There have been substantive offseason changes before for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team when it comes to goaltending.
In the summer of 2003, the ineligibility and then pro signing of incoming freshman Mike Brodeur pushed the program into a late search for a goalie. That ended up being Brian Elliott, who landed in the UW Athletics Hall of Fame a decade after posting school-best career statistics.
Two years ago, Luke Opilka signed with a major junior team three months before he was set to become the No. 1 goaltender as a rookie. Matt Jurusik joined the incoming class but struggled with consistency.
At first blush, what happened this year qualifies to rank alongside those in terms of impact, but the immediate effect might prove to be the greatest.
Kyle Hayton, an All-American last season at St. Lawrence, is in as a graduate transfer for his final season of eligibility while Jurusik returned to junior hockey with the intention of moving to another school.
Hayton’s move was viewed around college hockey circles as a major upgrade for a team that was already generating some buzz for the 2017-18 season.
Before Hayton landed on his team’s doorstep, Badgers coach Tony Granato was counting on the goaltending corps — sophomores Jack Berry and Johan Blomquist return — to take a big jump.
“And then to have this, and Kyle show up on campus as a grad transfer, you’re adding a player that’s got a ton of experience,” he said. “So what does it do for the rest of the group? It probably says, ‘Holy cow, we’ve got an elite goalie back there that’s joining our other two guys.’ They say, ‘Wow, that’s depth.’”
That’s depth that’s sorely needed for the Badgers.
In team save percentage, UW ranked ninth from the bottom nationally in 2014-15 (.896), then fifth from the bottom in each of the past two campaigns (.888 in 2015-16 and .885 last season).
Hayton, meanwhile, stopped 93.6 percent of the shots he faced over three seasons at St. Lawrence, where the team allowed an average of nearly four more shots on goal per game than the Badgers did last season.
No added pressure
An athletic goalie with an ultra-competitive streak, Hayton was the East Region’s second-team All-American selection at his position last season after being named the goalie of the year in ECAC Hockey.
The national talk of UW’s projected improvement with him in the net doesn’t strike Hayton as added pressure.
“I think it’s hopefully accurate and hopefully will work out,” he said. “I’m not worried. I think we played good teams at St. Lawrence, too. It’s not like my competition’s completely different here. We tied Minnesota. We’ve beat good teams. So I’m very confident.
“I’m averaging a 93 save percentage. I don’t see that changing. I think, if anything, I can hopefully get it up a little bit with a really good D corps around me and scoring some goals.”
Berry’s play early last season was something of a revelation to UW coaches, who weren’t sure what to expect at the start of his freshman year.
That was important because Jurusik didn’t get off to a good start to the season and then missed time with injuries.
Berry ended up playing most of the minutes in goal, finding some success as well as his share of difficulties in keeping to the preparation routine he sought.
This fall, the setting has changed with Hayton’s arrival but Berry said his mindset hasn’t.
“I think it’s just going to help our program a lot,” he said. “It’s going to be good to battle with him. ... I think I’ll learn a lot from him, and it’ll be a good competition there.”
Hayton didn’t choose to move to UW to sit on the bench, however.
Motivated to move
To be eligible for the graduate transfer and not have to sit out a season under NCAA rules with the move, Hayton had to finish his undergraduate degrees in Business and Economics at St. Lawrence.
He said he knocked out roughly a year and half worth of credits over the summer to complete his studies.
The motivation to transfer was two-fold, he said. One part was for a change of scenery. Coach Greg Carvel left St. Lawrence for Massachusetts after Hayton’s sophomore season, and Mark Morris brought in a new regime last year.
Another was to give himself the best chance he could to make it to the pros. He’ll be a 23-year-old free agent when this season ends, and another strong showing would give him options for his future.
UW offered a graduate program in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis that met what Hayton was looking for academically.
The Badgers’ coaching staff of Granato and associate head coaches Mark Osiecki and Mark Strobel was another lure.
And there’s the potential for UW in the one season that Hayton will be in Madison.
“I think these guys have a real chance to win,” he said. “I want to win a championship just like all these guys do, and I think we’ve got a really good chance.”