You have undoubtedly heard the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. In the world of hockey many of the best offenses are fueled by puck-moving defenders. And no, we’re not just talking about the power play. Without defensemen that can read the game and make effective passes at even strength, teams struggle to escape their own zone. Without puck-moving defenders, generating shots and creating offense is incredibly difficult.
Having defenders who can make plays with the puck is valuable in all three zones on the ice. In some cases they can be as dangerous as forwards when they are carrying the puck. Five defenders in the NWHL averaged over 0.70 points per game last season. They were more productive than some noteworthy forwards including Harrison Browne, Lyudmila Belyakova, and Amanda Pelkey.
Two Tiers of Productive Defenders
The Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts had the majority of the most productive blueliners last season. Kacey Bellamy’s poise with the puck helped make her one of the most efficient passers in the league. Her ability to generate shots was rivaled only by Buffalo’s Emily Pfalzer. It also didn’t hurt that Bellamy’s passes went to the sticks of forwards like Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker.
Bellamy and Pfalzer are two players in the NWHL’s exclusive group top-tier of productive defenders. Kaleigh Fratkin, Gigi Marvin, Megan Bozek, and Jordan Brickner make up the rest of that class. Those six defenders had more points-per-game than the average NWHL forward did last season.
The second-tier has a few surprising names in it. Kelly McDonald, Blake Bolden, Ashley Johnston, and Kiira Dosdall make up that class. McDonald isn’t back with the Beauts this season, but her primary assist numbers suggest that she could’ve been a valuable addition to anyone’s defense.
The smooth-skating Bolden was the most prolific shooter on Boston’s blue line last season. She scored two goals for the Pride in the playoffs in four games. Bolden’s name belongs in any discussion about the best defenders in the NWHL. But she is often overlooked because she is on a team with Bellamy and Gigi Marvin.
The Riveters’ well-known shortcomings with possession last season make Johnston and Dosdall’s numbers pretty impressive. They both finished with one goal and six assists last season, but Johnston did it in two fewer games. This year, the Riveters have a dramatically different defense. Johnston and Dosdall will likely play smaller roles after carrying the team last season.
New Faces and Roles
Anne Schleper became the highest-paid defender in the NWHL this offseason for good reason. She can provide offense from the blue line as she has proven while with the USWNT, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Boston Blades, and the Minnesota Whitecaps. The Beauts are counting on Schleper to bring something special, and all signs point to that being the case.
Lexi Bender is another new face that could emerge as an elite defender in the NWHL. She averaged 0.78 points-per-game in her last two seasons with Boston College. Bender joins fellow Eagle Alex Carpenter on an incredibly deep Boston Pride roster this season. It’s hard to imagine Bender will struggle to adapt in her rookie season with so much talent around her.
The Riveters have a chance to have the most productive blue line in the league after having the least productive defense last season. Fratkin is a very safe bet to continue her outstanding play on her new team paired with Michelle Picard. But whether or not Courtney Burke and Milica McMillen will find a way to make their mark is a little less certain. The pair were big power play performers during college, which showed on Saturday evening when McMillen scored for the Riveters during a man advantage.
With Fratkin lost in free agency, the Whale need Brickner to step up her game. They can’t count on Molly Engstrom continuing to shoot 15.8 percent, but they still made her their highest-paid defender. A lack of puck movement on the blue line might just sink the Whale this season.