granato said the time with NHL teams this summer gave both the assurance that, even though being in a pro environment may have seemed unrealistic a year ago, they can fit in now.
“What I liked about it was what they did since the season ended until right now, they didn’t say, ‘OK, I’m good now. I like where I’m at. I think I’m in pretty good shape now,’” Granato said. “They put it in full gear, straight ahead, saying I can get better, I can do more.”
From a minutes standpoint, they might not need to do more this season. Linhart said the ice time started to take a physical toll in the second of back-to-back games as the months rolled on last year. Tischke didn’t see it that way, saying team personnel was great with recovery.
He and Tischke both said, however, that playing nearly half of a 60-minute game was healthy from a mental standpoint.
“I think it actually made it easier, just getting the reps in over and over and over again,” Tischke said. “Even those little reps that you get each shift add up at the end of the year.”