2018-19 NWHL Season Recap: Metropolitan Riveters
“I saw that going differently in my mind.” - Will Smith, “Hitch”
Things went south in a hurry for last year’s Isobel Cup champs. Now it’s time to lick the wounds and ponder where they go from here.
Metro finished with a dismal 4-12-0 record and did not look particularly coordinated in the process. Their 0-5 start marked the worst opening to a season in league history (the 2015-16 Beauts went 0-4-1 in their first five games). Two wins came against last-place Connecticut, with the other two games of their season series resulting in the Whale’s only two wins of the season. The Riveters also stole a last-second win from the Pride and a shootout victory over the Beauts in their regular season finale.
The team went on two separate losing streaks of four games or more for the first time in franchise history.
Audra Richards was a rookie revelation as a goal-scorer, netting eight on the season including the league’s only hat trick. Six of her eight goals came against the Whale. Madison Packer tied her for the team lead.
Running away with the assists and points lead was Amanda Kessel, racking up 15 assists and 17 points. Kessel was the only Riveters player to average over a point per game this season.
The goalie carousel produced mixed results for all three netminders. A strong finish gave Katie Fitzgerald a team-best .886 save percentage and 3.32 goals-against average, though Kimberly Sass and Maria Sorokina both saw starts in the middle of the season.
Three years under Chad Wiseman saw the Riveters grow from ragtag basement-dwellers to league-dominating champions. Their core was hardly impacted by Olympic centralization, allowing for chemistry to blossom and their top-tier talent to run wild. Wiseman announced he would depart the team for the Ontario Hockey League prior to the conclusion of the ‘17-’18 season, yet his seat remained vacant until mere weeks before the season’s first game.
Randy Velischek’s stint as head coach was, to put it bluntly, an unmitigated disaster. The coach was slow to learn the names of his own players, intimated that he might not actually watch all game tapes, and even outright admitted he knew very little of the league’s very existence before being offered the job, which would explain why he struggled to recall the moniker of the Boston Pride during a podcast interview on Blueshirts Breakaway (timecode 33:47).
The sheen of having a former New Jersey Devil as bench boss wore off in a hurry as his team regularly experienced systemic breakdowns and frustrations mounted.
At the midway point of the season, Velischek gave an interview to our own Mike Murphy in which he lamented the lack of lineup consistency from game to game. This is earnestly his best defense. Defender Courtney Burke missed five games to injury. Star forward Miye D’Oench missed seven games to aid a Kentucky political campaign. Kelly Nash missed much of the year for her Princeton coaching job. Madison Packer served a one-game suspension. Kelsey Koelzer, Amanda Kessel and Kimberly Sass all missed the Isobel Cup Semi-final game in Minnesota. Lines were constantly juggled and the team was rarely at full strength.
A coaching hire with less than a month to prepare for the job is a situation doomed to fail. But neither performance nor accountability improved throughout the season.
There is simply no way to sugarcoat this atrocious season from the Riveters’ blueliners. Their coverage was haphazard. Their offensive production was neutered. What was perhaps their greatest asset last year became their most egregious shortcoming.
Courtney Burke went goalless with six assists in the regular season after notching two goals and 17 points in 2017-18 and three with 11 points the year prior. Jenny Ryan had just three points this season after a three goal, 16 point campaign her rookie year. Kiira Dosdall had 10 assists in ‘17-’18 and just one this go-around. Kelsey Koelzer tallied five goals and 14 assists last year. She did not register a single point in 14 games.
As a unit the Rivs’ top four defenders averaged 2.3 shots-on-goal per game in 2017-18. That figured dropped down to 1.75 this year, with Ryan experiencing the worst individual drop of 1.1 shots/game.
One player slumping is a down year. Two is unfortunate timing. The entire top four having their production crash and burn is an unmissable indictment on the team brass and their ramshackle system.
Alexa Gruschow is the poster child for the Riveters’ suddenly anemic offense this season. After a dominant stretch clinching last year’s MVP award, her offensive output was shot down like Snoopy vs the Red Baron. Last year’s leading point-getter mustered just two goals and two assists and finished a league-worst -15.
After a break out season last year including taking home league MVP Alexa Gruschow is possibly the player who has suffered most under the Rivs new coaching systems this year. Even if we assume regression due to the return of NT players this season has (tragically) been her worst. pic.twitter.com/f1gyi88aB8— Alyssa (@alyssastweeting) March 4, 2019
Rebecca Russo saw her point total halved, failing to reach double digits for the first time in her three-year career. Even Kessel does not escape unscathed. Though she racked up assists, she only found the back of the net twice, shooting 5.3%. Kessel is obviously an elite player, but oh what the Riveters would have given for their best player to be their best shooter, too.
Outside of Kessel, Richards, and Madison Packer, there isn’t much to boast about offensively for what looked on paper to be one of the deeper teams in the league back in October.
High expectations for Fitzgerald were quelled quickly once the discombobulation of the team’s defense became apparent. Even still, Fitzgerald had a trying season full of ups and downs. A dreadful start to the season caused Velischek to try his backup Kimberly Sass, and when Sass fared no better at goal prevention behind a porous defense, the team traded for Whale backup Maria Sorokina.
Fitzgerald eventually earned her spot between the pipes back. Her save percentage in her four appearances in 2019 was .924.
The only possible solution to this grand problem is sweeping change across the board. Randy Velischek has overstayed his welcome. If the Pegulas owned the Riveters and not the Beauts, he might not have survived opening weekend. Then again, they wouldn’t have waited six months to find a coach in the first place.
New talent must be infused at forward and defense. Miye D’Oench is retiring, meaning one of the Rivs’ best sparkplugs is gone. D’Oench had seven points in nine regular season games and had five points in five career postseason games. There is indication that Kiira Dosdall may not return next season either. Madison Packer is one of the final remaining players from the inaugural season in the league. She has already retired (and un-retired) once and has been banged up her entire career with a myriad of ailments. Who knows what year will be her last?
Either way, Kessel and company need more upper-echelon talents to compete with the cream of the crop in the NWHL. A sniper is desperately needed. Depth at defense is a must. Buffalo has better shooters. Minnesota is faster. Boston is better coached.
The red flags are up in Newark. It’s up to management to learn from the mistakes, address them, and give 2018-19 a viking funeral.