Will the real Peyton Jones please stand up?
Guy Gadowsky made it clear during his preseason media availability that he expects more from his goaltenders this season. The head coach challenged his returners, stating that Peyton Jones and Chris Funkey must have a save percentage over .905, or incoming freshman Oskar Autio will see time in net.
Chris Funkey is a very respectable backup who’s quick and has good fundamentals. He's not one who is likely to challenge to be a full-time starter, but he's performed quite well in his limited time on the ice. He’s also grown to be an emotional leader of the team, and with the loss of some key leaders from last year's team, he'll be even more valuable in that regard this season.
The younger Oskar Autio has spent the majority of his playing career with Finland’s U18 and U20 teams before spending last season with the Chicago Steel in the USHL where he played 39 games and posted a 2.90 goals against average and .904 save percentage. There’s a good chance that Autio starts a few games during the non-conference stretch to start the season, and maybe even later in the season when the conference schedule begins.
Whether or not we see Autio starting Big Ten games at any point this season depends on how well Peyton Jones plays. Jones has been the number one goalie for the last two seasons, and has been an absolute workhorse, playing over 4,000 of Penn State’s roughly 5,000 minutes played. While that experience is extremely valuable, Jones's struggles with consistency can't continue in the 2018-19 season if the Nittany Lions are to get anywhere.
That being said, the potential to be an all-conference performer still exists with Jones. He’s made saves that you won’t see topped in any level of hockey, like this one at Minnesota last year:
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 14, 2017
Unfortunately, the moments last season in which Jones’s concentration seemed to lapse occurred during some of the most crucial moments of the season. Jones finished last season with a .905 save percentage which was good for fourth out of seven Big Ten goalies who played 20 or more game last season. Gadowsky knows his number one goalie of the last two seasons can be better and has not been shy about making his expectations very public.
The strangest part (in a good way!) of Jones’s career at Penn State was the performance he turned in at the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, where he won tournament MVP. He went 30 of 31 against Michigan, 37 of 40 against Minnesota, and an incredible 51 of 52 against Wisconsin. That’s a tournament save percentage of .959. There were multiple instances during that tournament in which it seemed a forgone conclusion that a puck was about to hit the twine before Jones pulled rabbit after rabbit out of a hat to keep the score sheet clean. As a result, the conference banner now hangs in Pegula's rafters, largely because of Jones's play.
Many fans spent last season wondering if that version of Jones would ever fully return, but he could never get back to that level of dominance. Now, his seat is warm, and like the rest of the team and the defense in particular, he needs to be better. Historically, Gadowsky has not been shy about rotating goalies when he’s unhappy with the play of the starter, and he will not hesitate to play Autio or Funkey in net if Jones is not meeting expectations.
I’m not sure that Penn State makes it back to Allentown and into the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row without Peyton Jones on the ice for the large majority of this season’s games. The Big Ten will be the best conference in hockey this year (do not @ me), and 4,000 minutes of playing time at the college level will be invaluable when Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State come knocking. Jones doesn’t need to be the best goalie in the conference this season, but he does need to improve. I’d be pleased with .915 from Jones and quite happy with anything over .920. But if he struggles to be above .900 like he did last season, it will be time for a change. Nine-Five-Nine Peyton is in there, somewhere. Hopefully, we see him again this season. Whether we do or not, could determine Penn State's postseason hopes.