NWHL 2021 Season Preview: Boston seeks title, Toronto expansion arrives

The 2021 NWHL season will be unlike any that came before it.


To make it work, the league has created a bubble in Lake Placid, where it will play a season and playoffs from Jan. 23 through Feb. 5. Last year’s Isobel Cup was never played between Boston and Minnesota due to COVID-19, so both of those teams will be looking for another shot in 2021.


But it’s not just a two-team race. There are heightened expectations around the Riveters as well, and the expansion Toronto Six and something new this season.


Here is a preview of each team ahead of the NWHL’s bubble season.




BOSTON PRIDE


2019-20: 23-1-0, advanced to Isobel Cup


Additions: Sammy Davis (draft), Taylor Turnquist (draft), Meghara McManus (draft), Tereza Vanisova (draft), Taylor Wenczkowski (draft), Carlee Turner (free agent) Meaghan Rickard (free agent)


Subtractions: Emily Fluke (Toronto), Alyssa Wohlfeiler (Connecticut), Carlee Toews (free agent), Lexi Bender (free agent)


Stats leaders with league rank: Jillian Dempsey (40 points, 1st); McKenna Brand (19 goals; 2nd), Lovisa Selander (.941 save percentage, 1st)


The Pride are star-studded throughout their lineup, as their best players are the league’s best players. Long-time captain Jillian Dempsey has gotten better each year, and led the NWHL in both points (40) and assists (23) last season. McKenna Brand, a Northeastern alum, broke out with 19 goals, the second most in the league, playing alongside Dempsey. They, along with winger Christina Putigna, made up the most productive trio in the league in 2019-20. In net, Lovisa Selander of RPI led the league with 17 wins, a .941 save percentage and 1.71 goals-against average.


Players to watch


Tori Sullivan: It’s easy to be overlooked on a stacked roster, and Sullivan fell into that last year. As a rookie, the Boston College alum tallied 25 points, good for 13th in the league. Her line with Lexie Laing and Mary Parker is also one of the most defensively responsible in the league.


Kaleigh Fratkin: One of the original NWHL players, Fratkin is as tough as they come on the blue line. Routinely one of the league leaders in penalty minutes, the Boston University alum makes her presence known on the ice. Fratkin broke out even more in her fifth NWHL season with a career-high 23 points and earned herself the NWHL Defender of the Year award.


Sammy Davis: The 2020 first overall pick is going to get a shot to play with the Pride in every situation. One of the speediest players in the college game, she’ll play on one of the fastest lines in the league alongside Tereza Vanisova.



In a nutshell

The Boston Pride 2021 revenge tour is officially on. After tearing through the league and setting the stage for a rematch with the Minnesota Whitecaps — the only team to defeat them — in the final, it was postponed, then cancelled. The Pride think they were the best team, and they head into the bubble maintaining that belief while putting last year behind them.


“We haven’t talked at all about last year,” said Pride head coach Paul Mara. “It’s done, we have eight new players and they don’t know what it was like last year. We can’t bring that back, we’re going (to Lake Placid) to win.”


The Pride’s prolific offence will dominate discussion; they did score 120 goals in 24 games last year, 16 more than the next team. But their depth in net with Selander and Victoria Hanson (.919, 1.97 in eight games) also puts them in a position to steal some games late, especially with the heavy back-to-back schedule.


Lineup projection


Putigna – Dempsey – Brand

Parker – Laing – Sullivan

Vanisova – Wenczkowski – Davis

Rickard – Turner – McManus


Fratkin – Souliotis

Kelly – Rheault

Mastel – Turnquist


Selander

Hanson


METROPOLITAN RIVETERS


2019-20: 10-11-3, lost 1-0 to Minnesota in semi-final


Additions: Kelly Babstock (trade, Toronto), Paige Voight (draft), Bridgette Prentiss (draft), Saroya Tinker (draft), Tera Hofmann (draft), Sonjia Shelly (free agent), Sammy Kolowrat (draft), Emily Janiga (free agent), Rebecca Russo (free agent)


Subtractions: Sam Walther (free agent), Cassie Dunne (free agent), Ashley Johnston (retirement), Colleen Murphy (free agent), Brooke Baker (free agent), Bulbul Kartanbay (free agent), Kelly Nash (free agent)


Stats leaders with league rank: Madison Packer (34 points, 4th); Kate Leary (16 goals, 5th); Kendall Cornine (115 SOG; 5th)


The captain, Madison Packer, is expected to lead the charge on offence once again, and alongside her is Kate Leary following a stellar rookie season. With Cornine coming off a stellar first season as well, the Riveters offence is bolstered and could be due for a breakout.


