Through the first four seasons of Division-I play for Penn State, Guy Gadowsky’s team was overwhelmingly led by its veterans. The likes of Casey Bailey, Patrick Koudys and David Glen (not to mention the seemingly eternal upperclassman Tommy Olczyk) formed the core of a program establishing itself in the college hockey world.
This season, however, marked the beginning of a new era. The leadership group was no longer reserved for the Nittany Lions’ juniors and seniors, but welcomed players of all eligibility to the mix.
The groundwork for this shift was set during the 2015-16 season, when then-freshmen Andrew Sturtz and Chase Berger helped lead the offensive charge and Vince Pedrie and Kevin Kerr anchored the defense corps.
That impressive freshman class was followed up by a historic one last season, as Denis Smirnov led all first-year NCAA players with 47 points and Peyton Jones put forth a strong performance between the pipes. The rising sophomores put on a show that will be tough to follow for what should still be an impressive class of 2021.
Kris Myllari: B+; (38 GP, 8-9—17); After spending the first half of the season on the shutdown pair, Myllari emerged as a legitimate top-four threat after filling Kevin Kerr’s spot alongside Trevor Hamilton. His booming slap shot caused trouble for opposing netminders, while his defensive prowess limited chances against Peyton Jones and Chris Funkey. Areas for Improvement: Consistency may be Myllari’s biggest concern. His poor performances were few and far between, but they were glaring, including a minus-5 against Wisconsin on March 3 and a minus-3 against Denver in the Midwest Regional Final.
James Gobetz: C+; (21 GP, 1-0—1); Gobetz’s ice time was limited to the third defense pairing as he replaced Kris Myllari following the injury to Kevin Kerr. Alongside David Thompson, the two rarely faced off against the opponent’s top players and saw more penalty kill time than power play time. Areas for Improvement: Gobetz was solid during his limited playing time, but was caught out of position too often in that time. He will have to work on his speed and awareness during the offseason. Improving his breakout passes should be a focus as well, as it can help limit time spent in the defensive zone and cut back on potential defensive lapses.
Brandon Biro: B; (39 GP, 6-14—20); Biro was one of Penn State’s most improved players over the course of the season. One of the nation’s youngest players, it took a while for Biro to get used to the higher level of competition. Biro’s performance improved greatly after joining fellow freshman Liam Folkes and Dylan Richard on one of the nation’s best fourth lines. Areas for Improvement: Biro performed at his best when his role and ice time was limited. He may have to take on a larger role on the top three lines next season, where he seldom appeared confident during the first half of last season. Building his confidence to take on that larger role should be at the top of Biro’s offseason list.
Nikita Pavlychev: B-; (36 GP, 6-7-13); Penn State’s most physically imposing player served as the perfect shutdown center for the Nittany Lions. Pavlychev’s line with Ricky DeRosa and James Robinson were regularly matched up against the opponents’ top lines, limiting their opportunities while occasionally chipping in offensively. Areas for Improvement: Much of Pavlychev’s offensive production came via special teams, where he had two power play goals and two shorthanded goals. While his shutdown role hinders his chances on offense, more production at 5-on-5 would give the Nittany Lions a boost from the third line and give the team four lines capable of scoring.
Nate Sucese: B+; (38 GP, 17-19—36); Fun Fact: From Feb. 10 through the end of the season, Sucese tied for third in the nation (among everyone, not just freshmen) in points with 20 on nine goals and 11 assists. Sucese racked up those points after returning to his natural position, centering a line with David Goodwin and Denis Smirnov. Areas for Improvement: Not much, really. While few aspects of his game were exceptional, Sucese’s performance as a whole was solid. Staying in the No. 2 center spot behind Chase Berger should bring more success for Sucese, who, like many other freshmen, may only need to work on gaining strength to keep up with a higher level of competition.
Sean Kohler: C; (2 GP, 0-1—1); Kohler cracked the lineup just twice during his freshman campaign, but did record an assist in a 6-3 victory over Alaska-Anchorage. Areas for Improvement: With limited playing time, it’s difficult to pinpoint where Kohler’s strengths and weaknesses are at the collegiate level. He was a 20-goal scorer in his final season in the Ontario Junior Hockey League before coming to Penn State, so the offensive abilities are there. At 175 pounds, Kohler may need to bulk up to earn a more permanent spot in the lineup.
Brett Murray: C+; (12 GP, 0-1—1); Unlike his fellow freshmen who had the non-conference schedule to adjust to college hockey, Murray was inserted into the lineup as Big Ten play was getting started. He picked up an assist in his first game, but failed to register a point as he went in and out of the lineup. Areas for Improvement: Murray has all the tools to be a gifted power forward, but didn’t show that potential in his limited action this season. His positioning was off and he often seemed a step behind the play. Getting more comfortable with his 6-foot-5, 222-pound frame and working on his hockey IQ should top Murray’s list this offseason.
Blake Gober: B-; (16 GP, 1-5—6); Gober’s playing time was limited throughout the season as he was typically slotted as a bottom-six winger. He was thrust into a top-line role in the NCAA Tournament, however, after Alec Marsh was injured during the Big Ten Tournament and performed admirably alongside Chase Berger and Andrew Sturtz, picking up an assist in Tournament games against Union and Denver. Areas for Improvement: Gober can gain playing time next season by filling a role on the shut-down line. It’s likely that at least a couple of freshmen will leapfrog him in to the top lines due to their advanced skills. He showed the willingness to do the little things this season and if he turns his focus into becoming the next Dylan Richard, he could find himself in the regular rotation.
