When Warriors GM Dan Richardson signed Aaron Bold backed in September, the expectation was that he would likely be in net for nearly every minute of game-time this season; and what a realistic expectation that was. Since 2012, Bold has played at least 850 minutes each season and has topped 1,000 minutes in three of those years due to his dominance.
That move, however, threw Eric Penney into a back-up role, something that has become too familiar for the 25-year-old pride of Mimico and Rexdale-native. Originally acquired by the Buffalo Bandits in the 2013 NLL Draft, Penney was shipped to the Vancouver Stealth in 2014.
His inaugural exposure to the NLL was to support Tyler Richards who was the team’s starter in Vancouver during the 2015 campaign. In his first season with the Stealth, Penney proved that he could step up to the task at the professional level. Starting in nearly every game that April, Penney posted two 50+ save games that month. That included a career-high 59-save effort on the road against the New England Black Wolves – it was also his first game where he allowed fewer than 10 goals in a start (he surrendered nine).
When Richards retired after the 2015 season, it seemed inevitable that Penney would at least be given the chance to start for the Stealth, but a monkey-wrench was thrown into that possibility when Richards came out of retirement and returned to the Stealth the following season. Nevertheless, Penney kept his head down, focused on becoming the best goaltender he could be, and tried to absorb as much as he could from his teammates, a strategy he has used throughout his career.
“I take feedback from anyone I played with or played against,” Penney told me previously. “A lot of the veteran guys, they give great input. Any information I get, I take in and do my best to use it.”
Fast-forward to 2019, working with Bold, goaltending coach Dwight Maetche and defensive coach Clayton Richardson, Penney once again feels that the veteran presence and years of experience they’ve logged has helped him greatly.
Penney is currently having his best season to date averaging a career and league-best 9.81 goals against average and a career and league third-best .790% save percentage. He has worked tirelessly with Bold, Maetche and Richardson since training camp to step up his game, and there’s no doubt the hard work is paying off.
“We go over positional stuff,” Penney said, giving an example of his talks with Bold. “Aaron can say to me, ‘you were a half-second late there, or, you’re anticipating at this moment, try and stay calm, patient and react to the ball.’
Penney’s relationship with Bold spans far greater than discussions about positioning. The chemistry and communication between the two on the bench, in practice and elsewhere has assisted Penney in becoming a more complete player with a higher level of confidence.
Maetche has seen the goaltender’s relationship grow as the season has progressed. There has been more communication since Penney has taken over as the starter following the heartbreaking home loss in mid-January to their opponents on Saturday, the San Diego Seals.
“[Bold] has done a tremendous job with Eric,” said Maetche. “During the game, he’s giving him tips. Between the two of them [their relationship] has been spectacular. I think it’s phenomenal to see that sort of teammate bond.”
“I have to give a lot of credit to Aaron for how he’s helped Eric.”
Over the years, Penney has worked on specific aspects of his game and we’ve seen his positioning improve. Throughout the 2019 season, Penney has been able to read offences to make key stops – a few late-fourth quarter saves come to mind. His ability to track the ball is an integral part of what enables him to position himself. This is just one more part of his game that has improved, likely because it has been a particular focus of his for years.
“Every game and practice you’re trying to focus in on that ball,” said Penney. “Being able to track it makes your job so much easier. There’s a lot of guys in this league that know how to shoot around a screen very well, so having that advantage of seeing the ball and watching it come to you has helped.”
Maetche has assessed Penney’s performance game-by-game and seen him take control of situations in net that have made it tough for offensive players to score.
“What I’ve seen from Eric is that he’s going to challenge the shooters and force them to make a good shot to beat him,” said Maetche. “I noticed right away that when Eric gets set and plays his position, there’s not a lot of net to shoot at.”
“He makes very minimal movement and is very efficient with how he plays.”
With all the improvements Penney has made over the years, and of course the last few games, this is his latest audition to be a team’s outright starting goaltender heading into a season. Much like former Stealth head coach Jamie Batley did last year, naming Penney the starter after Tye Belanger and Brodie MacDonald struggled to start the 2018 season, Warriors head coach Chris Gill is happy to keep riding the hot hand, or in this case, the hot stick. Gill has been impressed with Penney’s patience over the years and is proud that he’s been able to take advantage of his opportunities.
“He’s been paying his dues,” said Gill. “Goalies usually get into their prime in their mid-20’s and we’re happy he’s had the heart and the character to stick with it. When there were times he’s been a third-string goaltender or on the practice roster, he’s played his way into the NLL.”
Penney has felt a surge of confidence since he’s taken over the starting job in part because of the praise he’s gotten from the entire coaching staff and his teammates. That confidence boost matched with his improved skill set and willingness to work with his teammates and coaches is allowing the fans to see Penney come into his own before their eyes.
Whatever his future holds, Penney understands that it’s vital to his ultimate goal to take advantage of any opportunity he’s given in net.
“You’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities whenever you’re called upon,” said Penney. “Being able to come in and then have coaches praising me for playing a good game – you see your teammates rallying around you – it makes me more comfortable in net and I can relax and play with more confidence.”