Older Players Find New Challenges in Fledgling NWHL

Kelly Babstock. Chelsea Laden. Madison Packer. Celeste Brown.

Before the National Team players signed with the NWHL, these women were sold to fans as the future stars of the first season; they were young, shiny-bright, just out of college and ready to rock a league.

Development in women’s hockey has grown by light years over the past two decades, so it wasn’t surprising that the youngest players might also be the best; not only did they have youth on their side, but excellent training and four very recent years of playing back-to-back games in a weekend. The reasoning was sound.

And they did dominate, at least for a while. The younger players are energetic and work hard, contributing well to their teams. They have settled into their individual roles and it shows.

Babstock has the most shot assists on the Connecticut Whale for her ability to create passes that allow her teammates to put the puck on net. Brown has become a playmaker for the New York Riveters, too, as Today’s Slapshot reporter Mike Murphy detailed last week. Packer’s presence on the Riveters was severely missed one weekend when she was injured. These player’s contributions cannot be discounted.

However, unlike the predictions made during the first blush of the league, they aren’t the ones dominating on-ice play and calling the shots at the end of the day. As the season progresses, the veterans are taking on that role more and more.

Kelley Steadman. Jenny Scrivens. Brooke Ammerman.  Sam Faber.

None of these women came into the season in tip-top shape. Scrivens was perhaps the most noticeable for her improvements this season, considering she hadn’t played competitively in six years, going from this goaltender to this goaltender only four months later.

“You see players like Kelley Steadman,” Whale assistant captain Kaleigh Fratkin noted. “You see players like, up until she was injured, Sam Faber. Molly Engstrom – great players. There are some players who have taken a couple of seasons off just because of their careers and their paths. But we’re coming to the midpoint of the season; I guess with more practices, more time on the ice…those are players that were great players at their peak and are definitely coming back.”

The conditioning is paying off for players across the league but particularly for those whose bodies weren’t used to being game-ready anymore.

“I’m definitely in better shape now, mid-season than I was back in September when we first started practicing together,” said Riveters netminder Jenny Scrivens. “Fatigue isn’t really a factor anymore; I can actually focus on my game during practice.”

“I never really left the game for too long,” Scrivens said, referencing her time coaching, but her body had to catch up with mher mind. “I knew pretty well what I was doing; it was just a matter of time before I could implement that.”

Conditioning, while important, isn’t the only aspect of play that is impacting the veteran players.

“Your body has to catch up to your mind and the level of play has advanced, so your mind has to catch up to where play is now,” said Whale forward Micaela Long. The change from college hockey to professional hockey is a switch that many weren’t prepared for as well, she said.

“The hockey at (the University of New Hampshire) was phenomenal but the top players are spread out over 30 teams,” Long said. “Now they’re confined to four. Now they’re from ages 22-34. You’re narrowing that list even further. They’re bigger, faster, smarter, stronger. The level of play is definitely elevated, but ours has risen in response as well.

“I think the biggest contributing factor is that many of people who took time off have gone into coaching,” Long said. “That could be a big factor in terms of hockey sense and knowing the systems backwards and forwards.”

Scrivens agreed, “I think I have a better understanding of goaltending: what I want to do and how I want to be set for each shot, and starting to think a few steps ahead of play. Of course, these things don’t always work out – there’s screens, there’s deflections and so on. But I think I’m smarter about my game than I was at Cornell.”

As such, the veteran players and the National Team players are consistent leaders when it comes to their respective teams’ possession metrics. Knight, Stack, Steadman, Smolentseva, Weber are all players who are a few years removed from their collegiate play, yet they’re clearly making a huge impact. Knight, Stack, and Steadman are all top six in the league in points.

National Team players, veteran players lead the NWHL in possession. Graph by Sean Tierney; data by Carolyn Wilke

But not only are we seeing older, more experienced players take on roles at the forefront of play, we’re also coming to see a different level of play entirely across the new league. After months of training, everyone is on a (mostly) equal plane, save the Boston players. The Pride continue to be miles ahead of everyone else in the league, as they have several US Women’s National Team members that have been playing together for years.

While it’s the younger players like Babstock and Brown that were signed on as superstars, it’s clear that it’s the veterans of the NWHL dictating the pace of play. After all, their hard-earned experience is priceless for a brand new league.

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