Just one last time, for old times’ sake:
(Trigger Warning for any Minnesota fans that may have found their way here)
That felt good.
But unfortunately, Trevor Hamilton and Erik Autio have gone and used up all their NCAA eligibility and can’t help Penn State anymore. This year’s defense will rely on the valuable returning experience of Cole Hults, Kevin Kerr, Kris Myllari, and James Gobetz while also mixing in freshman Paul DeNaples, transfer Evan Bell, and depth players like Derian Hamilton, Alex Stevens, and Adam Pilewicz.
Cole Hults posted a very solid freshman year in 2017 and looks poised to take another step forward in 2018. His 20 points (three goals, 17 assists) in 38 games was good for seventh among Big Ten defenseman last season. Vince Pedrie had a very similar freshman year with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) over 32 games and was able to make a jump to 30 points (eight goals, 22 assists) in 39 games as a sophomore. The comparison between the two has been made quite a few times since Hults stepped on campus. Although their playing styles are slightly different (Hults takes fewer risks that cause my heart rate to jump through the roof), Penn State will be counting on him to make a similar jump from good to great this season. Guy Gadowsky sang the praises of Hults on Preseason Media Day saying that his game is extremely reliable and mature and that he just needs to continue to take the incremental steps to make his game better.
Alternate captain, senior Kevin Kerr, needs to play the entire season – something he has not been able to do since his freshman year – if Penn State is going to compete for the chance to host the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and subsequently be in the conversation for the big dance. There isn’t a player in Penn State’s young hockey history that has had worse injury luck than Kerr, but when he has been healthy his offensive output has been decent (25 points in 45 games) and he’s been reliable in the defensive zone. This year more than ever, the defense needs their most experienced player to be on the ice for the big moments during conference play.
Kris Myllari is another key returning defenseman that is sure to log heavy minutes this season. He’s coming off a 14-point season (five goals, nine assists) but could be in line to spend more time on the power play with Trevor Hamilton gone. That should give him the chance to fully unleash what has to be the hardest shot on the team. Although his shot is a force to be reckoned with, his defensive game lapsed last year as compared to his freshman year. There were times when his feet were slow, and he was caught out of position back in his own zone. If Myllari is to take another step forward in his development, he will need to be stronger and quicker in the defensive zone.
James Gobetz was a pleasant surprise last season, and he’ll be counted on to start games this season, especially if Kerr is bitten by the injury bug again. Evan Bell, a transfer from Merrimack, will sure to be a factor in the top-six but isn’t eligible to step onto the ice until the spring semester. He will be jumping in during the middle of conference play, and hopefully, that jump will be seamless. Some combination of Derian Hamilton, Alex Stevens, and Adam Pilewicz will also see time this season. Hamilton has the most experience between those three, but there hasn't been much separation between the three in quality of play. Gadowsky did say that we can expect to see Pilewicz at the start of the season.
Last year, Penn State allowed an average of 3.12 goals per game. If you offered me that number for this upcoming season, I’d take it, because the offensive production should again be top-five in the nation. However, the defense is more up in the air this year than in previous years, and Gadowsky will need to fill in the top six with as many as three players that have seen little-to-no ice time. Luckily, the season starts with eight non-conference home games. Gadowsky will have plenty of time to find the best defensive lineup before the intensity picks up at home against Michigan in mid-November.
Gadowsky hasn't specified specific pairings yet, but our best guess at the defensive lineup we’ll see on opening night looks like this (Kerr and Bell were scratches for the scrimmage, which surely affected those initial pairings):