As the 2018-19 season ended, it was unclear what Penn State’s 2019-20 roster would look like. After finishing a win shy of their third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Nittany Lions could have faced significant turnover, with a few key players rumored to leave early for the professional ranks.
In the end, the only turnover the Nittany Lions faced came via graduation. In deciding whether to stay or go, those who could have left early returned, all with the same motivation — unfinished business.
“I don’t think we were very happy with where we ended up last year,” captain Brandon Biro said at the team’s first press conference of the season. “We’re very excited for this year. We’re going to come ready to go and not take anything for granted this year.”
This year’s senior class has known nothing but success at Penn State. They began their careers by winning the Big Ten Tournament in dramatic fashion, then made noise in their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Rather than taking the next step toward true contender status, difficult times have followed for the Nittany Lions.
Granted, those "difficult" times have included another NCAA Tournament appearance and Big Ten Tournament championship game appearance.
But the fact remains that Penn State has made success harder on itself than it should be.
While goals have certainly won the Nittany Lions plenty of games, their defense may be costing them shots at championships. Which is why coach Guy Gadowsky has emphasized that side of the puck during the offseason.
Gadowsky can only teach the lesson, however. From there, it’s up to the players to put it into practice and hold each other accountable.
“If you have excellent leadership and a culture of one that’s improving and is raising the standards and keeping each other accountable, I think that can happen,” he said. “The coaching staff feels really good about that culture in our locker room that we have right now.”
Potential Lineup Chart
Penn State will, once again, have no issue scoring. The Nittany Lions return 82 percent of the offense that set program records for goals (177), assists (301) and points (478).
Leading the charge, once again, will be the top trio of Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt and Liam Folkes. All three averaged over a point per game last season, with Limoges tying for the NCAA lead with 50 points.
It may not seem like the highest scoring trio in the NCAA would have much more room to improve, but they believe they will need to perform on a more consistent basis for the Nittany Lions to achieve their goals.
“They want to have a productive season, to say equally would be something, but have a productive season but have this team win at a higher level,” Gadowsky said of his top line’s mindset heading into the year. “I’m sure they would take a few more wins to make sure they make the tournament instead of a few more points.”
Barratt was, by his own admission, not 100 percent near the end of the season, having posted two-thirds of his 43 points before the turn of the calendar year.
Depth scoring will, once again, be prevalent for Penn State. With a pair of spots at center open after the departure of Chase Berger and Ludvig Larsson, Nate Sucese and Aarne Talvitie will slot into the position they have previously occupied.
Sucese will be flanked by a familiar linemate in Brandon Biro and Sam Sternschein, who will take on a scoring role after spending much of his time on the shutdown line.
Talvitie, in his return from a knee injury suffered midway through last season, should center fellow NHL draft picks Denis Smirnov and Kevin Wall. Smirnov will look to bounce back from a season riddled with injury and illness, while Wall will look to make an immediate impact as a freshman.
No matter the order in which they appear on the lineup sheet, those two lines will create matchup nightmares for opponents this season.
Nikita Pavlychev will continue to anchor the fourth line with plenty of wingers at his disposal. Senior Blake Gober will likely be the most utilized winger for Pavlychev, while the likes of Max Sauvé and Swiss Army Knife Adam Pilewicz will rotate in and out of the lineup as needed.
Penn State’s defense corps features a strong mix of players who will join the attack and can be relied on defensively. The former has gotten the Nittany Lions into trouble as they tend to allow far too many odd-man rushes for the opposition, often leaving goaltender Peyton Jones out to dry.
Gadowsky won't even think of hindering his defense corps' aggressive mindset, but has recognized the fault in that style and has made it his highest priority.
“We do know what our strengths are, and we’re very comfortale with that. We’re thrilled with it, in fact. We love playing that way. We believe you win that way,” Gadowsky said. “The approach is we have to add to do a better job defensively, starting with me. It’s something we’ve looked at in the summer and really gone over every aspect of how we can improve our defensive side of the game without sacrificing any of the offense.”
The problem isn't exactly defensemen joining the attack. It's more a matter of no one covering for that defenseman when the opposing team begins its counterattack.
