Penn State Hockey

NHL taking interest in Penn State freshman Denis Smirnov

Penn State’s Denis Smirnov and Arizona State’s Tyler Busch fight for the puck during the Nov. 19 game at Pegula Ice Arena.
Penn State’s Denis Smirnov and Arizona State’s Tyler Busch fight for the puck during the Nov. 19 game at Pegula Ice Arena. Centre Daily Times, file

It’s hard to believe, but NHL teams didn’t think that perhaps the best freshman in the nation this season was worthy of a draft choice last June.

The next draft may be a different story.

Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky, who leads the nation’s hottest team into a monthlong break, said he and his staff were surprised Denis Smirnov did not garner enough NHL interest.

They are interested now.

“I think all of us coaches would have more time in the day if Denis wasn’t on our team right now,” Gadowsky said. “We answer the phone all day long about him. I think there’s certainly a lot of NHL teams taking notice if they hadn’t already.”

Smirnov is merely third in the nation in scoring and assists, and leads all freshmen, with 10 goals and 17 assists for the nation’s highest scoring team.

“No one is surprised that he’s putting up a good number,” Gadowsky said. “Maybe the extent that he has is surprising, but that isn’t really the issue, I don’t think. I think he’s answering all the questions that maybe NHL teams might have had.”

He was on the radar elsewhere, drafted in the first round by HK Sochi of the 2014 KHL draft — the pro league in his native Russia. But he didn’t want that.

“I heard there was a rumor on Twitter that I signed a contract,” Smirnov said. “I don’t know who spread it, but I was shocked too.”

Smirnov has been in the U.S. a while, playing youth hockey in Wilkes-Barre from 2011-13, where he caught Gadowsky’s attention. He was teammates with fellow Russian and Nittany Lion Nikita Pavlychev, who did get picked by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015.

Smirnov, who turns 19 on Thursday and is still NHL draft eligible, has shown a combination of good hands, stick-handling, vision and innate abilities on the ice that have made him an impressive first-year player.

“Obviously it’s a hard transition,” Smirnov said. “Obviously the whole team does great.”

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