The NWHL’s re-signing period will begin on April 1, and Beauts’ general manager Linda Mroz has been diligently reviewing her roster along with co-coaches Shelley Looney and Ric Seiling. Mroz, Looney, and Seiling have some difficult decisions to make regarding the players they will be signing in the month of April.
With no indication from the league that they will be expanding the roster, and five draft picks potentially joining the team, the Beauts will be unable to bring back all of the players who helped drive the team to the Isobel Cup Finals.
As a team, Buffalo’s success was tied to their scoring depth. Their comeback in the second half of the season and their subsequent series win over the Connecticut Whale in the opening round of the playoffs depended heavily on the offensive contributions of their defensive unit. Conversely, they needed strong defensive play from all four of the team’s forward lines.
Of course, there were individual players that stood out throughout the season, and ultimately defined the Beauts’ style of play through the homestretch. These stars were leaders for the team on and off of the ice, and essential to their eventual success.
While some turnover is necessary, these key players must be re-signed in order to keep Buffalo from falling back to the bottom of the standings as they build toward their second consecutive Cup final appearance.
Megan Bozek may not be the first name that comes to mind when discussing the Beauts, but her performance following the All-Star Game was nothing less than heroic – both in the regular season and in the postseason.
Between the ASG and the Isobel Cup Final, Buffalo played nine games. Bozek played in eight. In those eight games, Bozek had more than one point six times, and a seventh time, she still managed to score a goal; Buffalo won five of those eight games.
Bozek’s coming out was the definitive turning point in Buffalo’s season, and while many fans focused on the scoring prowess of Kelley Steadman and the leadership of Meghan Duggan, it was perhaps Bozek who had the biggest influence on the team’s success in the second half of the season.
Kourtney Kunichika centered Buffalo’s stalwart ‘second’ line for the entire season. One of only four Beauts to play in all 18 regular season games, Kunichika led the team in shooting percentage, and finished the season second in overall scoring, goals, and power play goals. She was third on the team in assists and points-per-game.
With Duggan and Steadman missing for almost a third of the games through the season, it was Kunichika and her linemates Devon Skeats and Hailey Browne that were often called upon to face the league’s top lines. They were effective not only in the offensive zone, but in the defensive zone as well.
Both Skeats and Browne have complimented Kunichika for her vision and identified her as the leader of their line. In a November interview, Browne stated, “I love playing with Kourtney. Our dynamic is totally different. We’re total opposites – I’m ‘GO-GO-GO,’ and she’s like, ‘I’ll slow it down, make a nice play.’ I’ll get her the puck and she slams it home.”
Kunichika’s scoring prowess and her clean, intelligent play combine to make her a player that the Beauts must have on the ice in next season.
A list of Buffalo’s cornerstone players would be incomplete without identifying Kelley Steadman as a must-sign for the Beauts’ second season.
Though Steadman was only able to commit to the team as a practice player, she led the team in goals, power play goals, shorthanded goals, and she accomplished all of this playing in only 10 games for the Beauts. Her 20 points in those 10 games gave Steadman an astounding (and league-leading) 2.00 points per game average.
Steadman’s offensive acumen netted her two NWHL Player of the Week awards – she was the first practice player to be named and the first player to be named twice. She finished second in the league in goals scored and was a finalist for the league’s MVP award.
Obviously, Steadman is an impressive offensive force. It seems imperative that Buffalo not only lock up Steadman for the next season, but also work to get her signed on a full-time basis. On a team whose scoring suffered for much of their inaugural year, Steadman’s two points a game may have made a huge difference in some of the team’s one-goal losses.
Only days remain before this momentous re-signing period will begin, and surely, the anxiety is building on both sides as players and management prepare their plans for the upcoming season.
With draft picks to sign, the potential for league expansion, and also the off-ice changes that occur in a player’s lifetime, it may be difficult for management to nail down all of the players that they would like to return. However, these three Beauts were integral to their Cup Finals finish and their play has certainly solidified their roster spot in Buffalo.