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Best And Worst Case Scenarios For No. 16 Penn State Hockey’s 2018-19 Season

The weather is still warm, football is in full swing, and most winter sports are just entering preseason practice, but the time is just about here: Hockey Valley is back. 

No. 16 Penn State men’s hockey opens its 2018-19 regular season campaign October 11-12 with a home series against Clarkson.

Guy Gadowsky’s team took a natural step back last season after the unprecedented success of the 2016-17 season. The Nittany Lions were eliminated in the Big Ten semifinals by eventual conference champion Notre Dame, but qualified for the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. The team’s appearance in the tournament was shorter than last year’s, however, as Denver made short work of Penn State in a commanding 5-1 victory.

With a new crop of freshmen in and a fresh slate to work with, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for Penn State this season.

Best-Case Scenario

Obviously, the best-case scenario for all 60 programs in Division I hockey is to win a conference and national championship, but Penn State’s best-case scenario is re-establishing itself as a top 10 program in college hockey.

Making it to the 2019 Frozen Four in Buffalo and winning a national title would obviously make this happen, but the Nittany Lions don’t necessarily need to do this for the 2018-19 season to be considered a success.

On paper, Penn State regressed last season when you compare its performance to that of the 2016-17 season. The 2016-17 team won the Big Ten and advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament — neither of those things happened in Hockey Valley last year. The team returns 20 members of its 2017-18 roster, and some of them need to make significant strides in order for the Nittany Lions to reach that 2016-17 level.

Sophomore center Evan Barratt may have more to prove than any other player on the roster this season. He was Penn State’s most highly-touted recruit entering last season, but struggled early last season. He improved steadily over the course of the year, but he’ll need to find the level he reached at the end of last season consistently for Penn State to have a successful season.

Now that Andrew Sturtz is gone, junior Liam Folkes is probably the best right-handed forward on the team. He spent most of last season alongside Barratt and Alex Limoges, but he may find himself in a more advanced role alongside a guy like Chase Berger or Nate Sucese for the first time in his college hockey career.

The team’s depth up front doesn’t make a huge year from freshman Aarne Talvitie essential, but strong flashes from the New Jersey Devils’ draft pick would give the team a solid scoring option outside of the top six forwards. He clearly has the talent to produce at the NCAA level, but the Finn may struggle to adjust to the North American brand of hockey in his first season playing outside his home country.

Penn State’s defense currently lacks depth and experience, particularly on the right side. However, if players like Derian Hamilton, Paul DeNaples, and one of Alex Stevens or Adam Pilewicz can step into regular roles and perform consistently, the Nittany Lions should be just fine, especially when Evan Bell arrives on campus for the second half of the 2018-19 campaign.

Starting goalie Peyton Jones will also need to return to his 2016-17 form if the Nittany Lions have a chance to progress further in the NCAA tournament. Jones posted a 17-13-4 record, 3.03 goals-against average, and .904 save percentage last season; he had a good year — especially considering the strength of other teams in the Big Ten — but he’ll need to be great again for the Nittany Lions.

Worst-Case Scenario

The worst-case scenario for Penn State is simple: not qualifying for the NCAA tournament and letting last season’s step back snowball into even more regression.

The Nittany Lions needed four consecutive victories over Minnesota to find their way into the NCAA tournament, but anything less than national tournament qualification is a disappointment at best for the team. How might this happen?

Evan Barratt returns to his early-2017 form and has a down year, which subsequently hurts the team’s overall depth at center. Liam Folkes can’t handle a more advanced role and struggles to produce offensively.

Players like Nate Sucese, Brandon Biro, and Denis Smirnov take uncharacteristic steps back after starting their college careers by scoring at or around a point-per-game for two seasons. Aarne Talvitie’s struggles adjusting to North American hockey are on full display and he has a tough start to his NCAA career.

The team’s lack of depth on defense is exposed, forcing the Nittany Lion offense that lost its leading scorer to keep pace with a ton of goals per game. Peyton Jones’ numbers and performance go down, partially as a result of the defensive flaws.

Unlike last year, expectations aren’t sky-high for the Nittany Lions with the team checking in at No. 16 in the USCHO preseason ranking. That freedom from Frozen Four expectations might actually help Penn State.

That said, anything less than an at-large NCAA tournament bid is probably the worst-case scenario for Guy Gadowsky’s program this year.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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