Cole Hults’ Steady Presence Continuing To Stabilize Penn State Hockey’s Defense

Top defensemen are hard to come by at any level of play, but Penn State hockey can safely say it’s had one for the past three years.

Junior blueliner Cole Hults was named the Big Ten’s third star of the week after notching a goal and three assists throughout the Nittany Lions’ weekend split against Michigan State. Hults scored his team’s first goal of the weekend before notching assists on its three others in Friday’s 4-2 loss and Saturday’s 2-1 win at Munn Ice Arena.

Offensively, Hults is putting up the best numbers of his college career so far. He’s scored 24 points (five goals, 19 assists) in 26 games played — a total that leads the Big Ten’s defensemen — including points in nine of his last 12 games played. The Hobey Baker award nominee is also Penn State’s leader in plus-minus with a +17 mark, and he’s blocked 35 shots this year — good for third on the Nittany Lions behind Kris Myllari and Paul DeNaples.

Hults won’t wow you with his skating, shooting, or passing, and he won’t single-handedly take over a game. However, everything about the defenseman’s game is steady and consistent, which is why head coach Guy Gadowsky sees so much value in him.

“He’s such a consistent, non-flashy, high-performing, low-risk guy,” Gadowsky said on Monday. “His points are always usually just a byproduct of really high-quality hockey — and he’s got a lot of them. It’s not like you watch him and go ‘oh man.’ He consistently makes high-level plays. Probably the biggest compliment is his high-end [level of play] isn’t that different from the low-end.”

It’s almost fitting that Hults’ longtime partner is Paul DeNaples — another high-production, low-risk player whose best attribute is his steadiness. The duo spent the vast majority of the past two seasons together with a few exceptions, but they were back on a pairing during Penn State’s split against Michigan State after being split up for the team’s 4-4 tie against Michigan on January 18.

Hults has tried to improve his game by putting the puck on net more often — a move that paid instant dividends with an opening-night hat trick. Aside from that minor tweak, however, Penn State’s No. 2 hasn’t had to make too many changes to his game over the past two-plus seasons.

“I think he’s grown like most freshmen do into upperclassmen,” Gadowsky said. “He has a bit of a pro mentality in terms of taking care of himself — his body, nutrition, and training. It’s just a natural growth to do that at a high level in the Big Ten. Every day, he faces some of the best and most talented college players in the nation.

“He asked a couple months after he came in what he can do better. The answer was ‘when I see it, I’ll tell ya.’ He’s sort of gotten a little bit better at everything.”

That “pro mentality” in nutrition and training perhaps comes from his family history. Hults’ older brother, Mitch, is a center who currently plays in the ECHL for the Kansas City Mavericks and has bounced between the league and the American Hockey League since leaving college at the end of the 2016-17 season.

Throughout the 2019-20 season, Penn State has undergone a bit of a learning curve when it comes to balancing defense and offense. The Nittany Lions are notorious for scoring loads of goals, but that perhaps came at the expense of strong defensive play. Gadowsky’s side has allowed just 2.50 goals per game this year — a mark that’s more than a full goal better than last year’s (3.57).

Hults has continued to play consistently well throughout this change in philosophy, which Gadowsky touched on during his Monday press conference.

“We’re still hoping that we don’t have to sacrifice [great offense for strong defense]. That’s the goal,” the head coach said. “I don’t know if we’ve admitted yet that we can’t play great defense and not risk offense at all, but we’re still optimistic. It’s not easy, but I think we’re getting there. We still have a vision of what we want this to be at the end of the 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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