Penn State Hockey opens up the 2021-22 season with a series against Long Island this Sunday, October 3, in Pegula Ice Arena. Guy Gadowsky has finalized his lineup, so let's break down the biggest questions surrounding this year's team going into the new campaign.
1. will Oskar Autio build off of last season?
Goaltending is the foundation of any team's success. Autio is now heading into his second season as the number one goaltender for this team. After going 0-3 in his first three starts in 2020, Autio went a respectable 9-6-0 while posting a .903 save percentage and a 2.95 goals-against average. Overall on the season, he had a .894 save percentage and a 3.13 goals-against average. However, it is worth noting that there were a couple of reasons why his GAA was up above two and his save percentage below .900.
Penn State gave up around 30 shots per game, which was the fourth-most in the Big Ten, and coughed up 3.68 goals per game as a result. This was the second-most in the conference. The goalies are the ones responsible for stopping the puck, but giving up 30 shots every game tells me that Autio was left out to dry a couple of times.
The eye test however says otherwise about the Espoo, Finland native. Even with his average numbers, Penn State was still able to pull out wins. Autio was the backbone of those victories and he kept the team in games every night. But, year two is always the biggest test for a net-minder, especially now given that it will be a full season with non-conference play. Can he build off of last season? Absolutely. Will he? It is always tough to say with goaltenders.
2. Will Kevin Wall take another step?
Wall was arguably Penn State's most consistent player last year. He had 19 points in 22 games. That was second on the team behind Alex Limoges. He was not quite playing at a point-per-game rate, but he took a massive step forward. He is only going to get better because he has to be the driver of the Nittany Lions offense.
What I really noticed from Wall last season was his confidence with the puck. When nothing else about the Penn State offense was working in the early-going a season ago, Wall didn't quit and often turned remarkable individual efforts into goals. As everyone else caught up and got comfortable, he was very patient and did not make a lot of mistakes. Even though he only had eight goals, Wall shot the puck 115 times. So the junior forward has way more in him, and he has to be a point-per-game player for this offense to do well.
3. Is center depth going to be a concern?
Depth down the middle is so important in hockey. Penn State lost Aarne Talvitie and Tim Doherty in the off-season. In this year's recruiting class, Ben Copeland and Ben Schoen were the only two centers Gadowsky was able to snag. Connor MacEachern and Chase McLane are the only two centers returning from last year. MacEachern and Schoen are skilled players but are not the biggest guys. MacEachern is listed at 5'10, 175, and Schoen is listed at 5'8, 154. Size isn't everything in hockey, but in a fierce Big Ten conference, it sure helps.
Centers also have to be responsible on both ends of the ice. McLane was a -8 and MacEachern was a -4 a year ago. Plus/minus ratings are far from a perfect statistic, but they do tell part of the story. These two need to be better in 2021.
4. is the penalty kill going to improve?
The PK unit was dreadful last season. It was at 76.2% – dead last in the Big Ten – and was 41st overall. This was somewhat surprising considering that Penn State only took 3.31 penalties per game. That was the fifth-least in the nation.
Still, the Nittany Lions coughed up 15 power-play goals, which was the third-most in the conference. Even though the PK unit was not utilized a lot, it still has to be good. One careless penalty can change a game in a flash. Being that poor on the kill completely negates the impact of avoiding the kill. This needs to improve.
5. What impact will Clayton Phillips have on the defense core?
Phillips is one of two players returning for a fifth season. Phillips had a down year, so he has to rebound. He was a -7 last year and led the team with 25 penalty minutes. He has to be more disciplined and tighten up defensively. The defense core relies so much on him, so he cannot be taking undisciplined penalties. He has to be a two-way defenseman in order for the defense unit to do well.
Phillips's return is a massive boost for a young Nittany Lions team. He is a very good skater that can quarterback a power-play unit. So his impact will be felt if he stays out of the penalty box and plays better on the back end.
This is going to be an interesting year for the Nittany Lions. At best, I think they can finish fourth in the Big Ten standings. Michigan and Minnesota will be gunning for the top spot. Those two teams are talented and loaded with future NHL talent.
Notre Dame will take a big step because of its new goaltender, graduate student Matthew Galajda. He spent the last three seasons at Cornell and was terrific. So I think the Fighting Irish will take third. Wisconsin and Penn State will be gunning for fourth, and Michigan State and Ohio State will once again be at the bottom.
But, the Big Ten is so unpredictable and one team can go from sixth to second in an instant. Make sure you stick with Roar Lions Roar this week as we continue to preview what should be an interesting season for Guy Gadowsky's squad.