Breaking Down The Defensemen
Guy Gadowsky said last season that it was the first in his time at Penn State he had a group of defensemen who could regularly join the rush and create offense.
This season appears to be no different for the fifth-year head coach.
Gadowsky’s desire since joining the Nittany Lions has been to recruit defensemen who excel at both ends of the rink. That role was often filled by Luke Juha and Connor Varley, a pair of quick skaters with strong offensive instincts.
The remainder of his defense corps featured players who fit the mold of a “stay-at-home” defenseman. Players like former captain Patrick Koudys could contribute the occasional goal, but were much stronger at shutting down opponents and denying goals.
This season’s group of defensemen features the two-way ability Gadowsky has so desired.
Returning Defensive Players
Despite losing Luke Juha, his top scoring defenseman and leader on the back end, Gadowsky returns an offensive force in Vince Pedrie and a pair of two-way defensemen in Kevin Kerr and Erik Autio.
Autio and Pedrie were paired together in 29 of the 32 games they played last season and were the team’s most productive line. They will likely form the top pairing during even strength play and will play together on the top power play unit, with Autio quarterbacking and Pedrie waiting for a pass to unleash his rocket of a slapshot.
“We just gelled together,” Pedrie said of playing with Autio. “It’s like we had played together the last 15 years. He finds me on the ice wherever I’m at and I seem to find him.”
David Thompson will likely anchor the third pairing, as he did last season alongside Varley. Gadowsky rotated a pair of freshmen alongside Thompson during the Nittany Lions exhibition game against Queens (Ontario). Gadowsky plans to use the third pairing in a shutdown role and it will be his go-to pair for the penalty kill.
“If you have a great penalty killing pair, then I think it’s going to really benefit us,” Gadowsky said.
Incoming Freshman (and a Junior)
The Nittany Lions bring in just three new faces on defense this season, but each is likely to make an impact this season. Junior Trevor Hamilton joins the team after appearing for Miami (Ohio) from 2014-15.
Hamilton rounded out the top four by filling Juha’s spot next to Kerr against the Gaels. Hamilton did not post a point in the exhibition game, but did account for 10 of the team’s 50 shots, displaying the kind of offensive abilities he is capable of.
“When you talk about where we’re going with our program and what we have to do to get better, it’s with guys like Trevor Hamilton,” Gadowsky said. “We’ve talked about the importance of moving pucks, but you want to do both. You want guys that are gritty and tough but can move pucks and he’s a guy that fits in there.”
The two freshmen joining the defensive corps, James Gobetz and Kris Myllari, rotated alongside Thompson against the Gaels. Gadowsky plans to keep this pairing intact due to the defensive instincts of all three players.
What to Expect
The offensive abilities of the Nittany Lions’ top four defensemen led to plenty of scoring chances against the Gaels. Had Pedrie not missed the final six games of last season, he likely would have passed Juha as the team’s top scoring defenseman.
The top two pairs are almost identical, featuring a steady two-way presence (Autio and Kerr) and a more offensively talented force with a knack for shooting the puck (Pedrie and Hamilton). If the top four lives up to its potential, the Lions defense corps can become one of the best and most exciting in the Big Ten.
Having a shutdown pair is also a plus. While the Lions’ defense may help create many goals, it must also be able to help its goaltender to prevent goals. Thompson was one of the best at this for the Lions, and having him mentor Gobetz and Myllari on the ice can establish the third pairing as the shutdown pair for years to come.
Taking A Look At The Goalies
The two-goalie rotation has been Penn State’s go-to system since its move to Division I. It started with the rotation between P.J. Musico and Matthew Skoff and continued when Eamon McAdam joined the mix, becoming a three-goalie system during the 2013-14 season.
McAdam took over Musico’s spot after the latter graduated, forming perhaps the most formidable duo the Nittany Lions have had with Skoff during the 2014-15 season.
This season was due to be the first that Guy Gadowsky would have a clear No. 1 in McAdam. That plan changed when McAdam forwent his senior season of eligibility to sign an entry-level contract with the New York Islanders.
Now Gadowsky may face more uncertainty than ever in the sport’s most important position.
The Nittany Lions only returning goaltender has just 71 minutes of playing time over four career games, none of which he started. While his lack of playing time is concerning, Chris Funkey’s other numbers give the Lions some optimism.
Being a smaller goalie, standing at just 5-foot-10, Funkey is forced to rely on quickness and fast reflexes to stop pucks. Combined with the work Funkey put in over the off-season to improve his physical conditioning, his 1.69 goals-against average and .933 save percentage may not be inflated much with his expected heavier workload.
“I wanted to do everything I could to get in the best shape possible so that I’d be prepared for whatever comes this season,” Funkey said.
Peyton Jones expected his freshman season would include more learning about collegiate hockey than actually playing collegiate hockey. That said, he isn’t approaching the season any differently than if he was third-string behind McAdam and Funkey.
“[Funkey and I are] both battling hard for the starting job and I learn from him and he learns from me,” Jones said. “It’s kind of the same way I would have approached the season if Eamon was here.”
Had McAdam stuck around for his senior season, Jones would have had the opportunity to learn from a goaltender who has a similar size and playing style. McAdam stood at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, while Jones is an inch taller and weighs in at 210.
What to Expect
It’s almost certain that there will be some growing pains as Funkey and Jones adjust to college hockey. Both had success with their junior teams and Funkey showed flashes of brilliance in his brief playing time last season.
Experience often trumps potential at the position, and the Nittany Lions would likely be in a better position had McAdam returned.
Gadowsky explained that Jones was recruited and ultimately signed to be a starting goaltender, however, just not during his freshman season. It was anticipated that Jones would have a learning year this season and take over the starting job once McAdam graduated.
Instead, the Lions are forced back into a two-goalie system for the fifth time in five seasons of Division-I hockey. Gadowsky showed near the end of last season that he is willing to hand the reins over to whoever is playing better, however.
Gadowsky may not hesitate to stick to a consistent starter this season, especially if Jones displays the skills that made Gadowsky believe he would be the heir apparent to McAdam.