Few coaches are facing as difficult a task as Guy Gadowsky.
After guiding Penn State to its first Big Ten regular season title last season, the Nittany Lions’ title defense begins Thursday night against Minnesota. That challenge is made steeper after a nearly unprecedented level of roster turnover.
Eleven players from last year’s roster have departed. Nine left via graduation. Two more — Evan Barratt and Cole Hults — left early for the pros.
Nearly every member of that departing group was an impact player last season.
“We’ve lost a lot of great players, and a lot of great leadership, but I think that when they do vacate, someone fills that in,” Gadowsky said. “There’s going to be guys that we feel great about that are now going to be given more opportunity than they had in the past.”
In total, the Nittany Lions have lost 69 goals and 198 points, more than 57 percent of their output last season. The names may have changed, but Gadowsky’s mindset hasn’t.
“You’re not going to see, as far as identity or how we play, we’re not changing. We feel very good about the guys over here,” he said. “So, no, we’re not changing how we do things.”
The Nittany Lions have been hit especially hard up front, having lost six of last season’s top eight scorers.
Only two returning players had double digits in goals.
Just one topped 20 points.
Penn State’s Returning Production
A majority of that lost production comes from the top two units, consisting of Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt and Liam Folkes on one line and Brandon Biro, Nate Sucese and Aarne Talvitie on the other. Combined, those two lines produced 61 goals and 173 points.
Folkes, Biro and Sucese have since graduated, while Barratt left early to join the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Those four accounted for 44 goals and 122 points.
This is not to say the incoming class of forwards can’t make up this production. It is a lofty task, but there is promise.
Tim Doherty, a graduate transfer from Maine, will be expected to make an immediate impact. Penn State’s history with grad transfers from Hockey East programs sets a hopeful precedent for Doherty.
Ludvig Larsson arrived at Penn State via Merrimack for the 2018-19 season and became one of Penn State’s more dependable faceoff men and a solid point producer. Doherty is cut from the same cloth.
His 37 points and 54.4 faceoff winning percentage last season both would have ranked second on Penn State. Should history repeat, Doherty may quickly become Penn State’s No. 1 center.
Others in the returning cast will see their roles expanded from last season. The trio of Tyler Gratton, Connor MacEachern and Connor McMenamin caused many an issue for opposing teams from their fourth line role. While they combined for just 10 goals, their tenacity on the forecheck is what set them apart from other lines.
Sam Sternschein has flown under the radar during his time at Penn State, but has long been one of Gadowsky’s favorites. He has developed into an effective power forward and tied for the team lead with 12 goals last year. The alleged leader in “goals per minutes played,” as Gadowsky asserts, Sternschein should reach or even exceed that total this year with more playing time.
In his preseason press conference, Gadowsky explained that he will likely shake up the lines on a regular basis. This could be a blessing and a curse for this year’s freshman class. While Nashville Predators draftee Chase McLane may get a longer look than others, the rest of the freshman class may be fighting for a limited role in the lineup.
Projected Lineup: Forwards
Much like up front, Penn State has been drastically affected by departures on the blue line.
Half of last season’s top six is gone. In addition to losing the anchor of the defense in Cole Hults, veteran stalwarts Kris Myllari and James Gobetz have graduated.
Unlike up front, however, this group remains an experienced, veteran-laden one.
Hults and Paul DeNaples formed a perfect partnership in their two seasons spent together. DeNaples’ more stay-at-home nature allowed Hults to take more offensive liberties. To keep that dynamic going, the more offensively inclined Clayton Phillips or Evan Bell would be a natural fit alongside DeNaples.
Beyond DeNaples, Gadowsky’s right-shot options are limited, to put it kindly. Senior Alex Stevens has shown flashes of top-tier potential over the past two seasons. Freshman Jimmy Dowd Jr. may get significant playing time, if only by default. He and Adam Pilewicz are Gadowsky’s only other right-handed options, though Pilewicz lines up as a forward more often than a defenseman.
The Peyton Jones era in Hockey Valley has come to an end. During his four-year stint as starter, Jones set virtually every major goaltending record for the Nittany Lions.
Now, Penn State will go into this strange season with a trio of goalies with a combined eight appearances under their belt.
Those eight appearances, though, all belong to the same goaltender.
Oskar Autio enters his junior year as the frontrunner to win the starting job, partially by default and partially by his abilities. He appeared in three games as a freshman and five more as a sophomore, posting a 1.87 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in the latter.
His closest competitor for the starting gig will be incoming freshman Liam Soulière. After committing two years ago, Soulière had the opportunity to join the team last season. After Jones returned for his senior year, Soulière returned to junior hockey for one more season.
Projected Lineup: Defensemen/Goaltenders