As we alluded to in our five questions Penn State needs to answer to be successful piece a few days ago, the playmaking ability of Andrew Sturtz, the program's all-time leading goal scorer who is now with the AHL club for the Ottawa Senators, is something that might not be truly replaceable.
He was the one who took over the reigns from the Nittany Lions' all-time leading points scorer David Goodwin a season ago, and now it's time for one of Sturtz's old teammates to commandeer that same responsibility. However, there isn't necessarily a clear-cut candidate to be that guy, at least not in the same way Sturtz was. The good news for Guy Gadowsky and the rest of Hockey Valley is that with the amount of talent in the forwards' room, they should be able to share the load when it comes to replacing the lost production.
It all starts with the newly-elected captain, senior Chase Berger. Berger may eventually be quarterbacking the Lions' top line (if Ludvig Larsson doesn’t stick there) but will play an incredibly important role regardless, especially if he continues to play alongside Denis Smirnov and Aarne Talvitie as he did in the team's exhibition. Outside of his role on the ice, he will be looked on as a leader and must be able to handle the pressure of being the guy his teammates always look to. How he balances that role with his role as a point-scorer and playmaker will go a long way to determining the success of the team.
"I think our depth up front is going to be the difference maker," Berger said. "We have a lot of experienced guys, and we have a lot of guys coming back. We need to get focused on what we want, and that's to win the Big Ten and a national championship. Even from practices and preseason to the regular season, we have to be sharp and focus on the main goal. If we do that, I like our chances."
If Penn State hopes to accomplish those goals, it will surely require continued steady play from mainstays in the lineup such as Brandon Biro (31 points in 2017-18) and Nate Sucese (29 points, 14 goals), but also some steps forward for a few of the team's projected top scorers: Smirnov, Evan Barratt, and Liam Folkes.
Smirnov, a Colorado Avalanche draft pick, is coming off a tough season that saw him contract mono, affecting his ability to mirror his explosive freshman year. He went from leading the Lions with 47 points (19 goals, 28 assists) in 2016-17, to not even hitting the 30-point mark a season later. If Smirnov can bounce back and hit or surpass the numbers he put up two years ago, it would go a long way towards replacing Sturtz's production.
Barratt, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, also missed some time with an undisclosed injury, hindering his cumulative point totals, but the performance he put on in the Lions' four-game rout of Minnesota at the end of the 2017-18 regular season proved he has all the offensive firepower he needs to shoot right to the top of Penn State's overall stat sheet. The kid is a bulldozer with a sniper rifle at the end of his stick and is a danger to all opposing team's defenses.
Folkes is someone fans have been waiting to see a true breakout from ever since his game-winning goal in overtime over Wisconsin to win the Big Ten championship. However, his sophomore season saw him plateau a bit, with only 23 points (13 goals, 10 assists). Getting that point total up to around 30 would boost this team's scoring depth immensely and would ease the burden on the bigger names. For Folkes's part, he understands that it will take a group effort to keep up the pace offensively.
"I think it's going to be tough for just one player to replace the scoring," he said. "It's going to come from every single player to replace just what (Sturtz) brought to the table. We don't have that many freshmen coming in, so with having a lot of more experienced players, we know what's ahead of us and what's going to come."
Folkes also shared a bit about the team's mentality heading into the new season, as compared to last year.
"I don't want to say we all took stuff for granted," Folkes said. "We all know we were a little too slow at the gate, and I think one of the reasons was that we won the Big Ten my freshman year, and we thought that since we won it, we were going to do it again, and it's going to be easy. But that's obviously not the case when it comes to college hockey. I think this year we're going to have a different perspective."
To help find that different perspective, Penn State has a few new names among the forward group that will have a great chance to make an impact: graduate transfer Ludvig Larsson and freshman Aarne Talvitie.
The Swedish-born Larsson has been lauded for his faceoff-winning abilities, and it would seem the hype is real with his placement on the top line in the Lions’ international exhibition game October 6. If he can win draws at a regular, consistent rate, there’s no question he’ll elevate the play of Biro and Sucese, and will have a great shot to remain with that duo all season long.
Talvitie, a sixth-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, is projected to be a force in all three zones, with all of his coaches boasting about his formidable 200-foot game. He's also coming off a silver medal placing by the Finnish national team, one that he captained, in the World Junior Championships this past year. Talvitie has the strength and skill to put up a freshman season similar to that of Sturtz and Smirnov, which would not only be great news for the team on the ice but a testament to Gadowsky's recruiting efforts. Currently paired with Smirnov and Berger, Talvitie could be in for a huge season, and his line could be one of the more productive ones on the team.
Overall, as Berger stated, the Nittany Lions have a brigade of talent up front this season (we didn't even touch on sneaky good sophomore Alex Limoges). With the number of scoring options available, the lines should stay relatively well-balanced, giving Penn State scoring opportunities all throughout the game each night. As long as the defense behind them can manage the blue line (more on them on Tuesday), this group certainly has the potential to keep the Lions a contender in the race for the Big Ten.