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Will They Stay Or Will They Go? Evaluating The Futures Of Penn State Hockey’s Underclassmen

Penn State men’s hockey’s 2season came to a close Saturday night when Notre Dame captured its second consecutive Big Ten title in a 3-2 win over the Nittany Lions.

The dust has settled on the two teams’ championship faceoff, so now it’s time to speculate the professional futures of some of the team’s underclassmen. In years past, players like Vince Pedrie and Andrew Sturtz have left Hockey Valley early for the professional ranks following stellar collegiate careers. Though it’s always difficult to say goodbye to core players like Pedrie and Sturtz, their early departures are testaments both to their growth and to the Nittany Lions’ ability to develop talent.

For those unfamiliar with player movement from college to the pros, undrafted players can forfeit their NCAA eligibility by signing a professional contract at the end of the season. As unrestricted free agents, they’re free to choose whichever team offers them a contract.

The story is a bit different for players selected in the NHL Draft. If an NHL organization drafts a college player, it holds their rights throughout their college careers. However, once a drafted player has exercised his full four years of eligibility, he can become unrestricted free agents after their senior season.

A number of underclassmen across the nation — including Michigan State’s Taro Hirose and Minnesota’s Rem Pitlick — have signed NHL contracts to kickstart their professional careers. How many Nittany Lions will do the same following the conclusion of the season?

Alex Limoges

NHL Draft: Undrafted
2018-19 Stats: 23 goals, 27 assists (50 points) in 39 games played
Chances of leaving early: 9/10

Alex Limoges broke out as a star for the Nittany Lions this year. Perhaps the highest compliment of his 2018-19 season is the fact that he’s the first player to record 50 points in a single season for Penn State — a team that hangs its hat on scoring goals.

The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked the sophomore as the 20th-best free agent available in amateur hockey. Taro Hirose — the only other 50-point scorer in college hockey this year — is ranked twelfth on the list, and he signed with the Detroit Red Wings earlier this offseason.

At 6’1″ and 201 pounds, Limoges has NHL size. Although he lacks great speed or skating ability, he’s proved he can be “the guy” on a high-flying Penn State team, thanks to his high hockey IQ and excellent offensive awareness.

Evan Barratt

NHL Draft: Chicago Blackhawks — third round (No. 90 overall) in 2017
2018-19 Statistics: 16 goals, 27 assists (43 points) in 32 games played
Chances of leaving early: 7/10

As the pivot man of Penn State’s top line with Limoges and Liam Folkes, Evan Barratt also broke out in 2018-19. Barratt finished second on the team and No. 12 in the nation with 43 points despite missing eight games due to injury, suspension, and international duty.

The sophomore became the first Nittany Lion to represent the United States at the U-20 World Junior Championship this season. Though he only scored once, Barratt wasn’t moved off the team’s second line for the duration of the seven-game tournament. This extended exposure in the spotlight gave the Chicago Blackhawks a long look at their 2017 third-round pick.

After a breakout season, now would be a good time for Barratt to leave, but it also may not be the best time. The center’s hockey sense and feistiness will translate to the NHL level when he starts his pro career, but his skating stride is holding him back. He might need another year to truly be ready to play (and skate) at the next level.

Liam Folkes

NHL Draft: Undrafted
2018-19 Stats: 14 goals, 24 assists (42 points) in 39 games played
Chances of leaving early: 2.5/10

Penn State’s Big Ten Tournament hero wrapped up a career year as the right wing on one of the best lines in all of college hockey. Liam Folkes nearly doubled his previous career high of 23 points this year and quickly became one of the the Nittany Lions’ most important players.

After showing flashes of brilliance during his freshman and sophomore years, Folkes proved he can be a key piece of an offensive juggernaut. His straight-line speed, offensive awareness, and shooting abilities are the junior’s strongest attributes, but I don’t think they’ll be enough to help him at the next level quite yet.

