The Penn State men’s hockey defensive pairing of Vince Pedrie and Erik Autio led the nation in plus-minus last season. With Pedrie now in the New York Rangers system, freshman Cole Hults is primed to step into his offensive-minded role.
Pedrie led Penn State’s back line in scoring as a sophomore last season with 29 points (eight goals), thanks in large part to his vicious slap shot and tremendous puck-moving instincts. Hults originally committed to Providence before joining the USHL’s Madison Capitols, but instead picked the Nittany Lions two days after Pedrie turned pro.
The LA Kings draftee scored the Nittany Lions’ first goal Sunday afternoon in their 4-3 exhibition loss to Ottawa in overtime at Pegula. Guy Gadowksy and a few of Hults’ teammates shared their excitement for his debut campaign at the program’s media day Thursday.
“We actually experimented with a few different pairings,” Gadowsky said. “We are gonna give an opportunity, obviously, to see what kind of chemistry Cole has with Autio. If that works well, I think that’ll be nice for us. There’s no guarantee we won’t try other things.”
The 19-year-old Hults was born in Madison, Wis., just like Minnesota Wild alternate captain Ryan Suter, whose younger brother, Branden, played with Hults last year in the USHL. He grew up skating with Suter and enjoys watching him play professionally when he gets the chance.
Though he has yet to experience a regular season atmosphere in Pegula, Hults had the opportunity to check out a couple contests on the Big Ten Network last year. His older brother, Mitch, signed a free agent contract with the Anaheim Ducks following his junior year at Lake Superior State.
“The game’s getting faster and faster, and I want to play at the next level,” Hults said of Penn State’s unrelenting style. “I watched a few games before I came here and I liked how they played, I liked how they moved the puck.”
Autio, a senior alternate captain from Espoo, Finland, took the left-handed shooter under his wing during the preseason to help him get acclimated to the finer details of college hockey.
“Erik’s been great,” Hults said. “He practices like a pro. He treats his body like a pro. That’s really nice to look up to and take notes from him. He stretches after every ice session. I see what he eats. That’s been a big influence.”
Hults, who tallied 32 points (six goals) last year with the Capitols, is the first Nittany Lion from Wisconsin since the program joined the Division I ranks for the 2012-13 season. Penn State will host the Badgers January 5-6 before traveling to Madison for another series January 26-27.
“I know a lot of guys [on the team]. I see them back home in the summer,” Hults said. “I’m gonna have a bunch of family and friends there and that’s gonna be awesome. I grew up watching them, but it’s gonna be fun to play against those guys.”
Hults said the reason he wears No. 2 is to honor his late grandfather, who passed away two years ago. He asked his grandmother what number he should be and she said two.
“When he played Roulette, he would always put his number on two,” Hults said. “I played with it last year, so getting a chance to wear it again is pretty special.”
Senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton, who started alongside junior Kevin Kerr in Sunday’s exhibition, thinks Hults will make a major impact for the Nittany Lions on both ends of the ice.
“Cole’s awesome. He’s a really smooth-skating defenseman,” Hamilton said. “I’m really excited to watch him play this year and see what he can do for the team.”
“He’s very good at controlling the blue line as well. He reminds me a lot of Pedrie off the ice,” said junior forward Andrew Sturtz. “Not so much on the ice — they’re a little bit different players — but the way he wants to get better and the way he dedicates his life to hockey is a lot like Pedrie.”