Players to watch


Kelly Babstock: On the topic of offence, Babstock’s impact on the rest of the lineup is going to be monumental. Coming from Toronto before she ever played a game with the Six, Babstock makes her return to the NWHL following a stint in the PWHPA. She led the Whale in scoring with 22 points in the league’s inaugural season, and the Riveters will be her third NWHL club.


Saroya Tinker: Tinker will get a chance to be a big part of the blue line after Johnston retired to be a part of the Riveters coaching staff. The Oshawa native was a standout at Yale, which has continued to produce NWHL talent throughout the league. Tinker put up a career-high 12 points with Yale last season.


Cailey Hutchison: Named an alternate captain in her second season as a member of the Riveters, she tallied 11 points last year as a rookie. The Maine alum took a leadership position early on in her pro career and will serve as a top six centre again.




In a nutshell

While the hype around Boston and Minnesota is real, and there’s plenty of excitement around expansion Toronto, perhaps more eyes should be on the Riveters.


They reloaded following a season where they hovered around .500, and their best players from last year should take another leap in their sophomore seasons. That means expectations for Hutchison, Leary, and Cornine are going to be higher.


Couple that with the addition of Babstock and Rebecca Russo coming back after a year off, and the Riveters could be a sneaky pick to make a deep run. On offence, they could do some serious damage.


In net they move to Sonjia Shelly, who played in Connecticut last year, since Sam Walther isn’t returning in net. Uncertainty around the crease could give them a few more questions, but they’re a team that will rely on offence.


Lineup projection


Leary – Cornine – Packer

Rushton – Hutchison – Russo

Babstock – Avery – Lewis

Janiga – Voight – Knutson


Kilduff – Morse

Tinker – Dosdall

Prentiss – Kolowrat

Olnowich


Shelly

Hofmann


CONNECTICUT WHALE


2019-20: 2-20-2, lost 5-1 to Boston in semi-final


Additions: Maddie Bishop (draft), Amanda Conway (draft), Tori Howran (draft), Alyssa Wohlfeiler (free agent)


Subtractions: None


Stats leaders with league rank: Shannon Doyle (65 blocks, 1st); Hanna Beattie (26 takeaways, 4th); Emma Vlasic (.579 faceoff percentage, 3rd)


Doyle has been the stabilizing force of the Whale since Day 1, and being paired with Beattie has given Connecticut a foundation to build upon. Connecticut’s 100 goals against weren’t the worst in the league last season despite winning just two games. Their offence looks to improve after some stronger games as the year went on, led by Emma Vlasic, who earned the Whale much-needed possessions at the faceoff dot and contributed nine goals.


Players to watch


Brooke Wolejko: The Whale have had different goalies getting opportunities for a while, and this year it seems Wolejko will be their starter most of the way. She has a solid defence in front of her and posted a .914 save percentage a season ago.


Janine Weber: The Austrian centre only put up four assists in eight games last year, but was coming off an entire year away from hockey. Before last season, she had last played in 2017-18 with Boston and had seven points in 13 games. Her best season came in 2016-17 when she tallied 22 points in 17 games for the Riveters, and the Whale will hope she returns to that form.


Grace Klienbach: Like Weber, Klienbach missed time before returning last year, when she added eight points in 24 games. The playmaker could see a breakout season.




In a nutshell

If you ask Whale general manager Amy Scheer, they’re ready to fight for an Isobel Cup. Perennially the league’s underdog, Connecticut showed progress last season with a play-in upset over Buffalo before falling in the semi-final.


They’re reloaded this year and returning one of the strongest defensive pairings in the league in Doyle and Beattie, though losing out on Melissa Samoskevich’s NWHL debut is a tough hit.


“This team is ready to compete,” said Scheer. “They receive great coaching from (Colton Orr and Lara Brennan), and this team is pumped and ready and we think we’ve got a great mix of youth and veterans.”


It should be expected the Whale will have a higher scoring output with the addition of rookies like Bishop and also former Pride forward Alyssa Wohlfeiler.


