Penn State might have an offense problem. Last season, the Nittany Lions bolstered the 12th best offense in the NCAA with an average of 3.22 goals per game, propelling them to an 18-win season, their best under four-year head coach Guy Gadowsky. Much of Penn State's success last year was on the back of the offensive firepower that gave them the push to win the close games they had struggled with in years prior. In just over two months time, a new season will begin in Hockey Valley, and one that might not be as productive as the year before.
Without a doubt, Casey Bailey was the biggest name to come out of State College last season. The 23-year-old put up 40 points in 37 games, garnered significant Hobey Baker talk, and kept pace to be in the top ten in the NCAA in goals last season with 22, four goals below No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Jack Eichel. On top of a career year, Bailey made Penn State history as the first Nittany Lion to play for an NHL team and score an NHL goal. Bailey forfeited his final season at Penn State, however, to make the jump to the NHL, leaving the Nittany Lions with a sizable hole in their top line.
If that wasn't enough, rising freshman Scott Conway was dismissed from the team for violating team rules in early May with no other comment given by Gadowsky. While we can still only speculate on what caused the dismissal, the loss of such a dynamic player with a very high talent ceiling is a hard blow to this Nittany Lion team. Conway's 26 points from his first season alone rounded out the team's top five point producers, with the forward looking to be Bailey's successor in many ways over the next few years.
Another notable absence for Penn State next season will be Bailey's linemate Taylor Holstrom, who led the team last year with 26 assists. Holstrom's departure was expected for the Nittany Lions at the end of last season, though coupled with the loss of Bailey and Conway, the forward's exhaustion of eligibility at Penn State could not have come to an end at a worse time.
In total, Penn State will lose 41% of their offensive production from last year, including three players in their top five point producers. Those three players -- Bailey, Conway, and Holstrom -- take up 32% of the total point productivity lost between last season and next season.
By all accounts, losing just over 40 percent of your point production between seasons would be a devastating blow to any hockey team in the country. Thankfully, college hockey being what it is, there is always new turnover in talent with every entry class, along with the hopeful growth of returning players. Penn State has a few options to replace the production lost by their top players, but will it be enough to stop a regression after such a strong season?
The Nittany Lions are slated to bring in seven new faces next season: three forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender. Taking out netminder Chris Funkey from the mix, Penn State will add six freshmen in the form of forwards Chase Berger, Alec Marsh, Matt Mendelson and defensemen Kevin Kerr, Derian Hamilton, and Vince Pedrie. Below is a chart of each freshman's stats from their 2014-15 seasons, via eliteprospects.com:
|Player (Position)||Team (League)||Games Played||Goals||Assists||Total Points|
|Chase Berger (F)||Tri-City Storm (USHL)||58||10||18||28|
|Alec Marsh (F)||Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, Sioux Falls Stampede, Fargo Force (USHL)||49||8||20||28|
|Matt Mendelson (F)||Bloomington Thunder (USHL)||51||14||23||37|
|Kevin Kerr (D)||Tri-City Storm (USHL)||60||7||21||28|
|Derian Hamilton (D)||Comox Valley Glacier Kings (VIJHL), Powell River Kings (BCHL)||52||11||53||64|
|Vince Pedrie (D)||Bloomington Thunder, Tri-City Storm (USHL)||62||13||15||28|
There's a lot to be optimistic about with Penn State's incoming class. For starters, Guy Gadowsky has wrangled together a larger prospect pool than the year before, doubling up the trio of Conway, forward James Robinson, and defenseman Erik Autio that made up the 2014-15 class.
Though no incoming freshman forward has near the stat line Conway had the season before he came to Penn State -- 68 points in 57 games with the Indiana Ice of the USCHL -- there's talent to be had here. If anything, the amount of new players brought in by Gadowsky might soften the blow of losing three of their top five point producers last season, spreading out the responsibilities so the weight isn't too much on one particular player.
The only exception to this is Hamilton, whose 62 points in 48 games as the captain of the Comox Valley Glacier Kings made him the VIJHL's top defenseman of the year, scoring the most points by any blueliner in the league. Hamilton has the makings of a very offensive-minded defenseman and looks to be Penn State's best incoming freshman in the 2015-16 class based on stats alone.
However, college hockey is a different game than the junior leagues, and any one of these players' stats and skills might not transfer right away -- if at all -- at this level. Thankfully, Penn State has talent of its own already in their roster, and they will need to step up next season to fill the holes on offense.
Penn State has not lost all of its offensive talent this offseason; in fact, the Nittany Lions are retaining their No. 2 and 3 goal scorers from the past season in David Goodwin and Eric Scheid. Goodwin -- the often overlooked linemate of Bailey and Holstrom -- had 34 points last season, just six behind first place Bailey, and led the team in plus-minus with a plus-13. Scheid had a 29 point year with 14 goals to his name and was tied for second on the team with Dylan Richard with three game winning goals. Both Goodwin and Scheid were just two points away from a point-per-game pace, a feat which both Bailey and Holstrom -- but not Conway -- were able to accomplish last season.
While Scheid is going into his last year with the team, Goodwin is only a junior, giving Penn State more time to utilize his talents to their fullest. As long as injury doesn't completely derail either one or both of Goodwin and Scheid, Penn State and fans should feel a bit more confident in their progressions.
Speaking of injury, one player that showed promise in the 2013-14 season but was hampered by injury this past year was Zach Saar. After a freshman season that saw Saar put up five goals and six assists, including the incredible double overtime game winner against Michigan in the 2014 Big Ten Quarterfinals, surgery in the offseason before his sophomore year caused him to miss the first 16 games last season. While the now-junior finished the final 16 games, he only put up one assist on the year, clearly feeling out of place after missing exactly half of the season. With a full offseason of rest, and even taking part in Toronto Maple Leafs' development camp earlier this month, Saar should be able to get back on track and hopefully continue his development from two years ago.
Additionally, players such as Richard and Curtis Loik have improved their game over their Penn State careers, with Richard the sixth and final Nittany Lion to put up over 20 points last season. Loik himself saw a seven point increase from the 2013-14 season last year, scoring one less goal but making up for it with 11 assists.
Even with all of this depth, Penn State still seems to lack a No. 1 talent from their existing roster coming into the 2015-16 season. Cases can be made for Goodwin or Scheid based on their play last season, but both will have to earn that mantle with another career high year.
So...what can we expect?
It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Penn State will regress this upcoming season in terms of offensive production. Losing three highly-talented, point producing players due to various circumstances in an offseason will certainly have an effect on a team's ability to score no matter what the sport. Guy Gadowsky didn't plan on relinquishing three of his top five scorers this offseason, though he has a big talent pool to pull from with an incoming class of six skaters and an existing roster that has proven itself over the course of the last season.
Though less offensive production doesn't necessarily spell a free fall in the standings, fans might want to temper their expectations of the team this season in what seems to be more of a transitionary year than the previous. Penn State is still an extremely young hockey program in comparison to the rest of the Big Ten and will have a harder time adjusting to player turnover than the rest of their division. While it's a necessary evil of college sports, don't expect Penn State to play anything less than their best come October 4.