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By Neil Hodge - They may fly under the radar now as 16-year-old rookie forwards in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but they're expected to be a key part of the Moncton Wildcats' future.
Meet Ryan Penny and Brett Malone.
"It's not easy to be a 16-year-old in this league," said Moncton head coach Danny Flynn. "You're playing against guys much older, you're often living away from home for the first time and getting used to new surroundings, and your ice time is greatly reduced from your minor hockey days.
"You're dealing with a lot of changes in your life, both on and off the ice. We're pleased with Ryan and Brett this season. We're happy with the progress that both are showing. I'm confident they're going to become very good major junior players."
Moncton, 26-18-2-4, was tied for ninth overall in the 18-team league as of Feb. 2. The defending champion is now a young rebuilding club and as it looks to the future Penny and Malone have special significance as the only 16-year-olds on the roster.
Malone and Penny helped Team Atlantic finish fifth at the 2011 World Under-17 Hockey Championship, a 10-team tournament that concluded in early January in Winnipeg. Team Atlantic had a 3-2-0 record in the tournament, its second best showing ever.
Malone, who's from Miramichi, N.B., had two goals and one assist in that event. He was playing on the club's top line with Andrew Ryan of the Halifax Mooseheads and U.S. prep school star Nathan McKinnon, who many project will be the first overall pick in the 2011 QMJHL draft.
"I was playing on an offensive line there,'' said Malone. "I couldn't have asked for two better linemates than those guys. It was definitely a confidence builder for me that the coach put me in that situation."
Penny, Team Atlantic's assistant captain, had two assists in the tournament. The native of Fall River, N.S. played a third-line checking role and enjoyed the challenge of being matched up against the opposition's top line.
"We were considered a shutdown line," he said. "Our responsibility was defence first. Our line finished the tournament plus two so we were proud of that. I was also a regular on the penalty kill.
"It was a great honour to play in that tournament. I was put in situations that I haven't been in before and gained great experience from that. It made me a more confident player coming back to Moncton. I went against the best players in my age group and I thought I did well."
Team Atlantic's best-ever showing in the world under-17 championship was a bronze medal in 2005. It's been a club that's generally finished near the bottom of the tournament over the years.
"On paper, we felt we were one of the better teams coming from Atlantic Canada," said Penny. "In our minds, we went into this year's tournament thinking that we could do well. We held our own against everybody we faced and I think we can be proud of what we accomplished.
"It was my first international hockey experience. It opened my eyes to the best players in the world in my age group. It definitely gives me the hunger to play more international hockey."
Penny (fourth round) and Malone (third round) were both selected in the 2010 QMJHL draft. They've been in and out of Moncton's lineup so far this season, allowing them the opportunity to break in gradually against elite competition while adjusting to a heavier playing schedule.
Penny is a left winger who has two points, both assists, in 31 games. Malone is a right winger who has six points, including four goals, in 34 contests.
Malone had 34 points, including 22 goals, in 30 games last season with the Miramichi Rivermen in the New Brunswick/P.E.I. Major Midget Hockey League. He certainly has strong bloodlines working in his favour.
His father, Jim Malone, played minor pro. His brother, Brad Malone, was a fourth-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2007 National Hockey League draft and he now plays for the University of North Dakota.
His uncle, Greg Malone, played 11 National Hockey League seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques. His cousin, Ryan Malone, is now an NHL veteran with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"That was my first international hockey experience," said Malone, the Wildcats' rookie. "Hopefully, I'll get another chance some day. That's a big motivation for me to keep working hard and improving.
"My brother and cousin both went the U.S. college hockey route. I was looking at going that way also, but then changed my mind after coming to Moncton's training camp and seeing what the Wildcats and major junior is all about. I'm glad I came to major junior. It's more like a pro schedule with the number of games you play. I think it's better for my development."
Moncton's head coach is thrilled whenever his players get the opportunity to compete in world championship tournaments.
"It was the thrill of a lifetime for Ryan Penny and Brett Malone to put that Team Canada jersey on," said Flynn. "It's something they will remember forever. Some people never get the chance. Some people get it one time. They both said it was a great experience.
"The reports from (Wildcats chief scout) Peter Nevin, who was there, is that they both had a solid tournament. Brett scored a couple of nice goals and Ryan settled in as that third-line checking centre and penalty killer."
Flynn commented on the benefits for young players who get to suit up in international tournaments.
"It gives you a chance to see where you stack up among the best players in the world in your age bracket,'' he said. "You see the things you need to work on or conversely you see that you're not that far away. The dream gets clearer.
"I think you'll see Brett eventually mature into a goal scorer in this league. He has a strong shot and good offensive instincts. I think you'll see Ryan become a third-line checking centre in this league, someone who plays a solid two-way game."
PHOTO CREDIT - Daniel St-Louis
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