By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers defence got a whole lot younger this offseason, but with that newfound youth comes a world of potential.
Newcomer Avery Penner is the third defenceman to join the club, which also includes rookies Alyssa Nolan and Belle Jacobs. Head coach Bruce Donaldson realizes there will be growing pains along the way, but with a long training camp to experiment with different defensive pairings, he expects the back end to continue to be an area of strength.
"With the addition of three new D it will take some adjustment as the partners will look different," he said. "I do think with the mix of returning and new players we should continue to be a team that is hard to score against."
Donaldson has tons of confidence in his returning four defenders who'll anchor that end of the ice. The bench boss already knows what to expect from fourth-year stalwarts Sophie Vandale and Ally Clements — who both finished second in the league with identical plus-21 ratings — and he anticipates Katelynn Nice and Sydney Lyndon to continue to develop after strong sophomore seasons. That leaves the three rookies to battle it out for playing time, and Penner knows she can't take her opportunities to impress for granted.
"I have to work super hard, both on and off the ice, in order to reach my potential because I know university hockey is a faster and much more aggressive game."
The 17-year-old is coming off a strong season with the Ridley College Tigers and brings with her plenty of championship pedigree. The team, which participates in two separate leagues concurrently, captured its second Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario Athletic Association (CISAA) championship in as many years. And as part of the Junior Women's Hockey League (JWHL), the Tigers finished third with a 13-4-1 record.
Penner's versatility was on full display throughout the season as she put up 10 goals and 15 assists in 62 games. While she's primarily a stay-at-home defender, she doesn't shy away from taking calculated risks that could help her team get the competitive edge.
"I'm an aggressive defenceman who's also versatile. I tend to jump up on the rush when the opportunity arises and attack on the forecheck," The Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON native said.
"One of my greatest strengths is my ability to get a quick, hard shot off from the point. Like I said before, my aggressiveness makes me a strong player in the corners and allowis me to win those one-on-one battles."
That should excite Donaldson and his coaching staff as they try to piece this puzzle together and attempt to match their stingy defensive production from last season, where they allowed a league-low 42 goals.
"Avery will bring additional depth and balance to our defensive core which allows us to continue to develop our defence for different situations."