2023-24 AUS women’s hockey season: a preview

Unmatched scoring. U SPORTS-best goaltending. Double-overtime goals. These are a few things AUS women’s hockey fans were treated to last year and could get again this year as a new season begins this week.

Everybody in the league is chasing one team: the back-to-back conference winner UNB Reds. Packed with veteran stars and imposing first and second-year groups, the Reds are the favourites to repeat as conference champs. UNB’s eyes are set on its first national title.

Not far behind them, as always, is a high-scoring but new-looking StFX X-Women team. While welcoming a humongous rookie class, many of the pieces are still there to return X to national competition. The Saint Mary’s Huskies make noise every year and will again with a mature and deep team, while the UPEI Panthers threaten on the edge of contender status.

Other teams, including the Dalhousie Tigers and Moncton Aigles Bleues, are finally seeing rebuilds come to fruition and show a lot of promise. Now, it’s up to them to make statements. The St. Thomas Tommies and Mount Allison Mounties could use some statements of their own following turbulent offseasons. 

Either way, the AUS is never an easy league to get through in a team’s quest for national supremacy. Two spots at the 2024 U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Championship in Saskatoon, Sask., are on the line.

Dalhousie Tigers

(Dalhousie Tigers)

Yes, 2023-24 will be the first season since COVID-19 without former head coach Troy Ryan — the Canadian women’s hockey team bench boss unsurprisingly took the job with PWHL Toronto not long ago. However, this will be the most exciting season at Dal in a long time. 

Reading the starting roster before the team’s season opener on Wednesday was proof. Full of either veteran stars or proven on-the-rise talents, it’s been a while since Dal said their core could compare with some of the league’s best. That’s thanks to Ryan and his team’s strong recruiting over the last four seasons. 

One of those coaches, Keifer House, handled most head coaching duties when Ryan was away with the national team. Now as interim head coach, the team shouldn’t miss a beat with that familiarity in place. He was behind the bench in Dal’s nailbiting 2022-23 quarterfinal loss to the UPEI Panthers — the team’s first earned playoff appearance since 2018.

As for players, Dal’s forward core is highlighted by a pair of talented scorers: fifth-year Brooklyn Paisley and third-year Olivia Eustace. Paisley went off for a career-high 23 points last season, good for 10th-best in the conference. Fans best remember Eustace for her heroic double-overtime goal in game two of the UPEI series to (briefly) keep the season alive. She led the team with 12 goals last year as she looks to crack the 20-point plateau. Kennedy Whelan joins Paisley as the other fifth-year, with captain Isabella Weist providing a ton of leadership and smarts. Anika Curri and Natasha Falk return after excellent rookie seasons.

The blueline will be led by Gabrielle Noordijk. She had a breakout 2022-23 by finishing with 14 points (fourth in AUS) but is the team’s stable option in all zones. Katie Cameron, Sydni Bird and Allison Hood join Noordijk in a large group of third-year defenders. The crease boasts another budding star in Grace Beer. She was one of the conference’s top stoppers last year as a rookie, posting an impressive .931 save percentage in the UPEI series. She could soon become the conference’s best.

At all positions, Dal has an influx of experience, depth and potential. The Tigers are certainly a sleeper pick to challenge for the AUS crown.

Moncton Aigles Bleues

(Aigles Bleus – Aigles Bleues (U de Moncton)/Facebook)

The Aigles Bleues had good times and bad in 2022-23. Well, mostly bad — they began the season with just one win in their first eight games and two wins in their final eight. It was enough to slot them into the final playoff seed, where things got interesting against the Saint Mary’s Huskies in the AUS quarters. They took the Huskies the distance, capturing game two with their backs against the wall and forcing double-overtime in their season-ending loss in Halifax.

There’s a lot to like after such an up-and-down season. UdeM has a scoring touch and a developing core that showed some clutch abilities late last season. Unfortunately for them, their defence couldn’t bring similar support as the team had an incredibly bad time in close games (four-win, 11-loss record in one-goal games). Some of it might be bad luck, but coach Marc André Coté’s more battle-hardened group in 2023-24 could help sway some more results their way all season long.

To start, UdeM is another team with a heck of a one-two punch at forward in Erica Plourde and Shani Rossignol. Plourde built off a big 2021-22 rookie season to finish fifth in the AUS scoring race with 28 points. It was the playoffs where Rossignol went into high gear with four goals in three games (including two goals to nearly upset SMU in game three). Lianne Desforges and Maritza Labrie scored 12 and 10 points respectively last season and remain solid secondary scoring options. Amelie Vachon is a recruit to watch.

