Connecticut Whale GM facing tough decisions in rebuild

“It’s tough,” said Connecticut Whale general manager Lisa Giovanelli, when asked about balancing her new duties as a general manager with her responsibilities as an assistant coach. Although she’s been with the organization since its first practice in September, the new role she’s taken on holds challenges of its own. Not the least of which is making hard choices about which players she should offer new contracts and which ones to let go of after the Whale went from holding first place throughout the majority of the regular season to failing out of the playoffs in the first round.

“I like to think I get along with my players really well,” said Giovanelli. “You become a family and it’s very different from when I was coaching college. All right, these are my kids for four years. This is our family. You know there’s change at some point and it’s definitely different to have to [understand] that this is a business and we’re trying to win a championship. You have to put your friendships aside and think about what’s best for the organization. So, yeah, it’s difficult. But I think the girls understand that. This is a business and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

During restricted free agency, the four NWHL general managers who have signed on for the second season –– only one was retained from the inaugural season, Hayley Moore of the Isobel Cup-winning Boston Pride –– are busy figuring out what lies ahead for them.

While Moore is ploughing ahead with offseason business, which includes signings, scouting, figuring out logistics for the upcoming season’s games and such, newly-appointed Connecticut GM Giovanelli, like Chad Wiseman of the New York Riveters and Ric Seiling of the Buffalo Beauts, is trying to figure out where her priorities should lie in signing players.

Each team has a seasonal salary cap of $270,000 and a roster cap of 17 players, including two goaltenders. While each franchise can add six practice skaters to the mix, with one of those spots reserved for a goaltender, that still leaves Giovanelli parsing performances from last season, figuring out weak spots in the lineup and reaching out to new players.

Giovanelli’s day job lies in accounting, so quantifying skills with a number makes the most sense to her when dealing with a limited budget and tough decisions. She and head coach Heather Linstad worked together to develop a system based on points, performance, national team experience and more that helped them figure out what kind of salary each player merits.

Giovanelli is not bound by what players made last season — she does not have to offer them a number higher, lower, or the same as what they earned the season before — and indeed is not bound to offer for any of her players last season. “I can do whatever I want,” she joked.

“Kelli Stack gets $10,000!” I said.

Giovanelli laughed, “Kelli Stack gets $50,000!”

Re-signing her players to a fair price is a priority for Giovanelli. And while she’s certainly focused on player performance, Giovanelli appreciated the way Connecticut’s roster worked together on and off the ice and created a cheerful, dedicated atmosphere.

The one player Giovanelli has re-signed thus far –– Kelly Babstock –– was asked back due as much to her ability to wreak havoc on the opposition and create chances for her team as well as her positive attitude, contributions in the room and work ethic.

“Off-ice character is going to be a huge quality that we’re looking for this year to re-build the program,” Giovanelli said, citing Babstock’s effect on the team’s attitude. That, however, isn’t the only aspect of the team Giovanelli is looking to maintain or improve. Playmakers and forward-minded defenders are on her shortlist as well.

“I think if you look at our team on paper last year we had a lot of quality goal-scorers,” said Giovanelli. “I think we kind of lacked the people to set them up, you know? I think Babs is great at that, that she can do both things but it was hard to keep her on the line with Shi [Darkangelo] and [Kelli] Stack because it wasn’t balancing out the rest of our lines. If we could get some more people to really set up our goal scorers I think that would really help us out a lot.

“And then also, defensively…” Giovanelli trailed off. “[We need] some defensemen that have a little bit more of an offensive gear to really be comfortable carrying the puck, getting in the zone and helping out. Also we definitely need to clean up our defensive zone. [We need] people who are smart in front of the net and play defensively as well.”

Connecticut, much like the New York Riveters, suffered breakdowns at regular intervals throughout the season, particularly against the Boston Pride who, it seemed, had the Whale’s number. The breakdowns themselves seemed to come stem from defensive players often being more comfortable with giving the puck away to a forward than to holding on to it themselves, something that Giovanelli correctly pointed out might be solved with an offensive defender.

Jaime Leonoff watches the puck slip past Shannon Doyle while Kourtney Kunichika tries to clear space. Buffalo Beauts at Connecticut Whale postseason series March 4-6 2016. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

There aren’t too many of those playing in the NWHL, and those who are with the league are firmly ensconced in Boston and Buffalo, and a part-time salary of $25,000 isn’t likely to change that much. So how to change the dynamic for the Whale? Is the only thing left to Giovanelli to look outside the league?

“Oh, there will be some surprises,” Giovanelli laughed. “Just wait and see.”

“It’s going to be interesting. If we pick up some of the people we intend to I think we’re going to have a different look. Be better than we were last year, obviously is the goal.”

Not all Giovanelli’s signings are focused on current players in the league, however. She’s been in touch with all the 2015 draft picks made by the first Whale GM, Chris Ardito. Despite not having picked the players herself, Giovanelli has made sure to keep an eye on their progress in their senior seasons. One of her draft picks, Maryann Menefee, will not be headed to the Whale this season but Giovanelli has hopes for the following season.

“From what I understand, she ended up red-shirting this year so she’s going back for another year. That’s what I understand. I haven’t had a direct conversation with her so I don’t know for sure but the way it’s been presented to me is that she is forfeiting her rights for next year. So we’ll have five draft picks next year, plus her, because really this year we only had four because she’s remaining at school.”

As for Courtney Burke, who gave multiple interviews where she made it clear that she had not put her name forward for the NWHL draft, giving the impression that she was either concerned about running afoul of NCAA compliance rules or was not happy with being drafted without her knowledge or consent, Giovanelli remains positive.

“I haven’t heard anything negative from any of our draft picks,” she said.

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