All the evidence necessary to illustrate the change in Penn State’s hockey program was available in its media room on Thursday.
It was filled to the brim, and for good reason.
For the first time in their short history, there are tangible expectations for the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions as they gear up for a new season.
Coach Guy Gadowsky explained how he plans to deal with those expectations, addressed his team’s roster turnover and gave his take on a changing Big Ten hockey landscape during his 20-plus minutes at the podium.
1.) Managing success
A 2016-17 season that was as tumultuous as it was successful brought Penn State to the top of the college hockey world — briefly.
The Nittany Lions went winless for five games after being ranked No. 1 in USCHO.com’s poll, and now they must again navigate the attention and publicity that come along with success after coming a win away from the Frozen Four.
Gadowsky is aware of the mistakes he made a season ago, and said his coaching staff feels more equipped to handle the hype this time around.
“It’s something that we learned a lot last year, and quite honestly something that I wasn’t very prepared for,” he said. “I did a very poor job last year. I didn’t really anticipate the amount of noise that it was going to cause, not only positive noise from inside Centre County, but noise in general from across college hockey.”
The consensus among the players seems to be that an even keeled, game-by-game approach much like the one James Franklin emphasizes with Penn State football is the solution to the problem.
Alternate captain Chase Berger believes blocking it out is the best approach.
“We don’t really talk about any of that stuff or really focus on it, or read into it,” Berger said. “We kind of just show up and have fun and try to get better everyday. I don’t think we ever discuss that or think about it.”
2.) Filling big shoes
The Nittany Lions return a load of talent, with nearly 72 percent of their total points scored by players set to come back.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have holes to fill, though, as former captain David Goodwin, the only Penn State player to surpass the 100 point mark in his career, and Vince Pedrie, a two-way defenseman who could see time with the New York Rangers this season, will each leave big holes on the stat sheet.
Pedrie’s departure, especially, came as a surprise to Gadowsky. But incoming freshman Cole Hults fits a similar profile.
“We did recruit Cole Holts, who is here largely due to [Pedrie signing a pro deal]. He’s another left-hand shot, very offensive, smart defenseman, who had equivalent, you could say similar, success in the USHL.”
In a sport that champions those players who do everything but show up on the stat sheet, Gadowsky has touted new captain James Robinson as someone who will need to fill the void left by Ricky DeRosa, who was renowned for his ability to do the little things.
“[Defensive]-zone faceoffs, killing penalties, things like that — Ricky was just tremendous...That’s a huge loss. I think [Robinson] is a guy that is going to have to fill that role. I think he’s absolutely, 100 percent capable.”
3.) A new foe
A conference that sent three of its six members to the NCAA Tournament a season ago is adding another giant.
Notre Dame will join the Big Ten this season after earning a trip to the Frozen Four in 2016-17. Penn State is 2-1-1 in games against the Irish in the last two seasons.
Notre Dame’s addition means five of the seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the top-20 of this year’s preseason poll, with three programs placed in the top-10.
“This is by far, I think, the toughest, head-to-toe league that Big Ten hockey has had,” Gadowsky said. “That’s maybe obvious because you add Notre Dame who’s coming in and went to the Frozen Four last year. I think more significant is the rise of how good right now Wisconsin is, how good Ohio State, and Minnesota’s always Minnesota. It’s top-to-bottom tough, really tough.”
If Penn State is to repeat as Big Ten Tournament champions, the road to do so will also be more grueling. A one weekend, neutral site affair is being replaced by a campus site, three-game series format in the first and second rounds, leading up to a one-game championship decider on the higher seed’s campus.