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Riveters’ Saroya Tinker is ready for pro hockey

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The first round draft pick is keyed in for her first year of NWHL play.

If you’re a Metropolitan Riveters fan, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about 2020 first round pick Saroya Tinker. General manager Kate Whitman Annis addressed a pressing need to improve her blue line by selecting Tinker fourth overall in the 2020 NWHL Draft. She’s a physical, balanced defender who has the potential to play on the team’s top pair in the 2020-21 season.

The 5-foot-9 blueliner won a silver medal with Team Canada at the 2016 U18 Women’s World Championship before beginning a standout collegiate career at Yale. Tinker, who is a self-identified defensive-minded defender, became more involved with the Bulldogs’ offense in her junior season in 2018-19. She scored a career-best three goals that season after scoring one goal in her fist two seasons at Yale. In 2019-20, she set a career-best in assists (11) and shots on goal (65), finishing the year with 12 points in 32 games.

The possibility of playing post-collegiate hockey was something Tinker had designs on as early as her freshman season, but heading into the 2019-20 campaign she admits she had stopped thinking about it. The NWHL was “off her radar” after the Bulldogs went 8-18-3 in her junior season. She credits the coaching staff at Yale, led by head coach Mark Bolding, for making her fall in love with the game again in her senior season.

“I’ve gotten used to people asking if I’m still playing, but I don’t think I’ve taken in that I was fourth overall,” Tinker told The Ice Garden. “I didn’t expect to go that high as a defenseman. I’m excited. It definitely encourages me to get better and grow and be ready for next season.”

As a senior, Tinker led the Bulldogs in blocked shots (55) and penalty minutes (69) while also finishing third among Yale’s defenders in scoring. She played the role of shutdown defender and helped lead the team to it’s winningest season in program history (17-15-0). In addition to playing on the second pair she killed penalties and saw time on the second power play unit.

As a senior, her eTOI (per pick224) was 21.4 — down from an eTOI of 23.77 as a junior — which suggests she is capable of handling the workload of a top-pair defender. The fact that she finished her senior year with a -0.07 Rel ES GF% (relative even strength goals for) playing away from sophomore star Emma Seitz is a strong indication that Tinker carried Yale’s second pairing. Junior Lauren Moriyama and sophomore Tabea Botthof finished fourth and fifth among Yale’s blueliners in eTOI, respectively. The gap between Tinker’s Rel ES GF% and Moriyama’s (-29.63) and Botthof’s (-9.15) paints a picture of how vital she was to the Bulldogs’ defense.

Here’s a GIF of her cleaning up a mess in Yale’s defensive zone in a game against St. Lawrence. Note how Tinker uses her reach to attack the puck carrier and take away her potential to set up a high-quality chance for the Saints.

“When I came in, I would say that we were a bottom team [in ECAC] but through my time at Yale we came together as a team,” Tinker said. “We were able to establish new values on the team. In my senior season I think we proved that Yale [is becoming] a top team. I think that coach Bolding has prepared us and was able to connect with us quickly. I think he’s going to build the program into a championship team.”

Bolding called Tinker a “smart, smooth-skating defenseman who has a great first pass” in the league’s press release of her signing. Anyone who watched the Riveters over the last two years can speak to the team’s difficulty with zone exits, particularly when it comes to defenders making that critical first pass out of the zone.

Tinker hopes she will be able to help make a difference in her rookie season when she has the puck on her stick in the defensive zone. “Making those clean first passes is part of doing your job as a defender,” Tinker explained. “When you’re able to connect with forwards and give them good passes on their tape it leads to more offense. Getting out of the defensive zone is a big part of the game.”

The NWHL game is considered to be faster and more physical than NCAA DI hockey — though the gap between the college game and pro game certainly varies by conference. Something that Tinker has on her side is the familiarity of playing in front of goaltender Tera Hofmann, who the Riveters drafted in the third round of the 2020 NWHL Draft and signed on May 13.

“Hof and I played together back home in the PWHL (with the Durham West Jr. Lightning), so this will be my seventh year playing with her,” Tinker said. “We’ve established a friendship and a relationship on the ice that allows her to be open with me, whether that’s her yelling at me or me communicating with her. She’s very stoic. I think that attitude helps her remain calm and communicate with her defensemen.”

Having a familiar face in the locker room should help Tinker make that transition. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s excited about the more physical play of the NWHL. In particular, she’s looking forward to battling with Connecticut Whale star center Emma Vlasic, who was the Bulldogs’ captain during Tinker’s junior year.

Before she steps onto the ice for her first NWHL game Tinker’s focus will be on finding a job near New York City and doing everything she can to stay on top of her game — which is no small task during the pandemic. The Ontario native has already established a routine to keep her conditioning up while North America waits for team sports to return to action.

“I have a stationary bike that’s currently set up in my room so I’ve been doing bike sprint workouts as well as long distance on it,” Tinker said. “I’ve also been doing my home workouts with body weight — easy things that we can do at home with limited equipment. I also have three brothers, so I’ve been outside shooting with them a lot and helping them all work on their games.”

All data courtesy of collegehockeyinc.com, USCHO.com, and pick224.com.