Despite being ranked ninth in the USCHO poll, Penn State Men’s Hockey has a lot of questions going into this unusual season. The team lost 10 seniors and two juniors who signed pro contracts. While the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time in program history, repeating is going to be tough. Here are the five biggest questions facing the team as they prepare for the abbreviated 2020-21 season.
Who’s in goal?
The absence of long-time starter Peyton Jones means that there are plenty of minutes to replace in the crease this winter. Oskar Autio can be a reliable number one goaltender, but with Jones taking up the majority of the playing time over the past two seasons, the junior goaltender hasn't had too many opportunities. Incoming freshman Liam Souliére could also be a potential starter. It wouldn't be the first time that head coach Guy Gadowsky started a freshman in net. Jones was Penn State’s number one since his freshman year, after all. Last season, Autio played five games and put up a 1.87 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage, which are excellent numbers, but that was only through five games. He also had two shutouts. If the Nittany Lions are going to be competitive in the Big Ten, they need reliable goaltending. It doesn't need to be the best, it just needs to be good enough to remain competitive.
Who is going to play with Paul DeNaples?
DeNaples' line partner from a season ago, Cole Hults, signed an entry-level contract with the Los Angeles Kings. Hults was an offensive defenseman who was one of the quarterbacks of the Penn State power play. He was also the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the overall Big Ten Player of the Year. The most likely candidate to fill his role next to DeNaples is Clayton Phillips. Phillips is a left-handed defenseman who transferred to Penn State last year from Minnesota. The former Gopher has an elite skating ability, something that was missing in Hults’s game. This pairing could be very successful if Phillips can handle an increase in ice time.
Is the top 6 going to be as productive as last year?
The short answer here is, no. However, last season, Minnesota had 11 freshmen on their team and they nearly won the Big Ten regular-season crown. Penn State has eight freshmen this season so anything can happen. It will take a while for them to develop chemistry, but with time, they should be a competitive offense. If Gadowsky chooses, the first line could be filled with experience. Alex Limoges, Aarne Talvitie, and graduate student Tim Doherty could be the Lions' top line. However, Gadowsky will have to make a choice between stacking his first line with said experience or spacing his veterans out a bit among the less-proven players. Kevin Wall, Connor McMenamin, Xander Lamppa, Christian Berger, and Sam Sternschein could all see time with the first two lines.
Can Aarne Talvitie have a breakout season?
If he stays healthy, absolutely! Talvitie was injured at the start of last season and was also injured throughout much of his freshman year. The New Jersey Devils prospect had 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in 30 games last season. However, he has the potential to do more. It might be tough for him to score career highs in a shortened season, but he has to produce at least 30 points if the Nittany Lion offense is to remain in the top-20 in scoring.
How will Penn State perform at home?
The Roar Zone will, unfortunately, be empty this season. Penn State was 11-5-3 on home ice a year ago, and without the raucous student section inside of Pegula Ice Arena, it will surely be a less intimidating environment for opposing teams. Players on other teams often talk about how hard it is to play in State College with the Roar Zone doing its thing. Teams in general feed off of the energy of their home crowds whenever they are down and need a momentum boost, and that is especially true for the Nittany Lions. They will need to find new ways to create energy for themselves without their fellow students urging them on.
The Nittany Lions will kick off their season against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Nov. 19-20, for their first series of the 2020-21 season.