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A late spring analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Penn State hockey

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Where do the Nittany Lions stand heading into next hockey season?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After yet another expectation-shattering season, it's easy to be optimistic about Penn State hockey. And why not? Once again, the Nittany Lions improved upon their record from the previous season, held a ranked spot among the NCAA for most of the season, and was in contention for the top spot of the Big Ten conference until the last weeks of the year.

Yet, there feels like a point in the future where the team will have to stop climbing and take a step back, at least for a year or so. Gone are the last of the club hockey era players like Tommy Olczyk. Though new leaders like David Goodwin have emerged, Penn State has lost yet another considerable round of players heading into a new season.

Of course, I've said to expect much the same just last year. However, this season might be closer to that truth than ever.

Last year's offense proved that freshmen can make immediate impacts

One of the biggest concerns heading into last year would be how Penn State dealt with the loss of 41% of their offensive production due to leaving players. Hobey Baker hopefuls Casey Bailey and Taylor Holstrom finished their impressive careers on high notes while upstart freshman Scott Conway was dismissed from the team for reasons still unknown.

Losing two fifths of one's offense in three players usually signals a scoring recession; however, instead, the Nittany Lions found themselves with a better offensive output than any of their previous years in Division I. Penn State improved their goals per game from 3.22 to 3.68 and their average shots on goal from 39.2 to 41.6. Their team offense ranked tied for sixth best in the NCAA, and they did so with some big help from a pair of freshmen scorers.

Andrew Sturtz and Chase Berger both filled out the team's top five scorers, with freshmen campaigns of 27 and 26 points respectively. Sturtz led the team with 18 goals while Berger's 13 tied for second with Eric Scheid, Penn State's biggest offensive loss this season. Penn State will accrue about the same amount of offensive production lost as last season, yet most of it comes from depth players than their best scorers.

Goodwin, Sturtz, and Berger will all return next year, with Scheid's 28 points and Luke Juha's 24 the biggest hits. Yet, Penn State will keep their leading goal scorer from last year -- Sturtz -- and their best producer Goodwin, who had a career year of 38 points in 38 games.

Making up for the losses will be a core of six expected recruits to join the team next season, who all have had arguably better final seasons in juniors than Penn State's last crop of new players. Via eliteprospects.com:

Player (Position) Team (League) Games played in 2015-16 season Goals Assists Points
Liam Folkes (C) Brockville Braves (CCHL) 49 26 20 46
Blake Gober (F) Bloomington Thunder (USHL) 47 11 11 22
Sean Kohler (LW) St. Michael's Buzzers (OJHL) 52 22 21 43
Nikita Pavlychev (C) Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL) 58 9 13 22
Denis Smirnov (LW) Fargo Force (USHL) 60 29 32 61
Nathan Sucese (LW) Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL) 60 26 33 59

Of course, success at any new level is not secured even with past accomplishments, but the options the team has on offense far outnumber last year's group, and they got some pretty good production out of them.

A young defensive core might run into some growing pains

Alternate captain Juha was a big part of the Nittany Lions last year. His 24 points on the blue line will be hard to replace, and Penn State will have to look to junior Erik Autio and senior David Thompson to captain a young core of defensemen. Including four new expected newcomers, eight total defensemen out of 10 will be underclassmen for Penn State this year.

With the group of defensemen trending younger, much of the responsibility will fall on Autio and Thompson to carry the load. They had 15 and 7 points respectively last season, but their combined 72 blocks make them a solid defensive pair. Last year's freshmen Vince Pedrie and Kevin Kerr were a big part of Penn State's success on the back end and will likely get a boost in ice time to help ease the transition of the new blueliners. Pedrie and Kerr contributed 22 and 17 respective points as the best point-producing defensemen behind Juha.

Defensemen are much harder to predict, so it's completely possible the freshmen next season will mesh well with the system and plug the holes left by Juha and Connor Varley. As it stands, only two spots will need to be filled, potentially one with sophomore Derian Hamilton returning as well, so the pains might not hurt as much as they could. Though young, the Nittany Lions will have options to spare on trying to find the best combinations on the back end.

Goaltending will be the biggest test the Nittany Lions will face next year

With Matthew Skoff and Eamon McAdam exiting, Penn State will hand over the starting reins to sophomore Chris Funkey. We knew Skoff was bowing out at the end of the season, but McAdam's -- while well deserved after the season he had in net -- means that the Nittany Lions will go with a largely untested netminder with no reliable backup to fall upon.

Funkey played 71 total minutes last season, putting up a .933 save percentage and a 1.69 goals against while allowing two goals on 30 shots. His resume boasts some pretty great numbers at the USPHL Premier level, with a 2.10 goals against and .923 save percentage the average in 53 games played between his last two seasons there. Funkey has the makings of a really solid netminder for Penn State, but his short 5-foot-10 stature and lack of playing time at the college level give cause to uncertainty.

Joining Funkey will be Peyton Jones, a freshman who spent his last year in the USHL with the Lincoln Stars. Jones put up a 2.34 goals against and .922 save percentage in 35 games, again quite solid numbers for a goaltender in juniors. With two netminders largely untested in college, head coach Guy Gadowsky will face some interesting problems this season. Will he play Funkey as his No. 1, much like McAdam eventually earned the right near the end of last season? Or will he give the pair equal starts to both get them acclimated to the college climate and roll with that system if it works?

Depending on the outcome, goaltending might not necessarily be the weakest component of the Nittany Lions next year. Months out from the start of the season, however, it certainly seems like Penn State's most uncertain aspect for the first time in the program's new Division I history.