After making its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Penn State returns to action Saturday afternoon for the first time since falling to Denver in the Midwest Regional. Much has changed for the Nittany Lions during the offseason. Gone are the program’s all-time leading goal scorer and one of the most reliable defensemen to don the blue and white.
With the season just days away, let’s take a look at how the team will shake up, starting at the blue line.
While the most significant individual loss of the offseason came up front with Andrew Sturtz heading to the pros, Penn State’s defense corps may be the most impacted by the offseason changes.
The Nittany Lions lost a pair of top-four defensemen in Trevor Hamilton and Erik Autio. Hamilton led the team in scoring from the blue line and could spark the team with a monstrous open-ice hit, while Autio was one of the team’s most reliable players during his four years in the blue and white.
The Nittany Lions will have to find a new anchor for the defense, and should look to one of its youngest members.
After being selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by Los Angeles, Cole Hults arrived at Penn State and immediately assumed the role left by Vince Pedrie on the Lions’ top pairing.
Although he hasn’t displayed the same explosiveness on offense that Pedrie brought, Hults showed an impressive patience with the puck and seldom made the wrong decision when moving the puck up the ice, much like what Autio brought to the ice. At 6-foot-2 and a shade under 200 pounds, Hults was also a rock in the Lions’ own zone, able to shut down opposing attacks and making it look easy.
While Gadowsky would surely like to see more production from Hults, the sophomore shouldn’t adjust his game too much and risk forfeiting defensive reliability. Aggressive play from defensemen has become a staple of Penn State’s brand, but it has also come back to bite the Lions the past couple seasons, as the team has given up far more odd-man rushes than Gadowsky cares to see.
Although he has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, Kevin Kerr will also be called upon to anchor the defense. Named an alternate captain to Chase Berger during the offseason, Kerr plays a similar but less physical style to Hults.
The senior is patient with the puck and has extraordinary hockey sense. Health will be a concern, however, as Kerr has played just 45 games the past two seasons. When he has been on the ice, he has been one of the Nittany Lions’ best, totaling 25 points and a plus-10 rating in those 45 games.
After breaking out when Kerr was first injured two seasons ago, Kris Myllari and his cannon of a slap shot should have a top-four spot secured. If not, he and James Gobetz will likely form the third pairing for Gadowsky.
One player who may push Myllari for that top-four spot is sophomore Alex Stevens. Transfer Evan Bell — who won’t be eligible to play until Spring semester — should also find time among the top six once he is officially eligible to play.
After capping off his freshman season with a remarkable performance in the Big Ten Tournament, Peyton Jones failed to carry the momentum into his second season in Hockey Valley.
While Jones’ save percentage slightly increased, he allowed nearly half a goal per game more during his sophomore season. While Penn State’s defense corps didn’t provide the best support and would fall victim to many an odd-man rush, Jones developed a penchant for giving up soft goals and would at times overplay opposing shots or passes and be caught far out of position.
Occasionally, the junior goalkeeper’s supreme athleticism could bail him out of trouble, but more often than not his aggressive style provided the opposition with an unguarded look at a gaping net.
To his credit, some of Jones’ best performances last season came against some of the Nittany Lions’ toughest competition, including a pair of one-goal defeats to conference powerhouse Notre Dame.
For Jones to bounce back and lead the Nittany Lions to a deep run in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament, much of the onus will need to be on him to be more conservative — or at least not quite as aggressive — in net and trust that his 6-foot-4 can do much of the work for him.
Should Jones falter, Gadowsky will have two capable backups — each at different stages of their respective careers — at his disposal.
Senior Chris Funkey has seen limited action during his time as a Nittany Lion. He made four relief appearances as a freshman behind Eamon McAdam and Matthew Skoff and has started just six games the past two seasons. He has posted solid numbers in that limited action, however, with a 2.30 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.
Funkey’s playing time this season will likely be limited once again to relief appearances and to give Jones some rest throughout the season.
The Nittany Lions’ third-string netminder, meanwhile, will hope to carry on a legacy that began at a different position.
Oskar Autio, younger brother of recent graduate and defenseman Erik, joins the Lions after spending a season in the USHL with the Chicago Steel. After honing his craft in his native-Finland’s Espoo Blues system, Autio posted a 2.90 GAA and .904 SV% in 39 games with the Steel.
While his playing time may be even more limited than Funkey, Gadowsky may also use Autio in the same manner he used Funkey when he was a freshman, coming on in relief of the starting netminder.