An understated piece of the team is the defence, a unit that can make or break how far the team goes. UdeM has a pair of returning seniors Cassandra Call and Emilie Lalancette, who tied for fifth in AUS defensive scoring last year. Janie Caissie and Sara Regimbald are some other noted blueline returnees. Longtime goalie Audrey Berthiaume returns between the pipes, showing flashes of brilliance throughout her four previous seasons. She’ll be poised to bounce back from a .870 save percentage last year. 

Moncton is a perennial bubble team that can do damage if their best players play their best. The return of many seniors will provide a veteran edge that could steal the team a playoff round.

Mount Allison Mounties

(SMU Huskies)

For a long-suffering program like Mount Allison, there is no short path to AUS legitimacy. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t really improving. The Mounties crashed and burned to a dismal two wins in 28 games in 2022-23 (including an overtime victory over SMU) and are riding a 13-game losing streak into Friday. Ultimately, it was their second-worst season since last making the postseason in 2015-16. They won just one game in 2021-22.

But there are tales of comeback stories. The UPEI Panthers won just three games in 2010-11 before hosting nationals later in the decade. The 2011-12 SMU Huskies lost all but one game, before winning the AUS three straight times between 2015 and 2018. Mount A isn’t close to that. But perhaps some big things are in the works with the hiring of new head coach Addie Miles-Abbott. A former University of Manitoba star and FISU champion, Miles-Abbott brings a winning pedigree to a program in desperate need of such.

No Mountie broke the 10-point plateau last season. But on the bright side, most of those top forward scorers are back including Chelsea Krahenbil (nine points last season), Tallon Stephenson (eight) and Hailey Simoneau (seven). Stephenson is joined by Katie Bouwman and Molly Baxendale as the senior attackers. Meanwhile, five rookie forwards join including former NCAA talent Reese Chuback. 

Mount A’s defence is largely untouched. Island Bernard-Docker, Cassie Clarke, Rory Aiken and Julia Lee led the way last year and will do it again. Megan Breum also fit into the mix well last year as a rookie. Bianca Zak, who was the second-busiest goalie in the AUS last year with 524 shots faced, is gone. The job will fall to Kaitlyn Evelyn, Hanna Pagdato or rookie Skye McDonald.

It’s good much of the team has been together for a while. But if this team wants to go anywhere soon, it’ll need to build up the number of wins under its belt — and demand more of it.

Saint Mary’s Huskies

(SMU Huskies)

Yes, there are many questions following the end of 2022 AUS MVP Shae Demale’s time at Saint Mary’s — few could and can provide the offensive spark she did. But much of the group that was built, and scored, alongside Demale remains. And it’s a very promising squad that has been through the AUS’s biggest battles and went deep in the postseason. However, in the past three seasons, their bitter rivals from StFX have always had the upper hand in their almost inevitable playoff showdowns every spring. 

The Huskies can score with the best of them (tied for second in conference last year with UNB). Overlooked, however, is how their defensive abilities have been, being among the AUS’s best on a goals-per-game basis in recent seasons. Their roughly two goals against per game in 2022-23 may have been most impressive considering changes on defence and in net, with the strong play of two rookie netminders. The team had rough patches come playoffs, but coach Chris Larade now has a more experienced team that can still beat anyone in the AUS.

SMU is in a solid place even without 34-point scorer Demale and Ellen Laurence, second in team scoring last year with 23 points. Kara MacLean and Miranda Hatt now become SMU’s primary producers, finishing third and fourth in 2022-23 team scoring and coming off solid playoff performances. Senior Aimee O’Neill remains an important piece upfront. Even with that, top-six forward spots are up for grabs for rookies. Charlotte Buffie is a highly-touted centre joining the program, while Gillian Lapierre is a Canada Games champion (with British Columbia) who has “natural offensive talent,” said coach Larade. 

The Huskies have eight defenders on their roster, dominated by returnees. Captain Caleigh Meraw is one of them, with the fifth-year coming off an 11-point season (tied for ninth among AUS defenders). Maddy McCleary, Allie Barter and Maddy Corbett are all in their third seasons. Ella MacLean, a fourth-year joining from the NCAA’s Maine Blackbears, is an exciting offseason pickup. Between the pipes, the battle in goal will be vicious between Ridleigh Hansen and Sophie Scully. Hansen got the lion’s share of play last season and impressed with nine wins and a .921 save percentage. But Scully had an excellent showing when she stepped in during the StFX series.

The team dynamic will change with new stars stepping in for old ones but as always, the Huskies have a tight-knit group that should contend for the conference.

