With the NWHL’s free agency rapidly period approaching no one is quite sure just how much roster turnover there will or won’t be among the league’s four franchises. As they retool, it’s important to identify who their cornerstone players are.
These are the players who are and were essential to the success and identity of their respective teams and should be built around and considered a priority to re-sign.
Here’s a look at which three players are likely the New York Riveters most important assets to re-sign for the 2016-17 season and what they brought to the team that makes them so indispensable.
Ashley Johnston, Defense
The captain of the team was also the team’s most valuable defender throughout the season despite the fact that Kiira Dosdall got the nod for the Best Defender nomination. Johnston’s play in the offensive zone seemed to decline after the All-Star break, but she was the team’s most consistent defender in her own zone from the all year.
In addition to being tied with Dosdall for the team lead on points among defenders, Johnston also took just four minor penalties while serving as the Riveters captain. Johnston’s combination of size, artillery-like slapshot, intelligence, and sound positioning makes her an ideal player to build the “defense first” New York Riveters’ blue line around.
Johnston, a Canadian native, has roots in the state of New York where she attended college and is hosting a summer hockey camp. Given her youth and tremendous importance to the team as a leader and reliable blue liner, “Stretch” needs to be a priority for general manager Dani Rylan and the Riveters and should be seeing more than the $14,000 she made in her first year in the NWHL.
Nana Fujimoto, Goaltender
Fujimoto was the highest-paid player on the Riveters and the highest-paid goaltender in the league. The investment in Fujimoto proved to be a wise one despite the injury that kept her out of the lineup for several weeks. The statistic that tells the story of just how valuable Smile Japan’s goaltender was to the Riveters is the four wins she was credited with from her team’s 4-12-2 record.
Fujimoto is marketable (hers was the highest selling jersey in the league), popular, and might be the most talented netminder in the league when she’s healthy and on her game. Unfortunately, the 27-year-old goaltender might be a difficult player to bring back for a second year in the NWHL because of the circumstances of her employment with Denso Hokkaido and her obligation and focus on playing for team Japan.
In a New York Times article from early March penned by Seth Berkman, Fujimoto suggested through her interpreter Nori Matsuura that she was uncertain about returning to the NWHL for a second season. Ensuring Fujimoto’s return for the 2016-17 won’t be an easy task, but it should be at the top of Rylan’s “to do” list when it comes to players the Riveters should get to re-signing first. The Riveters were a different team when Nana was healthy and between the pipes during the regular season.
Morgan Fritz-Ward, Forward
The question of which forward the Riveters should consider the most important to the team and its future is very much up to debate. The most raw talent may belong to Liudmila Belyakova, and Bray Ketchum and Brooke Ammerman may have finished the year with the most points on the team, but Fritz-Ward might be the best skater to build around given her youth, two-way game that fits the identity of the team, and leadership qualities.
Five weeks ago I wrote about why Fritz-Ward was a strong candidate for Rylan to build the rest of the team around moving forward:
“The Iowa native led the Quinnipiac Bobcats to the 2015 NCAA Women’s Hockey Championship Quarterfinals and with the energy that she brings in New York, it’s understandable why she has a letter on her chest. She rarely takes penalties, she doesn’t take shifts off, and she is tireless in her own zone–a trait that has come to be crucial for the Riveters this season because of their ongoing struggle to win the possession battle.”
Fritz-Ward made just $12,500 in her first season, but was voted by the fans as an All-Star along with fellow alternate captain Packer. She’s a young player with a tremendous amount of potential that plays well in all three zones. The Riveters missed her in a big way in their series against the Boston Pride, especially on the penalty kill where she shined all season long for New York.