Jaimie Leonoff signing for the league minimum $10,000 to join the New York Riveters was not only a huge steal for New York in free agency, it might also spell the end of Nana Fujimoto’s time with the team.
Leonoff displayed last season that she was one of the NWHL’s best between the pipes. Given the strength of the defense and team in front of her, it should not come as a surprise that Leonoff posted a superior even strength save percentage to Fujimoto.
When directly comparing Leonoff’s and Fujimoto’s stats, it is important to remember that Connecticut had a better team and blue line. Still, a quick look at the numbers shows just how special Leonoff was in the games she played for the Connecticut Whale in 2015-16.
A fact that many may have overlooked is that while Leonoff started more games than any other Whale goaltender, she only appeared in 10 games last season. She might be comfortable in a timeshare in the crease, or one of the reasons she decided to change jerseys was because she wanted and was told she’d be the starter. Only Leonoff and Wiseman know what was discussed about her role with the team.
What everyone does know is that Wiseman signing Leonoff makes him bringing back Fujimoto, the player with the best-selling jersey last year, anything but certain.
Last year Fujimoto was the highest-paid goaltender in the league and the highest-paid Riveter with her $21,000 contract. When she was healthy and on her game, she appeared to be worth every penny of her deal, but after an unconfirmed mid-season injury the quality of her play took a turn for the worse.
Fujimoto is lightning quick in net and has amazing reflexes and reaction time, but her 5’4″ frame forces her to work hard between the pipes. There are also concerns about whether or not Fujimoto is fully recovered from the injury that so clearly impacted her game last season. Whether or not she can arrange a similar situation to the one she had last season with her employer in Japan is also currently unknown and might make the developing controversy between the pipes for the Riveters a moot point.
Wiseman has invested a lot of cap space in the Riveters’ blue line which will have Kaleigh Fratkin and Courtney Burke joining last year’s standouts Kiira Dosdall and captain Ashley Johnston. The Riveters also have the rights to Michelle Picard, the sixth-overall pick of the 2015 NWHL Draft. We may never get to see what Fujimoto would have looked like behind this greatly improved blue line.
With promising draft pick Kimberly Newell still unsigned and both Jenny Scrivens and Chelsea Laden as potential options for the team’s second and/or third netminder (each NWHL team will have two goaltenders under contract for the 2015-16), bringing back Fujimoto with the limited cap space that New York has is simply not a priority in regards to the product on the ice.
It could also be argued that given the team’s other options at goaltender and how much more affordable they will likely be, the best thing to do at this point is to part ways with the talented and adored Japanese netminder.
If Wiseman can find a way to sign Fujimoto at a reasonable cap hit that doesn’t prevent him from filling the remaining six remaining roster spots for skaters with as much talent as possible, he should do everything he can to bring her back. But with Hannah Brandt, Erin Ambrose, and Picard unsigned and the $5,000 in cap space that went to Buffalo with the signing of Burke, cap space is fast becoming an issue for the Riveters.