By Thomas Becker
There's optimism in the air and a sense of renewed energy.
Hockey is back!
And the Panthers are raring to go.
After a long exhibition schedule, head coach Forbes MacPherson is eager to introduce fans to a different team with some intriguing new pieces.
Island hockey fans should be well aware of three forwards UPEI acquired in the off-season, each of whom spent time with the Charlottetown Islanders in recent years.
Nathan Yetman played for the Islanders from 2012-15 and most recently with the Summerside Western Capitals where he put together a solid campaign with 42 points in 48 games. Swedish native Filip Rydstrom amassed 67 points in 118 contests from 2014-16, while Charlottetown native Kameron Kielly, finished a stellar career as a member of the Islanders compiling 196 points in 246 games over four seasons (2013-17).
"All three of them bring different elements to the lineup and we expect them to make an impact here," MacPherson said.
They've been brought in to support established Panthers – Cody Payne (14G, 6A), Marcus Power (9G, 11A), Beau McCue (7G, 8A) and captain Brent Andrews (4G, 14A) – as they look to improve on the 85 goals they scored a season ago, which ranked sixth in the seven-team conference.
With newfound depth at the forward positions, MacPherson offered high praise for his offence.
"Our forward group is as good as any in the league."
The defence, however, is a work in progress. Aside from veterans Austin Levi and Ryan MacKinnon and sophomore Bobby Zinkan, the defensive unit is young and inexperienced. A quartet of rookies – Alex McQuaid, Olivier Arseneau, Jackson Atkinson and Tanner McCabe – have the unenviable task of keeping high-powered offences, like that of the UNB Varsity Reds, St. FX X-Men and Acadia Axemen, at bay.
"We're kind of throwing them into the fire early, but we know there will be a period of transition," MacPherson said. "We're aware of that, so we'll be working with these guys and hopefully through the second half of the season and the playoffs, they'll be playing more like seasoned players in this league.
"These guys are flying under the radar, but they have some intangibles that we love and
over time, we see these guys contributing for us."
Despite their youth, MacPherson said the team's success begins at the blue line, especially if they hope to inch closer to the upper echelon of the league.
"If we clean up our D-zone and improve our goals against, you'll see us gain a few more points in the standings."
The goaltending situation is a tricky one as it's very much in flux. With four netminders on the roster, there's an internal competition and the position between the pipes is anyone's for the taking.
Matt Mahalak comes in with the most experience having started 26 of the 30 games a season ago, whereas Connor Wilkinson served as Mahalak's primary backup. Meanwhile, rookies Matthew Mancina and Daryl MacCallum look to make a good impression on their head coach, who's hoping one of the four can step up and make his job easier by solidifying the position and solving a complex situation.
"Our job as a coaching staff is simple – to win games – and whichever goalie gives us the highest probability of winning will earn the job and make for an easy decision."
With a large turnover of players (nine in total), MacPherson has been impressed with how quickly his team has bonded, more so than in recent years. And he's hoping that camaraderie can carry over onto the ice come Friday when the games count.
"The returning players are very good leaders, they approach the sport very professionally and have a high level of accountability, individually and from a team perspective," he said. "And the players that are new to the program are humble, eager and very coachable. And when you connect those two, the personalities of the group mesh well."
So with the regular season just a day away, what can fans expect from the 2017-18 Panthers. According to MacPherson, they'll witness a fast-paced, hard-hitting brand of hockey and a team that will compete hard every night.
The only question remaining is will that be enough to contend with the likes of the Varsity Reds, X-Men and Axemen for league supremacy?
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan