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2018-19 CWHL Preview: KRS Vanke Rays

Will the rebranded team be able to overcome a sophomore slump

Michelle Jay

Last Season

In their first season in the CWHL, the Kunlun Red Stars finished second in the regular season and were the Clarkson Cup runner-ups. However, KRS got off to a rough start. They found their footing and eventually went on a 15-game winning streak. They dropped two in a row to the Calgary Inferno in China before topping Montreal, Boston, and Vanke to head into the playoffs hot. KRS rode their hot streak right into one of the craziest games of last season: a game three triple-overtime win over the Inferno. Thanks to a clutch goal by Alex Carpenter, Kunlun went to its first Clarkson Cup, eventually losing in overtime to the Markham Thunder.

Not too shabby for a team that was based in China and had to travel to Canada and live out of suitcases and hotels three different times, even if they had CWHL Goaltender of the Year Noora Räty in net. What’s even more remarkable is that KRS managed to make it to the Clarkson Cup Final while playing with two lines most of the time.

Their roster was a combination of international imports, international players who had Chinese heritage, and Chinese National Team players. However, it was quickly apparent that the Chinese players were nowhere near the skill level needed to compete in the CWHL. This was probably the biggest on-ice controversy of KRS last season — Digit Murphy’s reliance of non-Chinese national team players. It will be interesting to see how that plays out this year under a new head coach.

Offseason moves

Here we go. Let’s just start at the beginning, I guess.

Former head coach Digit Murphy and the team parted ways shortly after China performed poorly at Worlds. Bob Deraney, the former head coach of Providence College, is the new head coach.

In July, the Vanke Rays were contracted, leaving the CWHL with only six teams. Then in August, the CWHL announced the rebranding of the remaining team in China to the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. In addition, the Chinese government created a second team that was to be all Chinese National Team players in order to train for the next senior international tournaments.

All of this leads to Shenzhen’s roster, which is markedly different from last season. First off, their two points leaders, Kelli Stack and Zoe Hickel, are not returning. In an interview with Sportsnet, Stack expressed her unhappiness with how the team and program was run. Stack has not announced plans to play this season. Hickel opted to return to North America, and signed with the Inferno where she will play with her sister, Tori.

Shenzhen added Cayley Mercer, Hanna Bunton, and Emma Woods from Vanke and signed Hannah Miller to round out their imports. Forwards Alex Carpenter and Stephanie Anderson, who were both on KRS last season, are also back with the team this year.

The KRS Vanke Rays also added a fair amount of heritage players (players not born in China but with Chinese heritage). Their first and second round drafts picks — Leah Lum and Kimberly Newell — both fall in that category. They also signed Michelle Ng away from the Blades.

Of the 23 players on the 2018-19 roster, only eight are from China. That’s four fewer Chinese players from the 12 (out of 24 players) that Kunlun Red Star had last season.

Three players to watch

Xin Fang, forward

On Vanke last season, Xin Fang scored five goals — two of which came in one game against the then Boston Blades. Her eight total points put her at the top of the chart for Chinese players across the league. She was also seventh overall in points on Vanke, trailing only her North American teammates.

Fang’s most noticeable trait on the ice is her speed, which she used to score three goals in five games at the Worlds last year. Now that she has had a little more experience playing in North American rinks, she should be able to tap into her speed more often in her second CWHL season. It was no secret that Vanke was the weaker of the two teams, so it will be interesting to see what Fang can do on a more balanced team.

Michelle Jay

Baiwei Yu, defender

The Team China captain was a strong defender for the Red Stars last season and was always one of the most noticeable Chinese players on the ice. She notched three points over the season — a goal and two assists. Her skills improved over the course of the year and with markedly fewer Chinese players, especially on defense, look for Yu to stand out again.

Zhixin Lui, defender

Zhixin Lui, 25, had six points last season, which was good for second among Chinese-born players in the CWHL last year. It’s also worth noting that her three goals and three assists all came in different games.

She’s the biggest skater on China’s National Team (5-foot-10) and will likely play a key role for China at Beijing 2022. Look for Lui to see more ice time than she did last season, especially if she’s paired with Emma Woods or Leah Lum.

Predictions

KRS Vanke Rays’ roster has a lot of players who were born outside of China. General manager Rob Morgan bolstered the team with more heritage players in the hopes that they can gain Chinese passports to eventually play for Team China. It’s clear that Shenzhen’s goal this year is to win, not to prepare Chinese national team players for senior international play.

In a league that’s home to many current national team players and Olympians, Shenzhen’s goal to win the Clarkson Cup may not be as attainable as it was last season.

Alex Carpenter is the lone skater who has played on a senior national team (a few players have played on U18 teams). But, Carpenter struggled at the beginning of her shortened time with KRS last season. She took a while to find her footing and likely had to adjust after getting cut from the United States’ National Team prior to the 2018 Olympics. Even if she’s better adapted this year, she will still have to play with players who, to be frank, are below her caliber. She can’t do it all alone. Carpenter will need help from veterans like Anderson and Rachel Llanes, who stood out in the preseason, as well as Cayley Mercer, a Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist in 2017.

The sophomore slump might be real for the team with the most names in the league.

Final Thoughts

Year Two of the CWHL in China might be even more interesting than Year One. The Sportsnet article chronicling the first year was illuminating on many levels and it detailed many issues facing the team. Players talked about uncoordinated travel, a lower skill level in the Chinese players, and the challenges of living out of suitcases and hotels. One way or another, the location of the CWHL’s sole team in China is going to be a factor. When they play in Shenzhen, they have a distinct advantage. But when Bob Deraney and his team are on the road, they will be travel-weary and jet-lagged, hoping they can prove that last year was not a fluke.