Men’s Hockey’s Defensemen Replacing Leadership By Committee
We’re just two and a half weeks away from Penn State hockey’s exhibition opener against Windsor, which means soon enough we’ll know whether or not the team can improve despite the loss of some key players. Every position was hurt by graduation, but nowhere more than on the blue line. Former captain Patrick Koudys is gone, as are former alternate captain Nate Jensen and shootout star Peter Sweetland. Three players that knew the program in and out are gone, so their replacements next year will have to get it done by committee — fortunately for Guy Gadowsky’s squad, that’s completely possible.
The obvious and immediate replacements for the aforementioned alumni will be first-time alternate captains Luke Juha and David Thompson. Thompson was one of the team’s most used one-way defenders, despite a plus/minus of -3 and only six points. Still, he spent lots of time on the top pairs with Koudys, Connor Varley, and others and served as a nice complement to whoever played alongside him.
Juha was an All-Big Ten team honorable mention last season and led Nittany Lion defenders in assists and points. One of the most prevalent storylines surrounding the team last season was its lack of scoring from the back-end, as the top line of David Goodwin, Taylor Holstrom, and Casey Bailey was counted on in almost every game to give the Lions a chance. Even though he only tallied 14 points in a short 26 games, Juha will be relied upon to once again be among the defense’s leading scorers. Also among the team’s best two-way defensemen is Finnish sophomore phenom Erik Autio. In his freshman year, he played in 34 years and scored two goals and had nine assists, despite a -4 rating.
Joining Thompson as conservative defensemen will be Connor Varley and Mike Williamson. They combined for 11 points in 45 games, but were staples in the lineup — Varley was consistently in the top two pairings, and Williamson was in and out of the lineup, but still has a lot of talent — he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by the Vancouver Canucks, and the Alberta native has worked out with the Canucks in two of the last three offseasons.
For those keeping track at home, that’s five returning defensemen. That means at least one of the three incoming freshmen must hear his number called to fill out the lineup. If Gadowsky wants to throw in a player in the mold of the Edmonton Oilers’ Justin Schultz, he’ll turn to Derian Hamilton. The 21-year-old Hamilton spent the last four years in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, scoring 144 points in 142 games. There’s almost no chance that he puts up those numbers in NCAA Division I hockey, but there’s no doubt his offensive ability is there.
Also making their debuts in Hockey Valley this year will be Vince Pedrie and Kevin Kerr. Neither matched Hamilton’s output in junior hockey, but both were among their teams’ best players. Pedrie garnered a +18 rating with two teams last year in the USHL while Kerr was right behind him at +17.
Eight players will compete for six starting spots. Depth might be an issue — no defenseman played every game last year, with Koudys and Jensen coming the closest with a respective 36 and 34 games played out of 37. Gadowsky’s team is a few injuries or suspensions away from starting a forward on the third pair, but if the team can stay healthy and stay productive, there’s no reason that the unit shouldn’t be better than last year’s.