StFX X-Women

(Bryan Kennedy/StFX Athletics)

The Antigonish-based X-Women may not have captured the AUS or U SPORTS banners last season, but they set the bar very high in the AUS. Led by some of the best pure offensive talents in recent years, they powered their way to second in the standings with a Canada-best 110 goals scored. Despite injury woes in the playoffs (playing much of their run with four blueliners), X impressively balanced out its game and came within a double-overtime goal of the conference title versus UNB. They ran out of gas at nationals in Montreal, but the road to get there was something to be proud of.

It meant a lot for the players too, because many knew they wouldn’t be back. Two first-team AUS all-stars — top-line centre Lea MacLeod and Lauren Dabrowski, arguably the conference’s best blueliner — have moved on. So have other talents such as first-liner Chloe Vukosa, captain Josie Chisholm and starting goalie Jamie Johnson. It will be an incredibly young team with a dozen rookies. But X remains a contender as they retain their ace of spades: U SPORTS leading scorer Maggy Burbidge. With Burbidge in the lineup, anything is possible for coach Ben Berthiaume’s squad. The question will be whether it’s enough to again challenge UNB, SMU and other AUS contenders for the title.

Burbidge’s 47 points last season were 11 more than the next-closest scorer anywhere in Canada last year. It was also the 10th-best count in AUS history and the most since Alex Normore scored 48 in 2013-14 — a number she could challenge this season. She’ll have some great help with Ellie Brown and Kamdyn Switzer, fifth in sixth in 2022-23 team scoring. Landyn Pitts will likely step in as the number-one centre. Rookies make up about half of the X forwards and will battle for some big assignments. So far, Tea Pearce and Joanna Martinsen have impressed on preseason scoresheets. 

Losing their two best defenders, Dabrowski and Chisholm, will be an adjustment. But an influx of options (eight blueliners) and some recovered injuries will go a long way. Olivia Sutton and Kya Moss are the only two returnees from game three of the spring’s AUS final. Ella VandeSompel is the likely heir to the number-one defender designation — she was stellar in the postseason. A new face to watch is Terryn Mozes, joining from the NCAA’s Syracuse Orange. Amaya Giraudier split starting duties with Johnson the past two years and has a hand-up on more full-time duties. But the arrival of Brooklyn Oakes from NCAA Maine makes a 1A/1B tandem likely.

StFX will be a contender again. The question of how competitive they will be will depend on how much new players and returnees can step up in place of the departed core pieces. Because they are not easy replacements.

St. Thomas Tommies

(STU Athletics)

2022-23 was a disappointment for the Tommies. Coming out of the pandemic, STU was a team that sometimes beat squads like UNB — almost defeating them twice in the 2021-22 semifinals after upsetting UPEI in the quarters. That shifted last year. After winning their first two games, the Tommies suffered an eight-win season. The team was dry of offence, scoring just seven more goals than lowly Mount A while relapsing mightily in their own zone. Although they missed the playoffs by just four points, it was their worst season since 2003-04. 

STU is going back to the drawing board in many areas with the loss of some key players — namely 2022-23 leading scorer Emma Wilson and star goalie Caroline Pietroski. The team is very well-balanced between the eligibility years of players. But it’s recruited a lack of impact players in the previous two seasons as compared to the improving teams around them, such as Dal and Moncton. Coach Peter Murphy brings in a healthy seven recruits in a hoped bounce-back year, but there will be growing pains.

Outside of Wilson, two Tommies cracked the 10-point plateau in 2022-23: Amy Dvernichuk and Claire Nimegeers, each with 12. The former was a rookie, while the latter buried a team-leading eight goals. Trinity Webber came close to that number as a rookie and will be handed responsibility at centre alongside senior Jacey Dane. Recruit Lauren Smith scored at a near goal-per-game pace in Nova Scotia U18 competition, while Ella Chambers has been offensively involved in the preseason.

All but two defenders are returnees. The group is led by the offensive-leaning Aislynn Byers, who could build on last year’s six points. Libby Howatt and Laura Brown are third-years, while rookies MJ English and Laura Daley are already finding the scoresheet. In net, Elizabeth Campbell and Katie Sweeny are third-year options, while rookie Alberta U18 star Chloe Marshall will fight for the reigns.

2023-24 seems like a season STU will hand over most of the reigns to first and second-year talents as it’s shaping out to be a rebuilding year. If the recruits continue to pan out, the Tommies will be back in the mix in no time.

