It’s just nine days away from opening night for Penn State men’s hockey. The Nittany Lions will travel to upstate New York for a clash with Clarkson University October 6 to begin the 2017-18 regular season.
Guy Gadowsky’s squad will try to build on last season’s unprecedented success with a strong 2017-18 campaign, which begins with Penn State ranked No. 10 in the country. Here are the best- and worst-case scenarios that could play out this season for Penn State hockey:
Naturally, the best-case scenario for any team in college hockey is simple: Win a national championship. For Penn State, however, continuing to establish itself as one of the strongest teams in college hockey would be ideal this season.
Winning a national championship would obviously help this cause, but it isn’t necessary as long as the core of Guy Gadowsky’s squad continues to develop, improve, and build on last season’s success.
Penn State returns 21 players from the Big Ten-winning squad, so the core of the team is in tact, save for a few pieces.
Among the returning players are sophomore Denis Smirnov and junior Andrew Sturtz. Last season, this duo combined for 41 goals and 43 assists, and will likely lead the forward group on either wing of the team’s top line. Alternate captain Chase Berger will likely play between the two as the first-line center.
In addition to the veterans, the new crop of freshmen will also have to step in and contribute, which they are certainly capable of. Two NHL Draft picks, center Evan Barratt and defenseman Cole Hults, will make their Penn State debuts this season.
Barratt and Hults will likely start the season in diminished roles due to their lack of experience, but if they grow as well as the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings expect them to, they could see increased minutes and, therefore, production by the end of the season.
Gadowsky has shown in the past he trusts freshmen with big-ticket roles; Peyton Jones started nearly every game in goal as a freshman and Nate Sucese centered the top line during the NCAA tournament. If the new crop of freshmen have strong seasons, they could establish themselves as core pieces of the Penn State hockey puzzle as soon as this year.
Two words can sum up the worst-case scenario for Penn State hockey’s 2017-18 season: sophomore slump.
Last season, Penn State’s roster was anchored by most of the class of ten freshmen who joined the team. The then-rookies played important roles on every part of the roster.
Denis Smirnov and Peyton Jones cemented themselves as two of the team’s most important pieces. Additionally, players like Liam Folkes, Kris Myllari, and Brandon Biro all found ways to become regulars in the lineup as the season progressed, whether it was through clutch play in the postseason or due to veteran injuries.
Now that these players are entering their second season in Hockey Valley, they need to avoid a sophomore slump. A big part of this will be managing high expectations, which are exactly what college hockey fans now have for Gadowsky’s program.
On paper, Penn State has one of the stronger rosters in college hockey, but if the sophomores on the team regress from last season, their strength on paper is meaningless.
Big names like Smirnov and Jones are well known, but players like Folkes and Biro will need to step into larger roles and perform in them. If they don’t and the star players also regress, then Penn State could be in trouble this season.