A lot has changed around Hockey Valley since senior alternate captain Kevin Kerr arrived on campus.
Penn State earned its first piece of hardware in the 2016-17 season by winning the Big Ten tournament in Detroit, and the program can now boast consecutive NCAA tournament appearances after receiving an at-large bid last season. Naturally, the players around Kerr have changed quite a bit, too.
Roster turnover is something every college sports team deals with. However, its impact on a hockey team’s unit of six defensemen can be felt in a big way, even if a team loses just two or three blueliners.
Many predicted that the Nittany Lions’ blue line would take a big hit after losing Erik Autio and Trevor Hamilton to graduation. However, that simply hasn’t been the case so far this season, as No. 6 Penn State is 5-0-0 with three victories over ranked teams.
Kerr, a senior from Bensalem, PA, made his season debut Friday night during the Nittany Lions’ 4-2 victory over Princeton. He said he felt good after missing the first four games of the year due to injury, but that there was a slight difference playing with some of Penn State’s new faces on the blue line.
“There’s a little bit of an adjustment whenever you’re bringing a new guy into the lineup,” Kerr said. “I think it’s an adjustment for the guy you’re playing with, the team in general, and the guy himself. It’s definitely more of an adjustment for the [new] guy. There’s a lot of things to get used to.”
Plenty of defensemen have come and go since Kerr’s arrival in 2015-16. Autio, Hamilton, Vince Pedrie, and Luke Juha are just a handful of those who’ve moved on from Hockey Valley.
Despite the turnover, it’s hard to think of players who have stepped up in the absences of veterans more than true freshman Paul DeNaples and sophomore Alex Stevens — Kerr’s defensive partner on Friday night at Pegula Ice Arena.
“I think both of them are doing phenomenal,” Kerr said. “They’re playing confident. Stevo didn’t play much last year, but he’s taken his new role by storm this year. Paul has found his little niche in our defensive core, and he’s doing a great job. He’s fit in very well.”
Turnover on the blue line has also led to a change in style of play on defense. Kerr said he and the rest of the defensive unit have gained more freedom and creative license offensively — they’ve been authorized to move the puck and jump into the play more over the course of the last four years.
“We play a little bit differently as a team. Our coaches recruit guys that like to move the puck fast, hard, get up the ice, and get involved,” Kerr said. “It’s way different than the way we played as freshmen. It’s a lot more fun — we can get up in the play and have a good time out there.”
Although some of the newer faces have played very well to start the season, it’s certainly nice to see a familiar face back in the lineup.
“It was awesome,” junior defenseman Kris Myllari said of Kerr’s season debut. “He makes our team better. He has the ability to break the puck out and get the puck up to our forwards, which is a strength of our team. Not to mention he brings a great sense of leadership. Everyone benefits from having a guy like Kevin back.”
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