Is this the best roster Guy Gadowsky has had at Penn State?
We’ve asked that question prior to every season the past few years, it seems. In the past three seasons, the Nittany Lions have been to two Big Ten Tournament championship games, winning one, and made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, with a third just slipping out of reach last season.
No longer the “new kids on the block,” that level of success would make any coach, player or fan happy just seven years into a program’s history.
And yet, for three seasons now, it has felt as though Penn State still could have done more.
With the returning talent Gadowsky will have at his disposal, this could finally be that season.
After falling to Notre Dame in the Big Ten Tournament championship game last season, no one was quite sure what the offseason would bring for Penn State. There was plenty of speculation that some key performers would leave early for the pros, with the likes of starting goalie Peyton Jones and top line of Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt and Liam Folkes topping the list.
While Barratt’s game-breaking ability has brought him cult hero status at times and that line was perhaps the most dominant at its peak, Jones’ early departure would have been the most impactful. Though he has been inconsistent at times, the goaltending duties would have fallen to Oskar Autio and would-be incoming freshman Liam Soulière, with all of one career start in college between them.
Instead, Gadowsky has the most experienced starter in Penn State history back, allowing Autio to further adjust to college hockey and Soulière to hone his already highly touted craft with Victoria of the BCHL.
Jones, meanwhile, will put his program records even further out of reach and build a case for his potential as a professional.
While Penn State would surely miss the kind of spark Limoges, Barratt and Folkes can provide — especially against Wisconsin — the Nittany Lions would not lack in production without the three-headed monster.
The driving force behind Penn State’s success has been its depth scoring. Before Aarne Talvitie was injured midway through the season, the Nittany Lions had virtually four scoring lines. The New Jersey Devils’ draft pick was just under a point-per-game while playing fourth-line minutes. Were it not for that knee injury suffered in the gold medal game of the World Junior Championships, Talvitie would have also been a contender to leave early.
With Gadowsky intent on shifting Talvitie to center — his natural position — this season, the sophomore’s impact on the game should take another step forward.
Senior Nikita Pavlychev will once again fill the fourth-line center role. After doubling his career point total last season, he should still be expected to chip in offensively, but will likely regress back closer to the respective 13 and 14 points he had as a freshman and sophomore.
Talvitie’s position change fills one of the two spots available down the middle following the departure of Chase Berger and Ludvig Larsson. Nate Sucese may also return to the position at which he started his Penn State career.
Sucese played on Larsson’s wing opposite Denis Smirnov for much of last season. Prior to that, he occupied the center role alongside Smirnov and Brandon Biro. Gadowsky may look to reignite that synergy as he forms his lineup this season.
Synergy shouldn’t be an issue on the blue line, as the Nittany Lions will only need to replace Kevin Kerr and Derian Hamilton. Kerr was a solid puck-moving defenseman when healthy, while Hamilton was in and out of the lineup during his time at Penn State.
Cole Hults — another strong candidate to depart early — and Paul DeNaples will form the top pairing, with DeNaples defensive reliability allowing Hults to push the pace of the game and join the attack, while Kris Myllari, James Gobetz, Evan Bell and Alex Stevens will make up the other two pairings.
Myllari and Gobetz have spent time together as Gadowsky’s shutdown pair. However, with Bell being more offensively-inclined and Stevens still working on his defensive game, it may be smarter for Gadowsky to pair one of the former with one of the latter.
No matter what lineup Gadowsky ultimately settles on, the Nittany Lions will have a strong blend of returning talent with an injection of youth that may carry the team to its first Frozen Four in program history.