NWHL MVP Race: Breaking Down the Contenders

On Thursday afternoon, the NWHL released details about important upcoming dates in the league’s schedule, including when the inaugural NWHL Awards Ceremony would be held and what awards would be presented. While some awards were unique to the league, like the Perserverance Award and the NWHL Foundation Award, there are still the old standby awards offered in every professional league, including the coveted MVP award.

As soon as the ceremony was announced, fans began buzzing about who deserved the prizes most. Surely Hilary Knight, arguably the best player in the world, would easily walk away with the trophy. Or perhaps her right-hand woman, Brianna Decker, or even Kacey Bellamy, the league’s strongest blue liner. It seems as though the heavy favorites for the award is basically just a list of Team USA’s national players.

But if we’re being fair, it shouldn’t be.

According to the NWHL’s press release, the Most Valuable Player will be “Awarded to the player considered most valuable to her team, as voted by the NWHL Players Association.”

Having a definition that emphasizes impact to the team changes everything.

While Knight, Decker, and Bellamy are essential parts of their teams, not to mention some of the biggest talents in the world when it comes to ice hockey, this is one criteria that they don’t fit. Knight, Decker, and Bellamy are all equally valuable to their team, but if one of them were to be plucked out of the lineup, the team would hardly suffer without them. Their loss would be felt, but it wouldn’t likely have a measurable impact on their lineup: in fact, each of these players have missed games, and the Pride are still leading the league.

The MVP award, then, should be given to players who not only exemplify the highest level of skill at the professional level, but also to players who frequently put their teams on their backs and carry them through games. The player who wins the MVP award should be one that their current team can not live without, and by definition, this excludes almost everyone from the Pride’s roster. Fair? Maybe, maybe not. But hey, we don’t write the rules, we just follow them. So who are some players who should be considered for this year’s MVP candidates?

Kelley Steadman

Forget for a moment that Steadman was the only practice player to be voted into the All-Star Game. Forget that she’s second in the league in goals behind just Knight, who she’s been battling back and forth with all season, and forget that she’s the only Beaut to crack the top five overall in points.

Steadman deserves this prize perhaps more than anyone, and that’s because she fits the criteria to a T. She’s leading her team in points (17), she’s leading her team in shots (69), and she’s tied with Kourtney Kunichika with the highest shooting percentage on her team (17.6%). She’s scored 12 goals, which is 24 percent of her team’s total goals this season.

When Steadman is on the ice, she’s usually got the puck, and when she has the puck, she’s usually putting it in the back of the net.  On the Beauts, she’s by far their most valuable asset, and she should be a shoo-in for the MVP award.

Nana Fujimoto

Fujimoto should be a strong contender for this award, despite her less than stellar numbers. After playing in 12 games this season, she’s sitting with a 0.914 save percentage and 3.22 goals against average. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but this is where context comes in.

Nana Fujimoto in net for the Riveters during NWHL New York Riveters at Connecticut Whale – Ingalls Rink. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

The Riveters have allowed the most goals against this season out of all four teams in the league with 67. Now, the Beauts aren’t too far behind them- they’ve allowed 62 of their own. But Buffalo’s goal differential is -13, which means that while they’re allowing a lot of goals, they’re at least scoring, too. New York’s goal differential? -30. That’s not on Fujimoto, who’s been admirable in net for the Riveters and is arguably one of the biggest reasons the Riveters even have four wins this season.

After getting into a groove early in the season before being derailed by an injury, Fujimoto looks to be getting her Fuji-mojo back, and should be a strong contender for MVP.

Ashley Johnston

It is, perhaps, an understatement to say that the Riveters struggle on defense. Again, this is the team that’s allowed the most goals against in the league, and because they’re already a low-scoring team, it’s not helpful that their blue line isn’t able to keep the puck out of their net, either.

Enter Ashley Johnston, a shining light on what we’ll politely call a tire fire of a defense. “Stretch” is an anchor for this team, playing insane minutes every night and doing damage control for a team that’s truly lucky to have her. As New York’s captain, Johnston is a leader both on and off the ice, and without her on the blue line, who knows where New York’s defense would be?

Runner-up: Jaimie Leonoff

This one’s a little tricky. Kelli Stack could be on this list, but even if the superstar forward wasn’t on the team, the Whale wouldn’t be sunk, thanks to players like Jessica Koizumi, Kelly Babstock, Danielle Ward and Kate Buesser, amongst others. And the Whale still have some of the league’s best goaltending- they went into this season with a solid trio of Chelsea Laden, Nicole Stock and Leonoff.

But consider this: Laden got hurt right away. And while we’ve seen Stock play well in the games she’s appeared in, she hasn’t played nearly enough games to know whether or not that could be sustained throughout the year.

Leonoff was a dark horse for this team. Most expected Laden to take the reigns, with Leonoff perhaps acting as her backup. Could the Whale have gone 9-0-0 without a star like her in net? Not a chance. Though not quite as essential as Fujimoto is to the Riveters, Leonoff is the Whale’s key cog to success and deserves a shake at the MVP trophy.

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