Projecting Penn State Hockey’s 2019-20 Lineup: Defense
Penn State men’s hockey’s 2019-20 season will get started in just 24 days when the team takes on Sacred Heart at Pegula Ice Arena. The Nittany Lions won 22 games last season, but they failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament after falling to Notre Dame in the Big Ten championship game.
The team has always been susceptible to defensive lapses, and last year was no different. However, Guy Gadowsky will return his starting goaltender and the vast majority of his defensemen while adding a host of new players to the mix this season.
Here’s our view on how Penn State’s blue line and goaltending situations may look during the 2019-20 season.
Starter: Peyton Jones
Backups: Oskar Autio, Will Holtforster
Senior Peyton Jones will be back for what should be his fourth season as the Nittany Lions’ full-time starter in between the pipes. Jones made at least 32 starts in each of his first three seasons at Penn State, and he holds nearly every significant goaltending record in program history.
Last season, the veteran from Langhorne, Pennsylvania posted an 18-12-2 record, .901 save percentage, and 3.32 goals-against average. His save percentage and goals-against average were both the worst single-season totals of his career, but his experience (108 games played, 56 victories) could prove to be invaluable for Guy Gadowsky’s team.
Jones’ primary backup will be sophomore Oskar Autio — the younger brother of former Penn State defenseman Erik Autio. The younger Autio appeared in just three games last season, including two relief appearances. His only start was a 5-1 loss to Michigan when the Nittany Lion defense didn’t do him too many favors. Autio’s lack of experience may compel Gadowsky to lean on his senior goalie, but don’t be surprised if Autio gets the starting nod in a few non-conference games.
The graduation of Chris Funkey led Gadowsky to pluck Will Holtforster from the club-level Ice Lions. Holtforster’s career record with the club team is 33-5-0, and he posted a perfect 10-0-0 record last season. He’ll serve as Penn State’s third-string goaltender throughout the 2019-20 season.
Defense Pairing 1
Cole Hults-Paul DeNaples
Cole Hults and Paul DeNaples made up one of the steadier defensive pairings in Penn State hockey history last season, and there’s no reason to believe that Guy Gadowsky should split them up this year.
Hults, a fifth-round NHL draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings, is coming off the best season of his college hockey career. The puck-moving defenseman scored six goals and chipped in 22 assists while posting a plus-minus rating of +19 in his sophomore year. All but one of Hults’ key statistics improved from his first to his second season in Hockey Valley, and he’ll be expected to anchor the Nittany Lion defense as a junior.
Meanwhile, DeNaples will definitely help his partner anchor the Penn State blue line this season. He was a finalist for the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year award after finishing with the best plus-minus rating (+31) in the Big Ten and the third-highest mark in the nation. As evidenced by his two-goal, 12-assist scoring output, DeNaples’ game isn’t exactly flashy. But the simplicity that he plays the game with made him one of the nation’s steadiest blueliners his freshman year.
Hults’ skating and puck-moving abilities combined with DeNaples’ steadiness complemented each other well last year, and that’s a big reason why I think they’ll be back together this season.
Defense Pairing 2
Kris Myllari-Evan Bell
Senior lefty Kris Myllari is one of many pieces of Guy Gadowsky’s veteran core, and I think he and Evan Bell would make an intriguing pairing on the back end this year.
Myllari is best known for his ability to fill shooting lanes and fire bombs of his own from the point. He led the team with 90 blocked shots in his junior year after finishing second among the Nittany Lions with 82 blocks in the 2017-18 season. His four-goal total was the lowest of his Penn State career in 2018-19, but he has the booming shot needed to rebound that total in his senior year.
Left-shot defensemen don’t typically play the right defense position, but I think Bell is more than capable of filling in that type of role after doing so in his first half-season as a Nittany Lion. The smooth-skating junior never lost his place in the lineup after making his Penn State debut at the start of the second semester, and he scored nine points (one goal, eight assists) and registered a +8 rating in 21 games played.
Like Hults and DeNaples, this pairing worked out really well for Penn State last year, so there’s no reason for Gadowsky to get away from it.
Defense Pairing 3
Clayton Phillips-Alex Stevens
Minnesota transfer Clayton Phillips was a late addition to Penn State’s 2019-20 roster, but he should step in and make an immediate impact for Guy Gadowsky’s team.
Phillips was selected No. 93 overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 NHL Draft. He spent the first two seasons of his college hockey career as a Golden Gopher. He appeared in 34 games for Minnesota last season, but he said he sought a change of scenery shortly after his sophomore season wrapped up. The 6’0″, 195-pound blue-liner was granted an NCAA transfer exemption to be eligible for game action this year.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Phillips paired with Alex Stevens as he settles into a new team. Stevens is coming off the best season of his collegiate career so far after scoring a goal and 10 assists in a career-high 35 games played. The junior spent most of last season on a defense pairing with senior Kevin Kerr, so it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with a newcomer to the team if they’re paired together.
Perhaps both players’ Minnesota roots could lead to some chemistry between the two on a defensive pairing.
- James Gobetz: Gobetz’s experience and steady play make him the ideal seventh defenseman for Penn State this season. He’s played in 79 college games throughout his career, but he’s also coming off a down year in 2018-19. Regardless, he’s more than capable of filling into the lineup when called upon to do so.
- Mason Snell: Snell is a talented freshman who was ranked among the top 250 North American skaters in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s 2019 draft rankings. He ended up going undrafted, but he’s a good skater who had success in multiple leagues at the junior level before moving to Penn State.
- Kenny Johnson: Johnson is perhaps the most intriguing of Penn State’s extra defensemen, in my opinion. He’s listed at 6’4″ and 230 pounds, and his older brother, Jack, has spent nearly 15 years in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins. Johnson is a big boy who’s capable of pushing opponents around when needed.
- Adam Pilewicz: Pilewicz filled into the lineup as a forward at times throughout the 2018-19 season, but he’s listed as a defenseman by the team this season. I’m not sure if he’ll play on the blue line at all this year, but he’s worth including because of his position listing.
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