At 5’8″ and 182 pounds, Folkes may not be ready to take on the rigors of professional hockey, and that’s why I think he’ll be back in Hockey Valley next year. One thing’s certain at this point: Wisconsin’s hockey program wants nothing more to see Folkes take the first flight out of Hockey Valley.

Cole Hults

NHL Draft: Los Angeles Kings — fifth round (No. 134 overall) in 2017
2018-19 Statistics: six goals, 22 assists (28 points) in 39 games played
Chances of leaving early: 5.5/10

Cole Hults established himself as a top-pairing defenseman and finished as the highest-scoring Penn State blueliner this season. Head coach Guy Gadowsky’s favorite aspect of Hults’ game is his ability to contribute at a high level without taking defensive risks.

The Kings’ prospect hit a wall midway through his freshman year after starting his college career on a scoring tear. That wasn’t an issue this year — he upped his output by eight points in just one more appearance without sacrificing his physical, positionally sound game in the defensive zone.

That said, Hults may wait a year before signing his entry-level contract. He’s still prone to the odd defensive-zone breakdown, but that part of his game can be cleaned up with good coaching and film study. Like the vast majority of mid-round NHL Draft picks in college, Hults also needs to be faster and a better skater in order to truly make it at the next level.

Denis Smirnov

NHL Draft: Colorado Avalanche — sixth round (No. 156 overall) in 2017
2018-19 Stats: eight goals, 14 assists (22 points) in 37 games played
Chances of leaving early: 1/10

Denis Smirnov would’ve been my choice as the most likely Nittany Lion to leave early at the start of the 2018-19 season. However, nothing seemed to go to plan for the skilled wing this year

Smirnov’s production has decreased during each of the past two seasons. He broke Penn State’s single-season scoring record as a freshman with 47 points before injuries took away a decent chunk of his second college season. However, he still operated near a point-per-game clip by scoring 27 points in 30 appearances.

The junior went through a perplexing scoring drought that never really came to a close. He posted career lows in goals, assists, and points this season. That alone will keep Smirnov at Penn State next season. The lower numbers don’t take away from his obvious, potentially game-breaking talent, and he’ll need to put together a bounce-back season if he wants to make a lasting impression on the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2017.

Nate Sucese

NHL Draft: Undrafted
2018-19 Stats: 19 goals, 18 assists (37 points) in 39 games played
Chances of leaving early: 3.5/10

Nate Sucese has been Penn State hockey’s Steady Eddie since he joined the team three years ago, but he took that consistency to new heights this season.

Sucese posted career highs in goals and points this year, and he crossed the 100-point milestone against Wisconsin in his team’s Big Ten quarterfinal series. He’s an excellent, perhaps under-appreciated scorer with a real shot of breaking the program’s goal-scoring record next season if he’s back.

On top of his goal-scoring ability, Sucese’s speed, tenacity, and toughness can definitely translate to the next level, but one thing holding him back is his size. Sucese plays much bigger than his 5’8″, 175-pound stature may suggest, but I think he’s more likely to stay than leave this offseason. I think the junior is definitely capable of forging a career at the next level, but waiting another year to get started professionally is his best option.

Brandon Biro

NHL Draft: Undrafted
2018-19 Stats: 17 goals, 23 assists (40 points) in 37 games played
Chances of leaving early: 5/10

Like Sucese, Brandon Biro had a career year in 2018-19. He set new career highs in all three major offensive statistics thanks to his well-rounded game.

Biro was trusted in all situations by Guy Gadowsky this season. He developed a nice chemistry with seniors Chase Berger and Alec Marsh on his forward line, so he’ll have to find a way to produce with a new 5-on-5 assignment next year. The junior is a consistent, balanced player — he’s as good with the puck on his stick as he is reliable in a defensive assignment — but is he ready to make the leap to pro hockey?

Biro’s return to Hockey Valley is a toss-up. The argument for a pro team signing him is his ability to help in many different ways, and he’s also a very young player (21 years old). However, he may need to add onto his 5’11”, 175-pound totals in order to reach his full potential at the next level.

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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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