UNB Reds

(James West/UNB Athletics)

What a road it’s been for the UNB Reds. Rejoining the AUS in 2018, the team soared to the AUS pinnacle thanks to the recruiting of coach Sarah Hilworth and her team, plus some immediate results in the standings. Five years later, the team is an all-around powerhouse and two-time AUS champion — doing so in the most unforgettable of fashions last March with Frederike Cyr’s double-overtime title-clinching goal. A disappointing U SPORTS championship was a step back from a thrilling fourth-place nationals finish the year before, but that seems like just a road bump in the team’s chase for its first national title.

2023-24, however, will be an interesting new chapter for the team. Nine rookies join the Fredericton program, stepping into the places of important departures such as Ashley Stratton (the top scorer in program history), four-time AUS all-star blueliner Jenna MacLean and Cyr, last year’s second-leading scorer on UNB. It’s a large crew of seniors moving on, but many remain — nine, to be exact. The most exciting returnee is Kendra Woodland, the best goalie (some would argue the best player) in U SPORTS. 

However, 2023-24 could be the end of an era for the Reds, as many key players have one last shot at national gold. Acting head coach Kyle MacDonald (Hilworth is on parental leave) will be on a mission to go all-in for a national title while developing first and second-year talents who can contribute to a championship run.

The Reds thrive with their balanced forward attack. Last season, Lillian George led the team with 25 points and will be back. Centre Payton Hargreaves possesses raw talent while third-year Lauren Carter is cementing herself as a top scorer in the conference following a big postseason. Sydney Oitomen and rookie April Reiner join Carter and Hargreaves to form the deepest team at the centre position in the conference. Ontario U18 product Rylee Strohm and Albertan scorer Hailey Jackson are two more anticipated names at forward.

The blueline will look different, but can still dominate. Senior Lindsey Smith and 2022-23 breakout rookie Mackenzie Keenan lead the way. After missing last year with injury, Emma Giordano is expected to return and will be a difference-maker. Raine Murdoch joins from the NCAA’s Union College Dutchwomen. U SPORTS MVP Woodland will tend the twine after posting a mind-blowing .960 save percentage in 17 games last year and a .952 save percentage in the AUS playoffs. 

Even with some longtime talents moved on, the Reds have put themselves in the best position to continue their winning habits. The AUS title is UNB’s to lose.

UPEI Panthers

(Janessa Hogan/UPEI Athletics)

The Panthers have been in an interesting spot for the past few years — including two seasons as the U SPORTS nationals host. UPEI is at a middle point in the AUS — not with the top group of UNB, X and SMU, but removed from the lower teams. That fourth spot is where UPEI settled into last year in coach Sean Fisher’s first campaign behind the Panthers bench. Four is a magic number for UPEI, also scoring the AUS’s fourth-most goals and allowing the fourth least. 

Heading into 2023-24, many familiar questions remain for UPEI. One question seems to be most prevalent now: do they have a game-breaking player or two who can make the difference in must-win games? There are and have been good talents since star scorer Jolena Gillard finished at UPEI in 2022 and UPEI has the right pieces. But being on the precipice of AUS contention, one wonders what a player with the impact of UNB’s Kendra Woodland or StFX’s Maggy Burbidge could have. That may be enough to vault UPEI into contender status. 

One star in the making is McKinley Nelson — the third-year tied Taylor Gillis with 24 points for the team lead last year, while her 16 goals trailed those of only Burbidge and SMU’s Shae Demale. She will be an exciting watch alongside Ruby Loughton (15 points). UPEI boasts the AUS’s top defensive player with captain Lexie Murphy, also coming off a 15-point season. Chiara Esposito joins Murphy and Loughton at centre. Joining this year are Nova Scotia U18 top scorers Brooke Thompson and Brooke Henderson. 

The D-corps is one of the AUS’s youngest, yet most promising and mobile. The star is reigning AUS rookie of the year Orianna MacNeil — she finished third in AUS blueline scoring last year, the best total outside of StFX. Rachel Richards also thrived as a rookie, joined by third-years Avery Penner and Stephanie Leger in UPEI’s top four. Rookie Sarah Fraser brings smarts and skills to complement MacNeil’s offence. Sarah Forsythe returns after an impressive 2023 playoff run, especially in the Dalhousie quarterfinal. She and senior Shaylin McFarlane split the workload last season.

UPEI’s recruiting and youth influx should keep them in contention for a few years yet. 2023-24 will be about discovering whether they can make that jump and play in an AUS final — or better yet, win it.

Luke’s regular season predictions

  1. UNB
  2. Saint Mary’s
  3. StFX
  4. Dalhousie
  5. UPEI
  6. Moncton
  7. St. Thomas
  8. Mount Allison

Finals prediction

UNB defeats UPEI two games to zero

TOP PHOTO: James West/UNB Athletics

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