A laundry list of question marks surrounds this year's version of the No.16 Penn State Nittany Lions. With major departures via Andrew Sturtz, Trevor Hamilton, and James Robinson, three of the team's notable leaders both on the ice and in the locker room, how the team goes about filling those gaps will likely go a long way in determining how they navigate a tough schedule in 2018.
With all that considered, we narrowed it down to five, key questions that Penn State will need quick answers to in order to stay on track early in the season. If they can find those answers, it could allow a team bursting at the seam with talent to put up a solid performance. If not, the Lions could be in danger of falling to the bottom of a loaded Big Ten conference.
1. Piecing the blue line back together has to be priority No. 1. Who will replace Trevor Hamilton (and Erik Autio), and will the defense be able to hold up in conference play?
Penn State's best and most effective defenseman Trevor Hamilton was lost to graduation after last season's end. He went on to ink a deal with the Detroit Red Wings' AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Hamilton collected 29 points (six goals, 23 assists) in his senior season, and was a great puck mover who played with a ton of aggression. He topped all defensemen in points accrued and goals scored, and could always be relied on to lay a huge hit to tip the momentum back in favor of Penn State if needed.
Penn State also lost Erik Autio and Brett Murray (the latter wasn't very useful), leaving the blue line limping into the season opener. Cole Hults has an opportunity to slot into Hamilton's offensive-defenseman role. He put up 20 points (three goals, 17 assists) last season and drove play in the attacking zone. When Hults was on the ice, the Lions were nearly always a threat to score. The 66 blocks he contributed didn't hurt either. I'd also like to see Kris Myllari step into a bigger role. He's shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but the team will need him to take the next step in 2018.
With all of the offensive firepower elsewhere in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lion defense will have to play better than they look on paper in order to keep up in the conference.
2. Every year, Penn State’s incoming freshman class seems to be even more talented than the last. Which newcomer will have a breakout performance?
It's New Jersey Devils' prospect Aarne Talvitie, and it isn't much of a competition. Here's an excerpt from our signing day article, showcasing Talvitie's elite talents:
Gadowsky dipped into the Finnish city of Espoo once again with Talvitie, a 2017 sixth-round draft pick (160th overall) of the New Jersey Devils. The 19-year-old has spent most of his hockey career in Finland, playing with the Espoo Blues in the A SM-liiga junior league for the past three seasons. In the 2017-18 season, Talvitie registered 59 total points (35 goals, 24 assists). The Finn also captained his country's team in the World Championships, where they earned the silver medal. Talvitie notched four goals and three assists in seven games played in that tournament.
Gadowsky complimented Talvitie's 200-foot game, his strong work in all three zones, and his talented offensive ability. He also mentioned his plethora of international experience. He'll be a great asset in Penn State's opponent's zone and has the opportunity to step up and fill some much-needed scoring roles. Fans should be licking their chops for this kid. Talvitie has the potential to etch his name alongside the ridiculous freshman years of Sturtz and Smirnov.
3. Andrew Sturtz is gone, and the team is already missing his electric personality and play. Which returning player needs to step up on offense to make up for the playmaking ability that now resides in Belleville?
Newly-named captain Chase Berger is the first name that comes to mind, not only as someone who could light up the scoresheet, but also replace the leadership presence of James Robinson. The good news here is that Berger doesn't have to necessarily do anything he's incapable of; he simply needs to return to his goal-scoring ways of the 2016-17 season. Let's review some of that scoring prowess:
Positioning himself in the perfect spot right out in front of the goaltender to gobble up any potential rebounds and wrist them home:
Being aggressive with his forecheck in the defensive zone, sprinting to pick up a loose puck up ice from a bad pass by the opposing team, grabbing his own rebound after one big scoring chance, and pushing it through to solidify the breakaway:
Setting up in perfect position in the attacking zone to receive passes off the faceoff, as well as staying put in a threatening position to welcome a pass back before ripping it on net from the tip of the circle.
Sturtz was an absolute warhorse that kept chugging and chugging without an end in sight. Though Berger doesn't possess the same Energizer Bunny-esque play style, he must produce regularly and commandingly as a senior for this young and gifted team. Berger only had 27 points to Sturtz's 40, and being sub-30 as a leader on a team inside the Big Ten won't cut it.
As runners-up, I'd love to see Denis Smirnov have a bounce-back season, and Evan Barratt continue to fire on all cylinders exactly like the way he ended the regular season in the Lions' four, consecutive game routing of Minnesota last year.
4. Will Peyton Jones put together a complete season and give Cale Morris a fight for the top goaltender honors in the Big Ten, or will we see more of the same underwhelming performances from him?
Peyton Jones’s college career has been strange, to say the least. He was unbeatable during the Big Ten Tournament in Detroit two seasons ago – in which the Lions earned the title of conference champions – but had some weak moments last season and wasn’t quite as good as he could have been.
As evidence, Jones only sported a .905 save percentage last season, giving him a 17-13-4 overall starting record, and a disappointing goals against average of 3.03 per game. Those are hardly the kind of stats you want your No. 1 goalie giving you night-in and night-out, even in the high-scoring environment of college hockey.
Flip over to Hobey Baker nominee Cale Morris, goaltender for Notre Dame, and you'll see numbers that are unbelievable. This kid had a .944 save percentage last season, a 27-8-1 record, and allowed less than two goals in a game. Less than two. In the Big Ten! That's absolutely disgusting. Jones has to shift into a higher gear this season, but with a weaker defense in front of him, and some of the best snipers and playmakers in all of Division I hockey in his conference. Well...let's just say I'm not optimistic. Don't be surprised if he splits starts with Oskar Autio to start during out-of-conference play, giving fans a goalie battle as Penn State inches closer to its Big Ten slate.
5. The Big Ten is going to be extremely good this season. Will Penn State be able to fight for top dog honors and go dancing in Allentown again?
They'll need about a million things to go their way if the Lions want any sort of shot at a conference championship. In the Big Ten preseason ranking, the Lions came in fourth out of six teams. No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan, and No. 13 Minnesota are all listed ahead of them. Penn State's tangible statistics, roster, and depth are once again playing the little brother role to its conference opponents this season, and with Notre Dame coming off of second place honors in all of college hockey in last year's Frozen Four tournament, it's going to be an extremely tough, uphill battle to try to rise through the Big Ten's ranks.
However, Penn State has been in this position before. If the team can answer the first four questions on this list successfully, then the Big Ten becomes a much less threatening proposition.