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Projecting Penn State Hockey’s 2019-20 Lineup: Forwards

Hockey is almost back, Penn State.

We’re exactly one month away from Penn State men’s hockey’s regular-season opener against Sacred Heart at Pegula Ice Arena. The Nittany Lions are coming off a 2018-19 season in which they missed out on the NCAA tournament despite posting a 22-15-2 record. The team finished at No. 16 in the PairWise rankings — a mark that’d typically be good enough to earn the final at-large bid into the big dance — but No. 31 AIC stole the final spot by winning its conference.

Head coach Guy Gadowsky will return the vast majority of his core — including one of the best forward lines in college hockey — and expectations will be sky-high in Hockey Valley. With that in mind, here’s a projection of how Penn State’s forward group could look this season.

Line 1

Alex Limoges-Evan Barratt-Liam Folkes

Honestly, you don’t need to be an expert to know that the trio of Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt, and alternate captain Liam Folkes will begin the season as Penn State’s unquestioned top forward line. This trio dominated any and every opponent it faced last season while combining for 57 goals, 78 assists, and 135 points.

Limoges generated interest from NHL teams as an undrafted free agent after becoming the first player in Penn State hockey history to score 50 points in a single season. The junior makes up for what he might lack in speed with an unmatched eye for goal, excellent puck skills, and tremendous playmaking ability. Folkes’ straight-line speed and goal-scoring acumen made him one of the most dangerous right wings in all of college hockey, but his ability to find open teammates with crisp passing is perhaps overlooked a bit.

Barratt has one of the highest hockey IQs in all of college hockey, and that complements his flair and high-end skill extremely well. If there are any question marks about this line, Barratt will be the subject of them. He underwent offseason hip surgery that kept him off the ice at the Chicago Blackhawks’ development camp.

The center said he expects to be cleared for action around the start of the regular season, so he may not be in the lineup against Sacred Heart on opening night. Once he does get going, however, he and his linemates should get back to dominating like usual.

Line 2

Denis Smirnov-Aarne Talvitie-Brandon Biro

Earlier this summer, head coach Guy Gadowsky told the Devils Insiders podcast that Aarne Talvitie will make the move over to center after spending last season on the left wing for Penn State. This move is necessary after the departures of senior captain Chase Berger and grad transfer Ludvig Larsson. The sophomore should slot into a line with Denis Smirnov and Brandon Biro.

Smirnov was snakebitten for nearly all of the 2018-19 season. After scoring 74 points in his first two college hockey seasons, the senior’s production dipped in his junior year. He scored a career-low eight goals and added 14 assists in 30 appearances, but he undoubtedly has the talent to bounce back and reach his 47-point freshman year output once again.

Meanwhile, Biro will become the seventh player to wear the “C” as Penn State’s captain when he hits the ice for the team’s season opener. His production has steadily increased throughout his college career. After scoring 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 39 games as a freshman, he put up nine goals and 22 assists in 2017-18 before posting career highs with 16 goals, 24 assists, and 40 points last year. Biro is a steady, reliable player who Guy Gadowsky can count on in all situations.

And then there’s Talvitie. He expects to be ready for the start of Penn State’s 2019-20 season after tearing his ACL in the gold medal game of the U-20 World Junior Championship back in January. The Nittany Lions missed Talvitie’s strength, awareness, and booming wrist shot in the second half of the season, and a position change shouldn’t stop the sophomore from building on his 17-point output in 16 games last year.

Line 3

Connor MacEachern-Nate Sucese-Kevin Wall

Since Penn State lost two key centers in the offseason, I think senior Nate Sucese will make the switch back to the middle of the ice for Penn State. Sucese posted career-bests in goals (19) and points (37) while mostly playing right wing, but he may have to move back to center simply out of necessity. The veteran shoots the puck a lot — including a team-leading 146 shots last year — but he’s always scored at a high rate (.139 shooting percentage). I think he’ll be given a line assignment with a pair of freshmen this year.

