It was a decision that will hurt the Penn State men’s hockey team in the fall, but coach Guy Gadowsky can’t fault Casey Bailey for jumping at the opportunity.
As the Nittany Lions’ leader put the wraps on the program’s third season of NCAA Division I hockey, he first had to address the biggest news of the weekend: leading scorer Casey Bailey’s decision to forgo his final season of eligibility and jump to the NHL.
Bailey signed a two-year free agent contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, and he is now with the team in Canada prepping for his first game likely later this week.
“That’s a tremendous dream realized,” Gadowsky said. “For him that was the main factor in it.”
It hurts the Nittany Lions, since it takes away someone who scored 22 goals and 18 assists this past season, but it also gives Gadowsky and his staff something to add to their pitch to potential recruits.
It’s one thing to have people like goalie Eamon McAdam and defenseman Mike Williamson on the roster — they were each selected in the NHL draft before their freshman seasons on campus — but Bailey was undrafted and was developed by the Nittany Lion coaches into an all-around player, with good defensive abilities to go with his offensive skills, and at the end of the season 15 of the NHL’s 30 teams were showing interest. Bailey almost chose the Buffalo Sabres, but his father told the Daily Collegian they didn’t want Bailey to join them this season, while the Leafs wanted him immediately.
With the Nittany Lions in contention for the Big Ten title heading into the final weekend of the season, and with an undrafted player able to be snapped up by an NHL team, the coaches now have answers to two major questions recruits have had the last few years.
“I think it’s definitely a positive step,” Gadowsky said. “I think it will answer some of the questions that often potential recruits will have coming in here.”
Bailey is on the roster with no number listed for the Maple Leafs, who host the Florida Panthers on Thursday and have eight games left this season.
“He’s a big bodied guy that has had an excellent year in college. His release is something you'll notice right away. He gets the puck off very well and gets himself in a position to shoot,” Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis said on the team’s website. “The pace of the game is going to be different, obviously. It’s a big change for a young man coming out of college. That’ll be something he has to adjust to, but we think he's a good prospect and we're thrilled to have him.”
What a season
If not for Bailey’s decision, the session with Gadowsky would have been focused on the season as a whole, turning a record of 8-26-2 in 2013-14, with just three Big Ten wins, into an 18-15-4 mark, with 10 conference wins this year.
In terms of statistics, the numbers also were better at both ends. The Nittany Lions scored 119 goals this season against 80 last year, while the defense gave up 113 instead of 129. On power plays, they converted 21.9 percent instead of 17.7 percent, and allowed a 19.5 opponent conversion rate, a drop from 18.9 percent a season ago. Last season, only David Glen had a positive number in plus-minus stats, measuring who is on the ice for goals scored and goals allowed at even strength, but this season eight men had positive numbers.
They also were in the national rankings at two different points in the season, and got plenty of respect nationally.
“I like the direction we’re going,” Gadowsky said. “I think we improved a whole lot last year. I think we improved this year, and I’m optimistic that we’ll continue.”
While so many program goals have been met in just three years, the coach said they can’t feel satisfied yet or think they have arrived.
“We have a lot of ideas in our head, a lot of fantasies in our head,” Gadowsky said, “with what is going to happen with this program and we look forward to all of them, but we’re not picking this is what’s happening next.”
They do, however, wish the ending had been better. They lost eight of their final 11 games, including a 3-1 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament’s first round. They had two regulars out of the lineup in forward Kenny Brooks and defenseman Luke Juha, and two others, forwards Taylor Holstrom and Eric Scheid, played despite not being at 100 percent.
“It’s not an excuse because every team at that stage has bumps and bruises,” Gadowsky said. “… That’s why winning a championship is such a special thing because you need the talent, you need the work ethic and you need a little bit of luck in terms of injuries as well, and maybe this was a great experience to learn how to learn to deal with it better.”
Gadowsky did not divulge Scheid’s injury. Holstrom hurt his knee in a collision with a Buckeye player on Feb. 28 and missed the regular season’s final four games.
“Give him a ton of credit. He wasn’t close to ready,” Gadowsky said. “He’s a senior that came here and really wanted to prove a point. He just wasn’t going to sit out.”
A few other items as the team heads into the offseason:
“I think it’s wide open,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t really think that one goalie came in and ran away with it.”
“To me, this year, when he was healthy, he looked like he was just playing at another speed,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t know that he can get another gear out of that, but I’m very curious to see what he brings next.”
“I don’t think we’re at that point yet,” Gadowsky said. “Hockey does very well here in Happy Valley, as well as across the state, then we will be able to spend more time getting great, great players within our footprint.”