That message appears to have been hammered home during the offseason, but it remains to be seen whether everyone will be more disciplined when the situation arises.
If the lesson has been learned, Jones will have a much easier time this season. If not, he’ll have plenty more frustrating evenings ahead of him.
There has already been plenty of hype surrounding the Nittany Lions before the first puck has dropped on the season. While the players and Gadowsky will argue the preseason stuff doesn’t matter, it’s still a fun exercise to see how wrong our predictions can be.
Penn State’s Performance: 23-9-2. This will be the year it comes together for Penn State. The offense will once again be lethal, and the defense will finally learn its lesson and help goalie Peyton Jones have his best statistical season. Consistency was a common mantra at the team’s first press conference and has been the most prominent issue facing the Nittany Lions the past few seasons. They will have to avoid their annual midseason slump and frantic late-season push for the postseason. Based on how hungry the players appeared at the first press conference, they should be just fine and have an NCAA Tournament spot locked up before the final week of the regular season.
Big Ten Standings:
- Penn State
- Notre Dame
- Ohio State
- Michigan State
Postseason Prediction: Penn State has the talent and motivation to make a legitimate run at not just a Frozen Four appearance, but also a National Championship. The Nittany Lions shouldn’t be in panic mode late in the season like they have been the past few years, so a subpar Big Ten Tournament performance similar to Ohio State last season is possible. After beating the Buckeyes in the semifinals last season, though, the Nittany Lions should understand the necessity to maintain their intensity no matter their comfort level. It helps that they’ve been playing their best hockey right around that time of year for the past few seasons. The Nittany Lions may not capture another Big Ten Tournament Title, but I see this as the year they make their first Frozen Four appearance.
Outlandish Prediction: Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges will finish 1-2 in NCAA scoring. This may not seem that crazy considering the Nittany Lions basically run a Big 12 football offense in Big Ten hockey. But with Evan Barratt back to 100 percent, Alex Limoges continuing to improve his game and still-somehow-overlooked Liam Folkes there to continue netting clutch goals, it isn’t a stretch to say the duo will find themselves near the top of the NCAA scoring charts again this season. I won’t be so bold as to say who will win the scoring race, but there will surely be some friendly competition between the two should this come to fruition.
Penn State’s Performance: 25-7-2. Seven losses may seem like a lot but in the Big Ten, you have to figure that there will be nights that don’t go the Lions’ way. It would be nice to think that Penn State could expect to do better, but it is tough to travel to places like Minnesota, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Not to mention Wisconsin’s fans should finally have a good team to cheer for, and Michigan is always a tough place to play as well. If the Lions can get through the non-conference schedule with just one loss, it should be able to get to 25 wins.
Big Ten Standings:
- Penn State
- Notre Dame
- Ohio State
- Michigan State
Postseason Prediction: This should be the year that the Lions finally play well enough during the regular season to take care of games that they are favored to win. There have been a handful of games in the past that Penn State have let slip through their hands. With a veteran group of players, they understand that one more win last year could have been enough for a third straight NCAA trip. This year is the final season for the seniors and likely a couple of the younger players who do well this season and leave with eligibility remaining. I think the team will do enough to qualify for a return to Allentown for the Midwest Regional, from there it is hard to say. They should have the horses to run the table but just one tough game along the way could send them home earlier. It would be great to see the team win two in the regional, to qualify for the Frozen Four. The fan base would have a chance to demonstrate how Penn State travels to events of that magnitude.
Outlandish Prediction: I’m not a big prediction kind of guy. There are a lot of great teams in the Big Ten. Just a couple of seasons ago, Minnesota looked like they were a lock for the tournament. Then the Gophers missed the big dance by one spot, much like the Lions did last year, and a team that could have made a run in the NCAA tournament watched from home and the coach was fired. There’s a lot of season to be played. My outlandish prediction is that the Lions will be a top-10 team for the entire season. It may take a couple of weeks for the polls, which mean nothing in the end, to slot the Lions a few spots lower than the 13 ranking that they currently have. The PairWise rankings are the only measurement that matters, and by January I bet Penn State will be inside the top-10 and will stay there until the end of the season. With a ranking that high, the Lions should be in the running for a National Championship at the start of the NCAA Tournament.