Youth has always been an important part of hockey teams at every level of the game.
The impact Penn State’s freshman class made on the roster last year propelled the team to its first-ever Big Ten championship and NCAA tournament appearance. The 12 freshmen on that team — most notably Denis Smirnov, Liam Folkes, Brandon Biro, and Nate Sucese — complemented the established core of veterans, adding speed, skill, and enthusiasm to an already-strong roster.
While this year’s group of first-year players is half the size of last year’s, the freshman class’s impact on the team has been felt throughout the lineup, whether it’s on the top defensive pairing or one of the team’s middle six forward lines. Two of these freshmen — center Evan Barratt and defenseman Cole Hults — began their NCAA careers as strong prospects after ending their respective junior careers on high notes.
Evan Barratt played for the United States national development team last season, scoring 58 points in 63 games. This program has NHL fingerprints all over it — Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane played for the team under the direction of head coach John Hynes, who now has the New Jersey Devils poised to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Barratt was well-known among Penn State fans as a high-potential, well-rounded center, similar to his reputation with the Chicago Blackhawks when they picked Barratt No. 90 overall in the 2017 NHL Draft. Once he arrived in Hockey Valley, Barratt missed some time due to an upper body injury early in the season. Since his return, the Bristol, PA native has found a regular spot in the team’s lineup.
Barratt has mostly played in between Alex Limoges and Liam Folkes on one of the team’s youngest lines. Through 16 games, Penn State’s No. 17 has found success on and off the ice, scoring five goals and four assists while enjoying Penn State’s campus away from the rink.
“It’s been awesome,” Barratt said of his first season playing for Penn State. “I mean, we definitely started slowly this year but we’ve picked it up of late. My first year’s been a lot of fun, [classes] have been awesome, it’s a lot of fun here, and nothing can compare to playing in front of the crowd at Pegula.”
While Barratt has forged a role up front, defenseman Cole Hults has played extremely well on the team’s top defensive pairing. After scoring 32 points in 59 games for Madison in the USHL — another league heavily scouted by the NHL — Hults has essentially replaced Vince Pedrie alongside senior Erik Autio and made the role his own.
Hults, a fifth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2017, has scored twice and added 13 assists while regularly featuring on the power play. The Wisconsin native’s strong puck movement and physicality have quickly helped him become a fan favorite and one of the top defensemen on the team.
“I love it here and it’s definitely different,” Hults said. “I would say there’s a different atmosphere here than in Madison. On the ice, I think everything’s been going pretty well. We had a little bit of a slow start, but I think everyone’s starting to feel their games and get comfortable, which I think is going to be huge coming up here.”
In addition to the good times he’s enjoying on the ice, Hults feels right at home away from the rink in Happy Valley.
“Outside of hockey, it’s fun here,” he said. “I love it. It’s kind of like home to me. When I was at home [in Madison during winter break], it’s kind of like I’m going back home [when returning to Penn State], which is kind of a weird feeling, but it’s definitely been awesome.”
It seems that the freshmen on the roster have quickly settled into their new home in Hockey Valley. The group of six has earned the respect of their veteran teammates in the process, including team captain James Robinson.
“Oh, unbelievable,” Robinson said. “All six freshmen are unbelievable guys. They carry themselves academically and on the ice, you can see that they’re players. They may be a little bit younger in age, but they come in eager to work every day and it’s really inspiring to see.”
Hults, Barratt, and the rest of the freshman class will be in action this weekend for a crucial Big Ten series against No. 6 Ohio State at Pegula Ice Arena. The puck drops Friday at 7:30 p.m. for game one of this series