No. 13 | Kelly Pannek
Don’t panic! Kelly jumps up quite a bit here from her No. 23 standing last year, and it’s completely warranted. She has been deserving of a much higher ranking since debuting on this list two years ago.
Pannek has two huge NCAA championships she claimed with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, she won an Olympic gold medal with the USA national team where she claimed two points, two more World Championship gold medals, as well as a silver WJC18 medal.
She was also a first round NWHL draft pick, and has one season of PWHPA play under her belt. She was team captain in her senior season at University of Minnesota, and was nominated for the Patty Kazmier Award during her junior season due to leading the NCAA in points. As a freshman in college, she also led freshman in points with 44.
Pannek has already signed on for the 2020-21 PWHPA season after playing in four showcases last season for the organization. She has also cemented herself as an important piece of the USA national team roster.
She really had a breakout season during both the 2019 IIHF World Championship and the Rivalry Series. She recorded nine points altogether in those tournaments and I have a suspicion that that tally will only increase as time goes on for her country.
Is This Ranking Too High or Too Low?
Considering she is nearing her end of eligibility to our list, I’ll say it’s really just perfect for her. I think she should have ranked higher in the past when she was still in college and really a force behind the USA national team. There is a lot of young talent in the game right now, so it’s not shocking to me that she is narrowly missing the top ten in favor of some teenagers and NCAA record breakers at this point.
No. 14 | Ronja Savolainen
For whatever reason, we don’t hear or read of many player-to-player comparisons in women’s hockey. But there are a few player comparisons I don’t hesitate to make – the one at the top of that admittedly short list is Ronja Savolainen and Megan Keller.
Like Keller, Savolainen is a big, dynamic defender who excels at snuffing out threats when she’s away from the puck and creating problems for the opposition when the puck is on her stick. The Finnish star has shined at the pro level with Luleå Hockey/MSSK since the 2016-17 season and for her national team since the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championship. She came in at No. 12 in last year’s T25 U25.
A champion in the Naisten Liiga and in the SDHL, Savolainen has won bronze once in the Olympics and twice in the IIHF Women’s World Championships. Last year, she was a major contributor for Finland’s historic silver medal finish at the 2019 IIHF Women’s Worlds. In that tournament, she averaged 23:22 TOI/GP and scored two goals for Finland. She also played seven minutes without taking a penalty despite her heavy workload.
In the 2019-20 SDHL season, Savolainen rose to the occasion for Luleå Hockey/MSSK when Michelle Karvinen was out of the lineup with a concussion and superstar Jenni Hiirikoski couldn’t buy a goal. Savolainen led all SDHL defenders with 20 goals in 36 games. That’s twice as many goals as she scored in 2018-19 (10), when she doubled her goal total from the previous season (5). If that feat doesn’t impress on you just how dangerous the big Finn is with the puck on her stick, then nothing else will.
Savolainen is one of a handful of young Finns who have one hand on the torch being passed to them by icons like Hiirikoski, Karvinen, and Riikka Sallinen. Her superb two-way game promises that Finland will have at least one truly world-class defender on its blue line for the next decade, regardless of how many more years Hiirikoski has in her.
How she will top scoring 20 goals for Luleå in 2019-20 is anyone’s guess. She was one of four finalists for the SDHL’s defender of the year in 2019-20, losing to HV71’s Sidney Morin. If Savolainen continues to develop and grow as a player, that award and many others will be within her reach. She’s that good.
Is This Ranking Too High or Too Low?
Far too low.
Savolainen’s stock has risen considerably from where it was last year, yet she’s fallen two spots on our T25 U25 list. You can chalk this one up to a North American bias among our voters or yet another example of elite defenders not getting enough credit for what they do away from the puck. The bottom line is that Savolainen is already one of the best players in the world at her position and she still has plenty of room to grow and develop.