Brooke Wolejko (.914, 3.62) will look to get some more support in front and likely carry the load in net with Quinnipiac rookie Abbie Ives behind her.


Lineup projection


Lancaster – Vlasic – Klienbach

Anderson – Weber – Schwenzfier

Bishop – Friesen – Wohlfeiler

Conway – Russ – Guagliardo


Beattie – Doyle

Orlando – Marchin

Howran – Hill

LaGue


Wolejko

Ives


MINNESOTA WHITECAPS


2019-20: 17-5-2, advanced to Isobel Cup


Additions: Lynn Astrup (draft), Haley Mack (draft), Maddie Rowe (draft), Sara Bustad (free agent)


Subtractions: Nicole Schammel (PWHPA)


Stats leaders with league rank: Allie Thunstrom (24 goals, 1st); Jonna Curtis (36 points, 2nd); Amanda Leveille (.935 save percentage, 2nd)


The Co-MVP last season, Thunstrom was the league’s top goal-getter. The rest of the Whitecaps offence isn’t too shabby, with UNH alum Curtis tallying the second-most points at 36. Along with Dempsey and Brand, they’re one of the most dynamic duos in the league. Leveille returns for her fifth season, her third in Minnesota, as one of the league’s shutdown goalies.


Players to watch


Audra Richards: Richards has a long history with the Whitecaps, and not only playing alongside them; she was coached by Winny Brodt-Brown growing up, and credits some chemistry from her presence. Last season Richards put up 20 points, her first with the Whitecaps, after spending time with the Riveters.


Haylea Schmid: The Whitecaps’ top centre helped set up her scorers with nine assists last year out of her 13 points. She can be overlooked with the elite scoring talent at the top of the lineup, but is one of the players who makes the Whitecaps run.


Nina Rodgers: Rodgers was a standout performer with Boston University before tallying four points in 15 games in Connecticut as a rookie. She only played in seven games with the Whitecaps last year, her first in Minnesota, but it’s fair to expect a bigger role with Schammel gone and Corinne Buie not playing.




In a nutshell

Much like the Pride, the Whitecaps are entering the bubble feeling like they lost an opportunity last March. They’ve been hit a bit harder this off-season, first seeing Schammel leave then learning Buie wouldn’t join them in the bubble.


That doesn’t make them weaker, though. They’ve made some additions in the draft, including defender Maddie Rowe (who hails from Minnesota), and Rodgers and Richards (who are also from the state) should be expected to have even bigger roles.


“We haven’t played in so long, but with Minnesota, we all grew up playing the same style of hockey and playing together and that’s one advantage,” said Richards. “We have chemistry. It’s huge having leadership on this team that’s been there.”


The Whitecaps’ top line is going to be one to be reckoned with, and the depth of the forward lines is going to give them an advantage with the condensed schedule.


“When you’re playing so many days in a row, it’s tough to make those adjustments without practice,” said Richards. “It’s just practices in between, so we have to make sure we’re on top of it.”


Lineup projection


Curtis – Schmid – Thunstrom

Rodgers – Pezon – Lorence

Anderson – Astrup – Richards

Mack – White-Lancette – Martinson


Brodt-Brown – Rowe

Brodt-Rosenthal – Baldwin

Bustad – Stauber

Alleva


Leveille

Morse


BUFFALO BEAUTS


2019-20: 8-15-1, lost to Connecticut 5-3 in play-in


Additions: Hunter Accursi (free agent), Whitney Dove (draft), Dominique Kremer (Eurpoe), Alyson Matteau (draft), Kelly O’Sullivan (draft), Autumn MacDougall (draft)


Subtractions: Taylor Accursi (sitting out), Corrine Buie (free agent)


Stats leaders with league rank: Marie-Jo Pelletier (30 blocks, 3rd); Iveta Klimasova (43 PIM, 2nd)


Pelletier emerged as one of the best defenders in the league last season as just a rookie, and the 4-foot-11 defender is one of the Beauts’ team leaders in Year 2. The New Hampshire alum has become arguably the most impactful defender in the league. Klimasova was a 17-goal scorer in Slovakia before coming to the NWHL, and broke out last season with 18 points while being a physical presence.


