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NWHL

The Growing Question Behind the Riveters Bench

In every league there must be a best team and a worst team. In the NWHL the team with the worst record is the New York Riveters. The league’s flagship franchise, which happens to be managed by its commissioner, has a record of 4-11-2 with just one regular season game remaining. Understandably, Riveters fans are beginning to question and grow restless with the man behind the bench in Brooklyn – former NHL forward Chad Wiseman.

Wiseman’s system is simple and prioritizes defense. It is plenty easy to learn, but at times appears inappropriate for the level of competition seen in the NWHL. It also rarely gives his skaters a chance to display their creativity, especially players like Brooke Ammerman and Lyudmila Belyakova who have had their abilities suffocated in the “meat and potatoes” hockey that is played under Wiseman.

The greatest problems with the Riveters’ system lies in their inability to maintain possession of the puck during zone exits and zone entries. This in turn leads to their inability to manufacture even strength scoring chances.

Lyudmila Belyakova takes charge of the puck at NWHL New York Riveters at Connecticut Whale – Ingalls Rink. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

No other team has struggled to own and control the puck this season in the way that the Riveters have. At the professional level, a team cannot hope to find the majority of their scoring chances on the counter-attack by capitalizing on miscues by the opposition, but that has been what we have seen from the Riveters for long stretches of the NWHL’s inaugural season.

The Riveters’ fans, who packed the Aviator Sports and Events Center for New York’s final home game of the season on Valentine’s Day, briefly engaged in a “fire Wiseman” chant punctuated by cowbells and claps when things started going off the rails early in the game. With all of the chaos off-ice with the Connecticut Whale’s front office this season, the idea of an elective coaching change mid-season might be unpalatable to Rylan and the NWHL. However, the Riveters have played rudderless and unremarkable hockey under Wiseman from the word go.

Before returning to New York to coach the Riveters, Chad Wiseman was playing hockey last season in Japan with the Nippon Paper Cranes. Wiseman is best known in the hockey world for being a journeyman NHL and AHL forward who played for both the New York Rangers and the San Jose Sharks. His unique experience with hockey in Japan likely gives him some common ground with his star netminder Nana Fujimoto, but his lack of coaching experience has shown throughout the season.

This inexperience is highlighted when considering those surrounding him in Brooklyn. On a team with a very experienced associate coach with plenty of time spent working in the women’s game and several players that coach the game when they aren’t playing, having Wiseman as the head coach feels downright ironic at times.

Although he has grown a reputation for being hard to grab for a quote, Wiseman offered some thoughts after the team won their home finale on February 14th in a shootout against the Beauts. It was the team’s first win since two days after Christmas and it was something that the Riveters, their fans, and their coach clearly desperately needed.

Beauts forward Tatiana Rafter, covered by Madison Packer of the Riveters, hustling to join the attack while the Beauts gain the Riveters’ zone. Mandatory Photo Credit: Mike Murphy

“I feel good for the girls. They’ve been working real hard and had a great week in practice,” Wiseman said smiling. “Our last few games we’ve kind of been on the short end of the stick. I thought we played some really good hockey, but just haven’t been able to come up with a win.”

Through 17 games the Riveters have been outscored 38 to 72. No team has scored fewer goals or allowed more goals in the NWHL and no team has had a power play that is as underachieving and inconsistent as New York’s is.

The penalty kill is a strong point for the Riveters, but an ability to kill penalties rarely wins hockey teams games. At times it appears that Wiseman and the Riveters are playing not to lose with their cautious, unimaginative system. What most fans and armchair coaches criticize Wiseman for is the squandering of Belyakova’s talent.

The Riveters’ Russian star forward, despite all of her speed, talent, and explosiveness, rarely sees offensive zone starts and has mostly played second and third line minutes. Her short fuse seems to have earned her a short leash with the head coach, possibly aggrevated by her limited English, as this is her first year in the United States.

What’s most vexing about this is Belyakova’s undeniable ability to change the current of a game when she sees the puck, which is a trait that the Riveters have been desperate for since the season began. Belyakova is 3rd in scoring for the team, just two points behind Bray Ketchum, with one less game to her name.

The mismanagement of Belyakova has the potential to impact the Riveters beyond their underwhelming inaugural season. What motivation, if any, will Belyakova and the other talented players on New York have to re-sign with a team that rarely provides skill players an environment to be successful?

The celebration of blue collar, high work ethic hockey in Brooklyn this fall and winter helped cloud the discouraging early returns on New York Riveters hockey. But a record of 4-11-2 through 17 games has put the Riveters’ numerous issues into clear focus; they cannot have success with this system despite a concerted effort from the women on the ice.

The Isobel Cup Playoffs will be a stiff test for the Riveters’ head coach. Will it be Wiseman’s last chance to prove that his system emphasizing cautious, defensive hockey can work in the NWHL? Or has he already played himself out of the head coaching position for the 2016-17 season?

In an offseason that will almost certainly be filled with exciting free agent signings, what happens behind New York’s bench is something that every fan of professional women’s hockey should stay tuned for. There is a good chance that what fans and the media have come to recognize as “New York Riveters Hockey” will undergo a drastic change in the offseason that begins with the end of Wiseman’s contract.

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