Denis Smirnov: A; (39 GP, 19-28—47); With respect to Peyton Jones, Smirnov was Penn State’s most impressive freshman this past season, topping the NCAA in points by a first-year player. Areas for Improvement: Smirnov has elite vision and playmaking abilities. His stickhandling is off the charts and his hockey IQ might be the best the Nittany Lions have ever seen. The only concern is his size. Big Ten opponents were able to push the 5-foot-10 Russian around, leading to a 9-game stretch where he scored just two points. He returned to his point-per-game ways afterward, showing he can overcome the bumps and bruises of the typical hockey season and still maintain a high level of play.
Liam Folkes: A-; (27 GP, 6-7—13); It took a while for Folkes to find his groove, but he did so at the most opportune moment, becoming a folk hero (pun intended) in scoring half of his six goals during the Big Ten Tournament, including both of Penn State’s goals in the Championship game. Areas for Improvement: Folkes excelled on the fourth line with Brandon Biro and Dylan Richard, where he rarely played against the opponents’ top players. But, much like Biro, may find himself with an expanded role on one of the top three lines next season. Bulking up and building confidence will be key for both rising sophomores.
Peyton Jones: A; (23-10-2, 2.60 GAA, .904 SV%); After a strong start to his first collegiate season, Jones hit a rough stretch during Big Ten play, but was virtually lights out during the Big Ten Tournament. He should carry that confidence into his second year between the pipes for the Nittany Lions. Areas for Improvement: There weren’t many holes in Jones’ game. He was rarely caught out of position and often had impeccable rebound control. Near the end of the season, opponents began to expose his weakest trait: his glove hand. Working on a quicker reaction and better positioning with the trapper will be Jones’ biggest test this offseason. Occasionally, Jones would also become rattled by a soft goal, a common problem for young goalies. Improving the mental aspect of his game should also be an area of focus for Jones.
The Incoming Freshmen
Evan Barratt: B+; (59 GP, 18-36—54); Barratt should make plenty of Penn State fans excited. The first player to come directly from the U.S. National Team Development Program posted nearly a point per game in his final season with the team and is tied for 10th in scoring at the U18 Men’s World Championship. Areas for Improvement: Barratt’s offensive prowess should carry over to college hockey and his two-way game is strong. Perhaps his only flaw is the edge he brings to his game, which resulted in 70 penalty minutes this season. He will have to play a smarter game to keep the Lions out of penalty trouble and maximize the time he spends on the ice and out of the penalty box.
Alex Limoges: B+; (55 GP, 22-34—56); Much like Barratt, Limoges is dynamic offensively and isn’t afraid to get to the front of the net. While Barratt may get the first crack at top-line minutes, Limoges should be right behind him among Penn State’s top two or three lines. Areas for Improvement: While Limoges’ penchant for parking himself in front of the net is ideal for Penn State’s power play, he may need to work on his speed to keep up with a faster pace of play in college hockey.
Sam Sternschein: C+; (58 GP, 21-13—34); Sternschein bounced around the USHL for a couple years before finding a home with Cedar Rapids early last season. After posting just seven goals and eight assists in 65 previous games, Sternschein had 20 goals and 12 assists in 45 games with the RoughRiders. Areas for Improvement: Sternschein has a powerful shot and moves well despite his 6-foot-2 frame. He flashed his offensive abilities with the RoughRiders, but could still use work on his two-way game. The Syosset, NY native finished with an even rating in 110 USHL games.
Cole Hults: B; (59 GP, 6-26—32); Hults committed to Penn State just two days after Vince Pedrie left the team early to embark on a professional career. Hults, who plays a similar style to Pedrie, will likely fill Pedrie’s spot among the Nittany Lions’ top four. Areas for Improvement: While Hults should bring a dynamic offensive talent to Penn State, his defensive game will certainly need work. Despite his 32 points, he finished the season a minus-24, the worst rating on his team. Sheltering Hults alongside a stable defender like Kevin Kerr should allow Hults to continue his offensive exploits as he works on his defensive game.
Alex Stevens: C+; (57 GP, 6-19—25); Like Sternschein, Stevens bounced around the USHL before settling in Dubuque after playing most of the past two seasons with Sioux Falls. Areas for Improvement: Stevens started to come into his own on offense last season with 25 points. His defensive game may have taken a hit in pursuit of offense, as he finished the season a minus-18. It appeared to improve following a late-season trade to Dubuque, where he went plus-4 in 14 games.
Adam Pilewicz: (56 GP, 4-23—27); Pilewicz rounds out a group of incoming defensemen with two-way abilities. With few roster spots available, Pilewicz may be limited to third-pairing minutes alongside James Gobetz or Derian Hamilton. Areas for Improvement: At 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds, Pilewicz should be able to adjust to college hockey more quickly than Hults or Stevens, who both weigh in at 185 pounds. Pilewicz may lack the speed of his fellow defensemen, however, so a priority should be placed on his skating during the summer.