Players to watch


Kristin Lewicki: Without Taylor Accursi in the fold, Lewicki is going to take the brunt of the scoring load in the top six. The former 30-goal scorer at Adrian College made stops in Metropolitan and the PWHPA before returning to the Beauts, where the speedster notched six points in six games after a mid-season comeback.


Cassidy MacPherson: The Providence alum centred the Beauts’ second line last season when she put up 12 points. She consistently produced 20-plus points with the Friars, and the Beauts like her long-term as one of their offensive leaders. Like Lewicki, she’ll be expected to pick up some slack with Accursi out.


Whitney Dove: Another Providence alum, Dove is going to contribute to the Beauts blue line straightaway in her rookie season. Her senior year with the Friars produced 28 points, and she’ll be expected to be a power play leader in her first pro season.




In a nutshell

The Beauts might have the most question marks of all teams heading into the bubble season. Following a disappointing play-in loss to the Whale, they’ve lost Buie and then Accursi, two of their most reliable scorers.


The mentality heading to Lake Placid is one of next player up.


“Once we did get together, we did enough scouting that I had a really reasonable expectation of what we added as far as talent is concerned,” said Beauts coach Pete Perram. “One of the things that shocked me was the intensity of practice. We’ve been experiencing ups and downs, players who are in and out for various reasons, but each practice has been top notch.”


Outside of Pelletier, there were questions on the defensive depth, and Dove’s addition answers some of those. Lisa Chesson is back as well after a quick stint with the PWHPA to bolster the blue line.


“You always want to improve your team heading into the season, and we knew that we had to improve our depth on defence,” said Perram. “We had some strengths, I mean, MJ arguably the number one D in the league, but with (general manager Nate Oliver’s) drive and commitment to secure that kind of talent, we brought on board a core group that is the best in the league. Our D core is going to be the defining part of our team.”


Lineup projection


Lewicki – MacPherson – Klimasova

Juron – H. Accursi – Gehen

Stacey – Van Pelt – Meneghin

Waysik – MacDougal – Colton


Curmova – Pelletier

Matteau- Delay

Dove – Kremer


Jackson

Neumann




TORONTO SIX


Expansion team


Stats leaders: Emily Fluke (27 points); Mikyla Grant-Mentis (2 goals)


Fluke joins the Six as one of the most experienced players in the league following time with Connecticut and Boston. She didn’t get as big of a role as she hoped with the Pride and has an opportunity to be a leader with the new group in Toronto. Grant-Mentis showed signs of being a productive player in her short period with Buffalo, and she’ll have a chance to prove herself with a bigger role.


Players to watch


Shiann Darkangelo: After missing the past few NWHL seasons to play in the CWHL and PWHPA, Darkangelo’s much anticipated return to the NWHL comes with its newest team. Darkangelo was a 10-goal scorer as a rookie with the Whale in the league’s first season before stopping in Buffalo then playing with Kunlun in the CWHL. She has a snipe of a shot, and adds some bite to the new lineup.


Emma Woods: Woods became a prolific scorer in Sweden last season with 29 points in 35 games, building upon her two double-digit point seasons in China in the CWHL. She can play centre or on the wing and will be expected to be one of their top scorers.


Kristen Barbara: A Clarkson Cup champion, Barbara brings a wealth of pro experience to a young-leaning Six team. She’ll be the power play captain from the start and work as one of their top defensive players.




In a nutshell

For an expansion team, the Six are loaded. That’s nothing new for the NWHL, who saw Minnesota win in its first season coming off of being an independent squad.


The Six have pulled from all areas of women’s hockey, not just current league players. There’s a plethora of CWHL alum like both Emma and Taylor Woods, Barbara, Julie Allen and Elaine Chuli in net, but even the young players like Brooke Boquist and Sarah Steele are up and coming stars.


There’s some NWHL experience to rely upon too, with Darkangelo making her return alongside Fluke and Grant-Mentis, and they’re all coached by Digit Murphy. Murphy’s presence alone has drawn in players who otherwise were unlikely to play in the NWHL; they believe in her, and that’ll go a long way.


Lineup projection


Boquist – Darkangelo – E. Woods

Grant-Mentis – Curlew – Coutu-Godbout

Marcuzzi – Fluke – Allen

Clairmont – MacNeil – Wilson-Bennett


T. Woods – Barbara

Eastwood – Greco

Quinn – Steele


Chuli

Ridgewell