Questions loom for Notre Dame hockey

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

Robbie Russo, Notre Dame’s unquestioned leader on the ice last year, is gone. That much was a given heading into the 2015-16 college hockey season after Russo graduated and signed a free agent deal with the Detroit Red Wings this summer.

What came as something of a shock to Irish head coach Jeff Jackson was the unexpected departures. Scoring leader Vinnie Hinostroza skipped out on his final two seasons of eligibility to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks. Top incoming freshman forward Christian Fischer never even made it that far, choosing instead to sign with the team that drafted him in the second round this summer, the Phoenix Coyotes, before he ever officially got to Compton Family Ice Arena.

Those are three important holes the Irish will have to fill if they want to finish better than one game under .500 like last season. Notre Dame has talent, but does it have enough?

Who are the key guys?

• Mario Lucia: ND’s top returning scorer led the Irish with 21 goals last year, possesses an NHL-caliber shot, and will be a focal point of opposing defensive plans. He’ll also be an alternate captain this year.

• Thomas DiPauli: Gritty, tough forward who can play center or wing and is arguably the team’s best penalty killer. DiPauli had his best offensive season in 2014 with eight goals and 21 assists.

• Jordan Gross: The best scoring option from the blueline, he was often paired with Russo last year and will be the most likely to take over for Russo as the point-man on the power play after notching seven goals and 21 assists as a freshman.

• Cal Petersen: Took control of the crease about halfway through his freshman season and went on an historic run that included an NCAA-record 87 saves against UMass in the longest collegiate game in history on March 6. Before that, Petersen was Hockey East’s goaltender of the month for February after collecting 38 saves in a shutout of eventual national champion Providence, 55 saves in a win over No. 9 Boston College, and 44 stops in a 3-2 upset of No. 2 Boston University.

Who needs to step up?

• Sam Herr: As a sophomore, Herr had 14 goals, 13 assists and was +14 in 2013, but regressed to 12 and 6 with a -9 last year. The Irish need the ’13 version of Herr to re-emerge.

• Connor Hurley: A second round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2013, Hurley had just four goals as a freshman. More will be expected of the talented center with Hinostroza gone.

• Steven Fogarty: Named a team captain for the second straight season, he’s coming off a 21-point year which was seventh-best on the team. That’s not bad, but not enough for a group looking to replace its top two scorers and make it back to the NCAA tournament. Jackson suggested on Tuesday that Fogarty could pair on a line with Lucia to spark more offense.

Who are these guys?

• Dennis Gilbert: A 6-foot-2, 195-pound defenseman who was drafted in the third round (91st overall) by the Blackhawks, Gilbert had two goals and two assists in an exhibition win over Guelph, and should see plenty of ice time early. He was a late but important addition to this year’s recruiting class back in May.

• Dylan Malmquist: A 5-11 left wing who finished his high school career at ND-pipeline Edina as the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer and the Minnesota high school player of the year according to the Associated Press. He’ll make the rare jump straight from high school to college, which could be a difficult learning curve, but word about his play-making chops is spreading.

• Bobby Nardella: A short (5-9) but shifty defenseman who came through another ND pipeline, the Chicago Mission program. Speed and puck movement is his game, but he’ll be slowed by a lower body injury early in the season.

• Joe Wegwerth: The big guy – a 6-3, 230 lb. left wing – was a fourth-round pick of Florida in 2014 and could be an answer to the eternal question: Who will create traffic and mayhem in front of the net? The Irish haven’t figured that out since Anders Lee skated off to the New York Islanders.

Notre Dame players celebrate wing Thomas DiPauli goal in the first period of Hockey East playoff action at the Compton Family Ice Arena Sunday March 8, 2015 in South Bend, Ind. (SBT Photo/Joe Raymond)

WHO: Notre Dame (0-0-0) vs. Penn State (1-0-0)

WHERE: Pegula Ice Arena, University Park, Pa.

WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m.

RADIO: WHFB 99.9 FM

LAST TIME OUT: Penn State beat Canisius, 6-1, last Saturday; Notre Dame beat Guelph 7-5, and tied USNTDP U-18 team 2-2, in exhibition games last weekend.