Olympic defender Molly Engstrom re-signed with the Connecticut Whale for $18,000 under general manager Lisa Giovanelli and head coach Heather Linstad, a $6,000 raise from last season when the Whale was managed by Harry Rosenholtz and coached by Jake Mastel.
Engstrom was brought on for much of the same reasons Rosenholtz and Mastel cited: her experience on the blue line and her work ethic.
Beyond her play in the NWHL, Engstrom has shone on an international stage. She has played in 6 IIHF World Championships and 2 Four Nations Cup tournaments with USA Hockey. She helped the team win a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympic Games and a silver medal in 2010.
Engstrom retired from the U.S. women’s national team in 2013 but decided to return to the game when offered the chance to sign with the Whale in 2015. She currently coaches at a private school in New Hampshire.
“Molly is an experienced veteran who will be a leader on and off the ice,” said the Whale’s head coach, Heather Linstad. “She will inspire the younger players to work hard at every practice and bring intensity to every shift. In addition, she will be a steady blue liner who will make smart decisions in the defensive zone and make things happen offensively from the blue line.”
Bringing back so many of the same defenders may be problematic for the Whale. The team found itself struggling on transitions, unable to get the puck out of the zone quickly and facing frequent turnovers at the blue line, which left forwards the Whale facing shot after shot from capable teams.
Engstrom is a stay-at-home defenseman who uses her height and reach to great effect. Engstrom, however, did not have the most successful season in Connecticut last year.
She posted a Corsi-For percentage of 43.23 at even strength, indicating that Connecticut’s opponent saw more shot attempts while she was on the ice than the Whale did. Her Corsi-For percentage in all situations was slightly worse, at 43.12 percent, but that isn’t surprising given her role on the penalty kill.
Living and working in New Hampshire also posed some difficulties for Engstrom throughout the season, as she found herself unable to attend practices. Without the opportunity to practice the special teams or plays with all the players assigned to them, Connecticut’s defense suffered.
Engstrom showed her grit, however, in the second half of the season, where she scored a few big goals for the Whale, including two game-winning goals. Overall Engstrom scored 5 points (3 goals, 2 assists) for the Whale in the 2015-16 regular season.
The faults of last season’s defense cannot be laid entirely at Engstrom’s feet, though she doesn’t go blameless for her own problems on the blue line, exacerbated by her inability to attend practices regularly.
To Engstrom’s credit, her work ethic knows no bounds and she has a high hockey IQ, making her a presence on the defensive corps even without the benefit of extra time with her team.
However, there can be no doubt she didn’t perform at her best last season. With such a small sample size, interrupted by changes to team systems, staff and management, it is difficult to conclude how much is the fault of of an erratic season and how much is due to Engstrom’s play.
Giovanelli wouldn’t re-sign Engstrom if she didn’t believe she was worth the effort and salary.
Her signing, while a sign of confidence Engstrom, may also be construed as confidence in Linstad to correct the Whale’s flaws on defense through systems work. Connecticut’s inaugural season was interrupted with coaching changes, multiple changes of general manager and more, leaving the team rattled, stretched thin and exhausted by the end of the regular season.
Linstad was brought on to coach the Whale with a month left in said regular season; she had limited success in implementing her systems in those few weeks. With just four games left, Connecticut was essentially starting from scratch. Given a chance to instruct players in her systems from the start, however, Linstad may engender significant differences in play.
Engstrom also makes the sixth defender on a 17-player team (with two spots dedicated to netminders), giving the Whale some flexibility on defense. The Whale faced an immediate crimp in its plans last fall when a defender suffered a lower-body injury that kept her out of competition and practice for the next 15 games.
It’s likely the additional bodies are a strategic move by Giovanelli. It should also be noted that the Whale recently signed Meagan Mangene, a defender who has also been known to play up when necessary.
“I am so happy to be signing another NWHL contract with the Whale,” said Engstrom. “This is a special moment in time for women’s hockey and I am so grateful to be a part of it.”
With Engstrom’s contract, the Whale has signed 14 players for $208,000. Team salary caps are still held at $270,000 in the NWHL, giving Giovanelli more than $60,000 left to sign three big-name players.