Penn State hockey is back next Thursday, November 19, and, for reasons other than the obvious, there are a lot of questions surrounding this team. If thinking about an overturned roster playing in a shortened, not-even-fully-scheduled-yet season confuses you, don't worry – it definitely confused our hockey writer Doug, who has ten questions to get him and you caught back up with Penn State Hockey.
1. Last year's Big Ten regular-season champ roster seemed to be very top-heavy. Who are the key losses?
- Peyton Jones, Goalie, 4-year starter, signed with the AHL Colorado Eagles. Holds almost every record Penn State keeps for goaltenders.
- Evan Barratt, F, 3-year player, 3rd round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks (signed with Blackhawks in offseason). Team’s second-leading scorer each of the last two seasons.
- Cole Hults, D, 3-year player, 5th round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings (signed with Kings in offseason). Team’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen.
- Nate Sucese, F, 4-year player, signed NHL contract with Arizona Coyotes. Team’s all-time leader in goals and points scored.
- Denis Smirnov, F, 4-year player, 6th round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche (unsigned). Team’s all-time leader in game-winning goals.
- Nikita Pavlychev, F, 4-year player, 7th round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins (signed AHL contract with Syracuse).
- Brandon Biro, F, 4-year player, signed NHL contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Captain of the team in 2019-20.
- Liam Folkes, F, 4-year player, signed AHL contract with Bakersfield. An underrated player who scored probably the most famous goal in PSU history vs. Wisconsin to win the Big Ten Tournament in 2017.
- Kris Myllari, D, 4-year player, signed ECHL contact with Utah Grizzlies
- James Gobetz, D, 4-year player
- Blake Gober, F, 4-year player
2. Yikes. So who are the key additions?
- Christian Berger, freshman defenseman. Brother of former Lion Chase Berger. His oldest brother, Jack, played for Coach Gadowsky at Princeton. Put up 5-17-22 in 44 games with Omaha in the USHL in 2019. Decent size listed at 6’, 182 pounds. Strong at both ends.
- Jimmy Dowd Jr., freshman defenseman. Son of former NHL forward Jimmy Dowd Sr. Put up 4-22-26 in 48 games with Chicago in the USHL last season. Is smallish at 5’9”, 161 pounds, but has great vision and moves the puck well.
- Xander Lamppa, freshman forward. Son of former Notre Dame hockey player, Brett Lamppa. Led Waterloo (USHL) with 45 points (15 goals, 30 assists) last season. Has good size at 6’1” and 205 pounds.
- Jared Wescott, freshman forward. Led Sioux Falls (USHL) in scoring last season (16-18-34) in 44 games. He’s listed at 6’1”, 175 pounds.
- Christian Sarlo, freshman forward. Played for Lincoln (USHL) last season and was second on the team in scoring (21-23-44) in 46 games. He’s listed at 6’0", 197 pounds.
- Chase McLane, freshman forward, drafted in the 7th round by the Nashville Predators. Was injured much of last season but still managed to score 5 goals and assist on 11 others in just 18 games for Tri-City (USHL). He’s 6’2” and 183 pounds.
- Tyler Paquette, freshman forward. 6’3” 200 pounds. He’s one of those Guy Gadowsky types who does anything it takes. He can score some (11-12-23 last season with Green Bay in the USHL). He’s a physical player, but also a strong skater.
- Liam Souliére, freshman goalie. Maybe the most important recruit, since he plays the most important position on the ice. With the loss of Jones, Souliére could be counted on to play a lot early. Was injured the first part of last season and played for Victoria in the BCHL. Went 9-6-0 in 15 games with a 3.37 GAA and .917 save percentage. The year before that, when he was healthy, he went 26-8-0, had a 2.17 GAA and a .930 save percentage with Brockville (CCHL), and was named the league's goaltender of the year.
- Bobby Hampton, junior forward (transfer from Northeastern). Scored 5 goals and had 2 assists for 7 points in 47 games during his two seasons with Northeastern. If nothing else, he adds another veteran presence to a lineup that lost a ton of experience.
- Tim Doherty, graduate transfer from Maine. Senior forward. Scored 37 points last season – 14 goals and 23 assists. He’s strong on faceoffs and brings more leadership to the team. He is 6’0", 190 pounds.
3. Penn State lost six of its top-seven scorers from last season. The offense may be a big question mark this year. So who are the key forwards?
- Alex Limoges – Led the team in scoring as a sophomore, was third as a junior. Lost both linemates (Folkes and Barratt). Can he maintain his scoring touch with new linemates? Was named team captain.
- Tim Doherty – Grad transfer from Maine. His 37 points would have been second on the team – just one point behind Sucese last season. Can he replace Sucese's points?
- Aarne Talvitie – Was really starting to come on strong during his freshman year. He had 5 goals and 11 assists in just 17 games. Then he went on to captain the Finnish National Team in the World Junior Championships. He led his team to the gold medal but suffered a season-ending injury in the gold medal game. He came back to record 6-13-19 in 30 games as a sophomore. If he is 100% healthy and can regain the form he showed as a freshman, he will certainly help fill the scoring loss. Was named an alternate captain.
