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Penn State Hockey Preview: Taking a look at the forwards

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Scoring goals has been the centerpiece of the Penn State attack, these are the front-liners that will be deployed in 2016-17.

Maria Canales-Gopsusports.com

Each new season for the Penn State hockey team brings with it subtle improvements. The program is continuing to build, entering its fifth year at the Division 1 level. The first couple of seasons saw what would be expected of a program making the transition from club level hockey to the highest level: growing pains and a roster that was out-matched on a regular basis. In just the third season since joining Division 1, the team had a winning record, 18-15-4. This result surprised many people in the college hockey world, as well as many if not all faithful Penn State fans. That team was led by Casey Bailey, a high-scoring forward who would sign an NHL contract following the 2013-14 season.

Entering the 2014-15 season it was widely expected that the team would take a step back from the gains it achieved, as Casey Bailey and other key components of the successful campaign moved on or ran out of eligibility. The first full recruiting class for coach Guy Gadowsky, which included one goalie, three defensemen and four forwards, was thought to need a year or two to get its skates underneath them at the collegiate level. Once again the team exceeded expectations. The freshmen boosted scoring production and the team finished with a 21-13-4 record.

That’s not to say that the Lions did not face adversity last season. There were several games that the team was forced to play with fewer than 12 forwards due to injuries. The team started the season with only 13 forwards on the roster, which was thin to begin with. James Robinson skated just one shift last year before breaking his collarbone, ending his season. Mike Williamson played 6 games before an injury ended his career.

Being short on players created many problems for the team. Players were more likely to play while dinged up so as not to make matters worse. The stamina of the team was an issue. The juggling of lines in-game to keep fresh legs on the ice caused a half-dozen penalties for having too many men on the ice. It was a challenge.

This season the team is back to having a more reasonable numbers of players. There are 16 forwards on the team. In fact, with so many forwards it may work out that one or more might take a redshirt this season. Not only will the team have adequate numbers, but the incoming freshmen forwards include a few of the highest-regarded players to ever join the Penn State program.

In many ways this will be the first time the Penn State hockey team will field a complete Division 1 team. Last season the team was short due to numbers. In the prior seasons the team had many former club hockey players on the team that while possessing all the work ethic and determination of their higher-skilled counterparts, they did not have the talent that this group of players bring to the table.

Returning Players

Player Class Age Size Hometown
9 David Goodwin Sr 24yrs 7mos 5'10 190 lbs Des Peres, Missouri
21 Ricky DeRosa Sr 24yrs 8mos 6'1 189 lbs Aston, Pennsylvania
17 Zach Saar Sr 23yrs 4mos 6'6 225 lbs Richland, Michigan
12 Dylan Richard Sr 23yrs 8mos 6'1 195 lbs Sherwood Park, Alberta
7 James Robinson Jr 22yrs 6mos 6'2 193 lbs Cochrane, Alberta
8 Chase Berger So 21yrs 10mos 6'0 195 lbs St.Louis, Missouri
27 Matt Mendelson So 21yrs 5mos 5'10 170 lbs Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
28 Alec Marsh So 20yrs 11mos 5'10 200 lbs Bridgewater, New Jersey
16 Andrew Sturtz So 22yrs 1mo 5'8 185 lbs Buffalo, New York

David Goodwin is the team captain this season and he was also the top scorer on last year’s team, finishing with 11 goals and 27 assists. Ricky DeRosa, Dylan Richard and Zach Saar are seniors that have produced a great deal in their careers. James Robinson missed all but one game a year ago after a great freshmen campaign. Robinson was named an alternate captain for the season, which is a tremendous honor for a junior player. He used the year away from the ice to build his 6’2 193 lb frame.

Sophomores Alec Marsh, Matt Mendelson and Chase Berger had tremendous production as freshman. Andrew Sturtz scored a freshman-record 18 goals to lead the group. Of the four, Sturtz came to the team as the higher-regarded scoring prospect, but Chase Berger converted many opportunities on the way to scoring 13 goals and gaining 13 assists last year. Mendelson took a while to get going and was bitten by the scoring jinx, as his first half-dozen chances were foiled by unpredictable bounces of the puck. Marsh (7 goals, 14 assists) had the type of season that was expected out of he, Mendelson and Berger. While his numbers did not jump out at anyone, he was a solid player and allowed those around him to play at a high level. The foursome of reliable sophomores added to the upperclassmen makes for a solid foundation for the team.

And to think, the group of players joining the team this year is likely to be even better than the group that joined the team last year.

