This season, fans of the NWHL and CWHL are going to have a fascinating match to watch and it won’t be a their respective Cup Finals. No, by far the most interesting contest of the 2016-17 season will be just this: who will take last place?
In the NHL, with teams that have been around decades, many teams have a very firm identity and with that, so do their fans. Some teams have never won a Stanley Cup, constantly feeling beaten down, while others earned a rash of them in the span of a few years and are the envy of the league. Team fanbases grow around wins, yes, but they develop their characters under losses, and women’s hockey is no exception to this rule.
And while the New York Riveters and Boston Blades of last season had passionate, but longsuffering fanbases, those fans might just get some good news (and some company in the stands) this year, because both have built their way out of the basement.
It might be the award no one wants, but just as tight the races for the Cups may be, last place will be even more so in both leagues.
It’s not a stretch by any imagination to say that New York was far and away the worst team in the NWHL last season. The Riveters led the league in two categories: goals against and games lost.
While its blue-collar style and work ethic helped endear the team to fans in the first season of existence, New York’s games were difficult to watch, as its players routinely got clobbered in the third period.
If fans felt discomfited by watching games routinely unfold in the Riveters’ opponents favor, players felt that frustration even more keenly, having been witness to the work players were putting in off the ice and at practice.
However, given its transformation over the summer, the organization is no longer deserving of the monicker. General manager Chad Wiseman picked up two big handfuls of skill players, with Olympian and NHL-connected Amanda Kessel leading the charge. The team, so far, has not fared as well in the preseason as one might hope, going one-for-two against Team Russia, but the Riveters’ performance makes it clear that the new New York is no longer at the bottom of the barrel, leaving its fans ecstatic and fans of other teams wondering who the next Worst will be.
In NWHL terms, the answer appears to be a coin toss between the Buffalo Beauts and the Connecticut Whale. Fans can bet both will put up one dramatic fight.
While Connecticut’s roster skilled scorers such as Kelli Stack, Hayley Skarupa, Kaliya Johnson and Dana Trivigno, as well as the return of strong, mature depth players from last season, Connecticut has a big question mark over its defense, which could lead to its ultimate downfall. The majority of defenders signed are defense-first, and with only a few elite players on the Whale’s forward lines, the lack of offensive ability on the back end could prove problematic when faced with New York’s defense or Boston’s nine national team players.
Reports out of Buffalo, however, indicate that the roster changes have had a bigger impact than previously anticipated; the team lost to the Buffalo Jr. Sabres this past weekend, 7-1. Buffalo took a long while to come together last season. Should history repeat itself, Buffalo might find itself at the bottom of the barrel again, and this time, with no Meghan Duggan to pull them up. Where does that leave Buffalo?
On the other side of the fence last year sat the CWHL’s Boston Blades, who performed just as badly as the New York Riveters, if not worse.
The Blades found itself in a rocky situation, having lost the majority of its players to the Boston Pride over the summer. Their mass exit left General Manager Krista Patronick with little time to rebuild. She was left with a team that rarely shot on net and spent easily 70-80 percent of its time on defense, while the number of fans trekking out from Boston to NESC dwindled with each game, the constant stream of losses too much for some to take. Boston was unable to win more than one game in the season and wrapped up 2015-16 with one final loss to Les Canadiennes in February.
Flash forward to September, and the Boston team that allowed more than 120 goals-against is looking mighty sharp; sharp enough to battle the Toronto Furies, last season’s fourth-place finish, for the final spot in the postseason. The Furies lost an important link in its chain when Kori Cheverie retired this summer, a forward who’s been a part of the team since it went by the name of ‘Toronto Aeros.’
Toronto earned only 14 points last season and, despite one of the deepest drafts in CWHL history, didn’t add any names that stood out as new faces of the franchise. Should Toronto perform up to the level it did in 2015-16, the Blades organization stands a fighting chance of earning that second-to-last place and making it way back into the postseason.
Call it schadenfreude, black humor, or simply inevitable for women’s hockey. Regardless, the race to to bottom will be fraught with tension this year, and a fascinating study of a quick-and-dirty rebuild. And this season, at least, last place will be a hard-fought race.