The NWHL announced changes to their roster size on Apr. 6. In the 2015-16 season, teams carried 18 rostered players; this will be cut to 17 for the 2016-17 season – 15 skaters and two goaltenders.
For the Buffalo Beauts, this means two of the goaltenders they have rights to won’t make the opening day roster. Brianne McLaughlin, Amanda Makela, and Kimberly Sass populated Buffalo’s roster in their inaugural season, and in the 2015 draft, general manager Linda Mroz chose Amanda Leveille from University of Minnesota.
This issue will be one of the most difficult facing newly named GM Ric Seiling. He had the benefit of coaching McLaughlin, Makela, and Sass through the 2015-16, and is familiar with those players and their potential. However, Leveille is a wild card in the truest sense. Less than a week into the restricted free agency period, things could get interesting on the shores of Lake Erie.
Who might Buffalo come to play with in 2016?
Brianne McLaughlin’s struggles early in the 2015 are almost as well documented as her dominance in the second half of the season and through the playoffs. McLaughlin seemingly put the team on her back after the All-Star break, and played more games in the playoffs than any other goalie in the league.
She publicly shouldered much of the blame for Buffalo’s dismal start to the season, deflecting criticism of the team in front of her and taking responsibility for their lengthy losing streak. Once she and her teammates found their groove, though, they rolled through the last half of the season, amassing 10 points in their last 10 games.
This successful streak propelled the team out of last place and secured the third seed in the playoffs.
McLaughlin was nothing short of outstanding in the playoffs, and the team was able to do something they hadn’t done all season – beat the Connecticut Whale. McLaughlin’s gutsy goaltending carried the team out of the first round, placing them in the Isobel Cup Finals. There is no doubt that McLaughlin left an indelible mark in Seiling’s mind.
Amanda Makela played notably well when she was called upon to spell McLaughlin in the regular season. She actually led the team in save percentage at 0.909, and was the first Beauts goaltender to secure a point for her team after a shootout loss to the Whale on Nov. 22. She came into net with her team down 5-1 and backstopped a comeback that took Connecticut beyond the extra frame. She allowed only one goal in that game, and finished with a 0.929 save percentage.
Just two weeks later, with her team down 5-1 against the Boston Pride, Makela was again called to relieve McLaughlin, and though the Beauts lost in regulation, Makela allowed only two goals in two periods and posted a 0.923 save percentage.
One of the most important positions in hockey is the backup goaltender. Frequently called upon to save a sinking ship, and with little warm-up, the backup must be mentally prepared at all times. Again, Makela’s heroics are likely fresh in the mind of the GM that coached her throughout the season.
Kimberly Sass saw little playing time in the season – she had one start in Buffalo and one in New York, in which she was pulled just after the halfway point of the game. Sass looked sharp in front of the hometown crowd, allowing only three goals against the quick-striking Connecticut Whale, but against the Riveters, Sass looked much less confident and though Buffalo came back to win, her four goals in 30 minutes may have cost the team a very important point in the standings.
Amanda Leveille had an incredible 2015-16 season for the Golden Gophers, backstopping the team to a National Championship. She had 29 wins in 34 games, posted a 1.29 goals against average, and a 0.942 save percentage – these last two stats were fourth in the nation among goaltenders.
One of Leveille’s most impressive stats is that she allowed only eight power play goals in the entire season. The Beauts struggled on the penalty kill, and while they were much better in the playoffs, this statistic stands out among Leveille’s impressive numbers.
In January, Today’s Slapshot had an opportunity to speak with her coach at Minnesota, Joel Johnson. When asked about Leveille’s season and the prospect of playing professionally, he said, “I can’t imagine she’d be anything but ecstatic.”
Seiling has quite a conundrum sitting on his desk. It seems that, overall, he has two amazing starting goalies, and at least one fantastic backup. There is little question that Buffalo will re-sign McLaughlin, which leaves the most difficult decision between Makela and Leveille.
One of the most interesting variables is Levielle’s willingness to be a backup goalie. If the league’s expansion prophecies come true, and she has the option to start for an Ontario team, does she stay and play in Buffalo?
There is also the goaltending situation in New York – Nana Fujimoto has not committed to returning to the US to play in the NWHL. Could the Riveters be interested in Leveille? Could the expanded practice roster mean that the Beauts will keep a goalie on their practice squad?
The NCAA has given the league a fantastic graduating class, and with the NWHL’s slightly smaller roster size, it’s now a little more difficult for existing players to return to their roles on the team. There will certainly be some amazing talent available on the free agency market, which is set to begin May 1.