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CWHL 2017-18 Season Preview: Vanke Rays

What can we expect from Cayley Mercer, Brooke Webster and the Vanke Rays in 2017-18?

The Vanke Rays are one of two new expansion teams joining the CWHL this season.
Chris Tanouye/CWHL

With two new expansion teams in the CWHL, there are a lot of fans wondering just how Kunlun and Vanke will stack up against the rest of the CWHL. Until the Rays get some games under their belt, that remains unclear, but this is a team with a lot of potential.

Season Prediction

The Vanke Rays may be the most unpredictable team in the CWHL. Not only are the Rays one of the CWHL’s two new franchises in China, Vanke is also a team defined by its youth. In other words, it's a team filled with players without CWHL experience. There is star power on the Rays, but not many household names. The Rays inaugural roster is stockpiled with talent fresh out of the NCAA and several key players from China’s national team.

The Rays could find themselves in the playoff picture by season’s end, but much of that will depend on what happens with the depleted Markham Thunder and the Boston Blades. It will also depend on the team's chemistry. Everyone expects Vanke to be the second-best team in China, but that could work to the team’s advantage.

Finishing fifth would be a big accomplishment for Vanke, but sixth place might be more realistic. The Rays team speed will be something to keep an eye on.

Breakout Players

Xin Fang was the first native Chinese player selected in the 2017 CWHL Draft. While playing for a national team with a reputation for structured, defensive hockey Fang has managed to stand out. She may be the most skilled forward from China.

Fang was China’s top scorer in the 2017 Women’s World Championship Division 1B. She scored three goals and three assists in five games. Fang was also one of just two players to score a goal for China in last season’s Olympic qualifiers. We should expect her to be a featured player on Vanke.

The Asian Winter Games 2017 - Day 8 Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

Fang should benefit from ice time with players like Cayley Mercer, Brooke Webster and Ashleigh Brykaliuk. But it’s hard to predict just how good she will be against CWHL competition. Much of her performance will come down to who coach Rob Morgan plays her with. But considering how important Fang is to the future of hockey in China, one would imagine that we’ll see her in the top-six and on the power play.

The Rays roster is filled with young players who could break out and emerge as legitimate CWHL stars. We won’t know what the Rays really look like until the puck drops.

Offseason Moves

Because the Rays are one of the CWHL’s two expansion teams in China, there are simply too many offseason moves to list. With that being said, general manager Shirley Hon did well to add some big names from the NCAA’s graduating senior class in the 2017 Draft. Adding 2017 Isobel Cup Champion Emily Janiga was also a shrewd move. Janiga excelled at creating space for her linemates in Buffalo last season. She could be a big part of Kunlun’s offense.

Rookie goaltender Elaine Chuli could turn a lot of heads this season. Her numbers at the University of Connecticut were outstanding. Chuli will have a blue line that is largely comprised of members of the Chinese national team in front of her as well as former Minnesota Whitecap Rose Alleva and Lauren Kelly from Northeastern University.

Behind the Vanke bench will be Morgan, assistant coach Jenesica Drinkwater and assistant coach Morten KjØlby.

Three Must-Watch Games

October 28 v. Toronto - Three days before Halloween the Vanke Rays will play their first regular season game in Canada. We’re only a few months away from the confusion and rumors about there being a second CWHL team in China and on October 28th we’ll finally get a taste of what the Rays look like on CWHL ice in a game that counts.

November 18 vs Markham - Fans of the Rays will have to wait until mid-November for the team’s home opener. But come November 18 we will find out what home ice advantage could mean to Vanke. The Rays will host the Markham Thunder, who underwent some dramatic changes in the offseason. They should provide a good measuring stick for who and what the Rays are after nearly a month of CWHL hockey.

A home opening win against Markham would mean a lot more than two points in the standings for the Rays.

December 8 @ Kunlun - Red Star and the Rays will be measured against one another all season long, so the first head-to-head match between China’s two CWHL teams is sure to be a game to remember. Heading into the 2017-18 season Vanke and Kunlun cooperated in a joint training camp which will add plenty of storylines to the season series between the two clubs.

#HotTakes

The Rays aren’t going to win the Clarkson Cup this year, but that doesn’t mean the team’s inaugural season is doomed to failure. Success for the Rays will look something like the steady development and improvement of a young team filled with young leaders. The comparisons to Kunlun will be unavoidable, but Vanke is a much different team.