Connor MacEachern flipped his commitment from Robert Morris to Penn State late in the recruiting cycle. He’s a player to watch for to get off to a flying start this season when he begins his college hockey career. He put up big numbers in his first and only USHL season by scoring 26 goals and 30 assists for the Youngstown Phantoms.

On the right wing, Kevin Wall is perhaps the headliner of Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class. Wall spent last season with the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs, and he finished eighth in the league with 64 points (31 goals, 33 assists) in 49 appearances. He played well enough to hear his name called at the 2019 NHL Draft and become the first Penn Stater to be selected since 2017.

My only concern with Sucese at center is his faceoff percentage. He won 48.8 percent of his draws in his two seasons spent regularly playing center, including a drop from 50.2 percent as a freshman to 48.3 percent the year after. Regardless, he’s a speedy player who can put the puck in the net as well as anyone on Penn State’s roster.

Line 4

Blake Gober-Nikita Pavlychev-Sam Sternschein

Veteran wing Blake Gober filled Aarne Talvitie’s spot on this line after Talvitie went down with a torn ACL, and don’t expect this trio to split up anytime soon. Gober doesn’t have an incredibly high-end skill set when it comes to offense, but he’s one of the hardest-working forwards on Penn State’s roster who’s also an excellent penalty killer and fast skater.

Elsewhere, Nikita Pavlychev is back for his final season of college hockey. He’s one of the most physically imposing players in all of college hockey. The 6’7″, 225-pound behemoth of a center has improved his skating over the course of his time at Penn State, but he still relishes his shutdown capabilities and physicality against opposing goal-scorers.

Junior right wing Sam Sternschein thrived alongside Pavlychev last season. He appeared in all 39 Penn State contests while chipping in career-high totals in goals and assists (nine each). Both of those totals are steady improvements, and I think Sternschein is a prime candidate to have a breakout season thanks to his heavy shot and good size (6’2″, 204 pounds).

The trio of Gober, Pavlychev, and Sternschein might not be the most electrifying, but these three players are some of the grittiest and toughest on Penn State’s roster. Their skill sets — Gober’s speed and penalty killing, Pavlychev’s size, and Sternschein’s balanced game — complement each other, which is why this line had success shutting down opponents last year.

Extras

  • Max Sauvé: Sauvé is a speedy sophomore who showed flashes of his talent in nine games played last season. There are far worse options to have as a healthy scratch than Sauvé, who scored his first career goal in an 11-6 goal-fest against Robert Morris
  • Connor McMenamin: McMenamin is a freshman who hails from Collegeville, Pennsylvania. He joined Penn State after scoring 26 goals and 44 points while serving as captain for the USHL’s Tri-City Storm. At 6’1″ and 194 pounds, McMenamin has a good frame to build on, and he was also an alternate captain for Tri-City two seasons ago.
  • Adam Pilewicz: Pilewicz is officially listed as a defenseman by Penn State, but he played 14 games at forward last season. He’s a good player to slot into the lineup in a pinch, and he scored the first two goals of his collegiate career last season.
  • Tyler Gratton: Gratton is a speedy left-shot forward who’s listed as a right wing by EliteProspects. He scored 28 points in 58 games split between the USHL’s Fargo Force and Central Illinois Flying Aces after a mid-season trade, and he also has decent size (6’2″, 187 pounds).
  • Bobby Hampton: Hampton transferred to Penn State after spending the first two seasons of his college hockey career at Northeastern, but he’s ineligible to play for the Nittany Lions this season due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. The right-shot forward scored five goals in 47 games for the Huskies, and he helped his team win the 2019 Beanpot championship.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

Mikey is a senior majoring in journalism and Onward State's Sports Editor. He grew up in Bedminster, NJ and is way too obnoxious about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is hard. If you're dying to see more hockey/golf content on your timeline, you can follow Mikey on Twitter @mikey_mandarino. Send all hate mail, death threats, and your vote for the best chicken parm in State College to [email protected]

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