Incoming Freshmen

Player Age Size Hometown
23 Blake Gober 21yrs 10mos 5'8 179 lbs Colleyville, Texas
26 Liam Folkes 20yrs 8mos 5'8 167 lbs Scarborough, Ontario
13 Nikita Pavlychev 20yrs 7mos 6'7 212 lbs Yaroslavl, Russia
14 Nate Sucese 20yrs 5mos 5'9 175 lbs Fairport, New York
15 Sean Kohler 19yrs 4mos 5'9 175 lbs Oakville, Ontario
25 Denis Smirnov 19yrs 3mos 5'10 185 lbs Moscow, Russia
10 Brandon Biro 18yrs 7 mos 5'11 160 lbs Sherwood Park, Alberta

Last season Guy Gadowsky brought in the the largest, most productive freshman class in program history. The group of players that is joining the team this year is an eclectic bunch. The oldest player to ever join the Lions as a freshman, Blake Gober, gives the team a known-entity that is ready to play and lead by example from day one. The youngest player to ever join the program, Brandon Biro, has a lot of developing yet to do. The tallest player in program history, Nikita Pavlychev (6’7), will also join the team and play center. The tall Russian has already been drafted by the Pittsburgh Pengiuns and has the body to play in the NHL. His skills, for a player his size, are astounding and his hockey IQ is off the charts. He’s an armful to handle in front of the net.

Nate Sucese and Denis Smirnov, in any other season prior to this, would have been considered the most attractive incoming player to join the program. Each has shown a complete game but also a tendency to score. Smirnov has a hard shot, not one that will scare people, but he locates his shots in order to handcuff goalies with regularity. Sucese has averaged close to a point per game in his USHL playing career. While the three players have their differences, Sucese and Smirnov will play very similar games as Andrew Sturtz. Of the three Sturtz is the most physical, Smirnov the most skillful, and Sucese the most balanced player.

Liam Folkes, the son of a former Canadian sprinter Carl Folkes, brings his father’s blazing speed to the ice. He averaged more than a point per game while playing in the CCHL and was named his team’s MVP in 2015.

The group of new players flashed impressive statistics prior to coming to Hockey Valley. While stats tell certain tales the overall theme of the current crop of freshman is that they are well-seasoned and ready to contribute immediately. Coach Guy Gadowsky attributes the group with a very high hockey IQ. The speed of the group is clear to see. They pass the eyeball test and the production should match or exceed what we saw from our first-year players last season.

Age Matters

The current roster could be framed as being young, having just four senior forwards and one junior. There are 11 underclassmen. At first glance it would seem that the group is young and inexperienced. That would be misleading.

David Goodwin and Rickey DeRosa will be 25 years old by the end of the season. Seven other Penn State forwards will be over the age of 22 by the end of the season. This gives the team three full lines of players that are experienced in years of life as well as hockey.

Blake Gober is the oldest incoming freshman forward and is the outlier in the group. After that there are a few players that are coming in at the age of 20, which is about the average age for an incoming college hockey freshman. Liam Folkes brings the skill of speed to the ice and has scored abundantly in the past. Nikita Pavlychev is an NHL Draft pick and is ready to play. Nate Sucese is a highly-anticipated scorer. These four players are freshman, but they are not young.

Sean Kohler and Denis Smirnov just recently turned 19, which is on the younger side for an incoming freshman. Brandon Biro is the youngest player to ever join the program. It was originally announced that Denis Smirnov was to join the team last season. It was later decided to hold him out for a year since he would have been one of the youngest players in college hockey. So the three younger-than-normal players should be considered unique in that they have the potential to develop on a steeper learning-curve than any other players that have come to Hockey Valley. They would not be here this early if they were not supremely talented.

What to Expect

Last season there was the expectation at the beginning of the year that it would be difficult to replace Casey Bailey’s scoring. The team did so with a more balanced scoring effort, getting in the neighborhood of 10 goals from a dozen players instead of relying on one player to carry the load. This trend should continue.

Richard, DeRosa, and Saar should all produce more than they have in the past. Sturtz will likely score 20 goals. Berger surprised the fans and the coaching staff with his scoring last season. His and Alec Marsh’s overall play is why the staff brought them to Hockey Valley. They are complete players. If they score that is great but they can still be effective, much like David Glen and Curtis Loik, even if the numbers don’t say so.

The incoming players are hard to predict. Considering the amazing success of last season’s freshman players, it is easy to believe that the incoming group will be just as strong. The team has sufficient numbers to field a competitive Big Ten hockey team for the first time. No longer will Gadowsky be scraping the bottom of the barrel to field a lineup. His cup runneth over.