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Penn State Hockey Roster: The Upgrade Continues

The Lions will be losing a few players that have gained name recognition but will be adding its strongest recruiting class in program history.

Photo by Heather Weikel

The Penn State hockey season ended this past weekend and there are sure to be a great deal of roster moves in the coming weeks. Over the past couple of years, since the program began to have the normal ebb and flow of players coming and going that would be seen at established programs, the incoming roster for the upcoming season has been set by the end of May.

That should be the case this year as well but there will be a high volume of turnover. The team has four seniors on the roster and several players may move on for other reasons than running out of eligibility. Andrew Sturtz was the first player to sign a contract to play hockey following his time in State College. Sturtz would have turned twenty-four just before the start of his senior season. It was not a surprise that he moved on.

There could be a surprise or two, in terms of players leaving as underclassmen, as Vince Pedrie did last year. Pedrie left with two seasons of eligibility remaining but he would have been 23 years-old during his junior year had he come back. Additional players that are not listed in the Penn State recruiting pipeline may join the fold depending on the team’s needs and whether unexpected exits take place.

Denis Smirnov was initially expected to come to Hockey Valley three seasons ago for the 2015-16 season. His arrival was pushed back a year and one of the reasons given at the time was that Smirnov was very young for an incoming NCAA hockey freshman. He would have been just 18 years and two months old at the start of the season, which would have made him the youngest player in college hockey.

The age of the players that are coming to Penn State next season and leaving the team in the coming weeks is vital to understanding the evolution that Guy Gadowsky’s roster will soon undertake.

Younger Players Arriving At Hockey Valley

Outgoing senior Erik Autio was one of the first Penn State players to join the team at the age of 19, slightly below-average for an incoming NCAA freshman. Scott Conway, who only played one season with the Lions, was a few months older than Autio when the pair joined the team in 2014. It was a recruiting class of just three players, including this year’s captain James Robinson, but for the first time in program history all three players were legitimate, top-tier Division 1 prospects.

The 2015 class of recruits made an immediate impact for the team but many of the players were 20 years-old or older as freshman. Only Kevin Kerr was 19 at the start of the season. There is a higher chance that these players could move on before their eligibility runs out due to their age. There is no need to speculate which players may leave the program, as we will know once it is announced in the coming weeks. To keep things in perspective, Andrew Sturtz is a year older than Erik Autio.

The 2016 class was critical to Penn State becoming the type of team that made the NCAA tournament two seasons in a row, and has sights on moving up the ladder to the rung of teams that could compete for the national title annually. Many of the players in the class were slightly below-average age for an incoming NCAA hockey freshman. Denis Smirnnov, a Colorado Avalanche draft pick, Nikita Pavlychev, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Kris Myllari joined the list of players at Penn State to take the ice at the age of 19. Brett Murray, a Buffalo Sabres draft pick, and Brandon Biro became the youngest players, taking the ice at the age of 18.

In 2017 defenseman Cole Hults, a draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings, joined at the age of nineteen. Sam Sternschein was 19 as well. Evan Barratt, a Chicago Blackhawk draft pick, was just 18 at the start of the season.

If you’ve noticed many of the players that joined Penn State before their twentieth birthday have also been, or are likely to be, drafted or signed by NHL teams. Now take a look at the class of 2018. There are six players that will be under the age of twenty at the start off the season, with Paul Denaples just a month into his twentieth year. Evan Bell will be the oldest, by far, at age 21. Bell played five games with Merrimack last season before going back to the USHL and will have to sit out the first semester unless he gains his release from scholarship; he will have just a couple of years eligibility after next season.

Eleven players under the age of 20 prior to the class entering next season have played for the Lions in the six-year Division 1 history: Autio, Conway, Kerr, Smirnov, Pavlychev, Myllari, Biro, Murray, Hults, Sternschein and Barratt. Now the team will get six in one recruiting class and is expected to have 15 such players on the roster at one time.

The turn to younger, higher-rated prospects, indicates the increasing success that Guy Gadowsky has been able to achieve on the recruiting side of his responsibilities. It also is the news that those that are looking for the team to sustain and increase its recent national prominence should be eager to receive.


There are eight players set to arrive in State College this fall and only five that are currently announced as not returning. Four seniors plus Andrew Sturtz will move on. That means that it is likely that at least three additional players will decide to end their playing career at Penn State. Scanning the roster for simply age, there are a few older players on the list. Goalie Chris Funkey will turn 24 during what would be his senior season. Defenseman Derian Hamilton and forward Chase Berger will be 24 next season as well. Forwards Matt Mendelson and Alec Marsh are 23 year-old juniors. Blake Gober is a 23 year-old sophomore.

It is uncertain which players will stay but it should not be a surprise if there are a few more departures.

Age Isn’t Everything, But It’s Something

If the element of age was the only indicator of an incoming recruit’s talent, that would make the job of coaches around the country much easier. Clearly there are other variables involved in predicting a player’s skill. However, it is not a recent trend that a vast majority of the most talented NHL prospects that play college hockey tend to join prior to their twentieth birthday.

Penn State fans that are watching Guy Gadowsky build the program, and are hopeful for the days when the Lions’ roster can stack up with the likes of teams such as Denver should recognize the movement toward younger players as a step in the right direction. For example, Denver’s Troy Terry left for the NHL after three years of college hockey. Terry will not turn 21 until September. Henrik Borgstrom also left the Pioneers for the NHL following their loss to Ohio State; he is just 20 as well.

To compare the Lions’ roster to those at the very top of the NCAA mountain without taking age into consideration would be to miss the reason that the team is still trying to catch up to many of their adversaries. Penn State is now bringing in younger, more talented players with each class of recruits. The next step will be for the program to begin to have players that come to the team straight out of high school and then leave for the NHL prior to their twenty-first birthday. Once that happens on a regular basis, it will be on level ground with programs that are at the top-level of college hockey.