- Kevin Wall – Was drafted by Carolina in the 6th round of the 2019 NHL Draft. Maybe too much was expected of him as a freshman. Only scored 2 goals and 5 assists, but one of those two goals was the game-winner against Minnesota that clinched the Big Ten regular-season championship for Penn State (with help from other teams the next weekend). Penn State will need him to be on the scoresheet more consistently this season.
- Sam Sternschein – Tied with Sucese for the team lead in goals with 12 last season. Needs to maintain that consistency this season.
- McMenamin / MacEachern / Gratton line – This trio skated together a lot as freshmen. If they are kept together for their sophomore season, look for them to improve on the 10 goals and 19 assists they combined to put up.
4. How about on the blue-line? Who are the key defensemen?
- Paul DeNaples – Named alternate captain for this season. Not a big scorer like Hults, but has been consistent with 14 and 12 points in his first two seasons. Was second in the B1G in +/- with +18 last season (Hults was +23). Will need someone to step up to play beside him.
- Mason Snell – Paired with Clayton Phillips as the third pairing down the stretch. With Hults, Myllari, and Gobetz all gone, the two could move up to the second pairing, or they could be split up and one of the two pairs with DeNaples.
- Clayton Phillips – Paired with Snell down the stretch. If none of the incoming freshmen take the spot, I predict Phillips will start opposite DeNaples. That’s just a gut feeling based on past performance and style of play.
5. A four-year starter is a luxury in net. Now that Peyton Jones needs to be replaced, what can we expect from the goalies?
My guess is the season starts out with Oskar Autio and Souliére alternating games. Autio looked good in the games he played last season, but Souliére had been lights out for two seasons in the CCHL before being injured much of last year and never really getting into game shape before the season was shut down.
6. Where did we leave off with this team? What happened last season?
Penn State won the regular-season Big Ten Championship and was set to host Minnesota in the Semi-Finals of the Big Ten Tournament when the season was canceled. They started out hot in the regular season, sweeping Wisconsin and splitting with Michigan State at home, then sweeping Minnesota on the road. Splits with Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame left the team 8-4-0-0 heading into the holiday break. In what seems like an annual tradition, though, the team fell flat coming out of the break going 1-3-2-0 in its first six games. Fortunately, they came back to go 3-1-2-1 down the stretch to finish up 12-8-4-1.
7. What is the ceiling and floor this year?
The USCHO poll has PSU ranked 9th in its preseason poll – the top-ranked team in the B1G. To me, that’s a bit optimistic (see above with all the key losses). That is a lot of scoring, team records, and experience to replace. It might not be fair to expect the returning players and the newcomers to be able to step up that much right out of the gate. And not having a non-conference schedule to build chemistry could prove problematic. However, the rest of the B1G has similar issues. The top teams lose key players to the NHL every year. The difference is they have always been able to reload quickly. If Penn State expects to stay at the top, it needs to be able to reload quickly as well.
Counter to the USCHO poll is the Big Ten Coaches' Poll, where Penn State is dead last in the conference. So the floor? Not counting Arizona State, since they won’t show up in the standings, I’d say 5th is the floor. The ceiling is repeating. Guy Gadowsky is a great coach. His system is such that all four lines are productive. If the chemistry is there early, and one of the goaltenders proves to be up to the challenge, this team could prove its preseason USCHO ranking to be accurate.
8. There won't be any non-conference games this year. The good news, fewer teams to break down and make predictions about. The bad news, if a handful of Big Ten teams are stacked, this could be a long season for the bottom half of the conference. Who are the best teams in the Big Ten?
The short answer? Everyone. If you go by the USCHO preseason poll, the order of finish will look like this:
*Arizona State is not in the Big Ten, but they have a deal with the conference this year and every team will play them at home four times.
We'll go more in-depth on each opponent with our series previews prior to the matchups, but for now, just know that every team has the talent to compete for the conference title.
9. That level of roster turnover could really set Penn State back. If possible, it would sure be nice to avoid that in the future. What does our roster look like in terms of age? Is Penn State going to be upperclassmen-heavy again?
The classes are currently well-balanced. By my count, the roster now has 8 seniors, 5 juniors, 6 sophomores, and 8 freshmen -- so 13 upperclassmen and 14 underclassmen. Compare that to last season where the roster was made up of 18 upperclassmen and 10 underclassmen (not counting Bobby Hampton who was sitting out due to transfer rules) and it looks like the Lions are set up well to not have to deal with a reloading season like this one for a bit.
10. Finally, let's talk big picture. I still remember when Casey Bailey became the first Nittany Lion to break into the NHL, and his goal against Carey Price earned the program a lot of prestige. What are the program's current NHL connections? Is anyone on the roster drafted?
Penn State has four NHL drafted players on the roster.
- Chase McLane (Nashville, 7th round, 2020)
- Kevin Wall (Carolina, 6th round, 2019)
- Clayton Phillips (Pittsburgh, 3rd round, 2017)
- Aarne Talvitie (New Jersey, 6th round, 2017)
I gave you where most of the graduates signed in the key losses section -- eight guys from that team signed with NHL, AHL, or ECHL franchises, but expect most or all to start their professional careers in the AHL or ECHL. All in all, the Nittany Lions continue to build up their reputation in the eyes of the NHL, which will in turn help them continue to improve their recruiting efforts.
Penn State and Minnesota are set for puck drop at 8:30 pm ET In Minneapolis next Thursday, November 19. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.