Playoffs: Did not qualify.
No one really knew what to expect out of the Vanke Rays this season. On paper the Rays were a very young team — at the start of the season defender Lauren Kelly was the oldest player on the roster at 25 — with few household names and scant professional experience. Even the Chinese talent on Vanke was on the younger side compared to the more established national team players who played for Kunlun Red Star in 2017-18.
Back in October goaltender Elaine Chuli looked like a brick wall and Vanke’s young Canadian NCAA stars were nearly unstoppable. Head coach Rob Morgan guided his youthful team to an 8-1-0-0 in the first nine games of the season. But the Rays’ blistering hot start didn’t survive the winter.
Morgan’s team posted a record of 3-9-0-0 in the last 12 games of the season. Those last dozen games included a stretch where the Rays allowed 35 goals in four games in the midst of a six-game losing streak. That brutal window set the stage for the Thunder to push the Rays out of a playoff picture.
What Went Wrong
The Rays’ were unmade by fatigue and a lack of depth. This was most evident in the goal crease.
Morgan saddled Chuli with an immense workload; no CWHL goalie played more minutes (1516) than the 23-year-old. It’s also important to mention that Chuli was a full year removed from NCAA hockey before the start of the 2017-18 CWHL season. And when she wasn’t in net the Rays had 20-year-old Tianyi Zhang between the pipes. Zhang started in just two games for Vanke and posted an .825 save percentage.
As the season progressed Vanke became an easy team to develop a gameplan against because of their lack of depth scoring. The Rays’ top four goal scorers — all North American imports — scored 48 goals this season, but there were 11 skaters who were regulars in the lineup who scored less than two goals. Another way to look at that goal distribution is that Vanke’s top six forwards scored 82.43 percent of the team’s goals.
Special Teams: The Vanke Rays finished the season with the third-worst power play in the league (13.8 percent) and the fourth-best penalty kill in the league (83.5 percent).
Game of the Year
Vanke’s commanding victory over the Markham Thunder on Nov. 18 encapsulated how good the team was at the height of its power. Remember, the Thunder went on to win the 2018 Clarkson Cup thanks largely to the outstanding play of Erica Howe. But, on Nov. 18 Vanke put up six straight goals on Howe.
Brooke Webster scored the first two goals of that game — one in the first period and one in the second — and then picked up two assists in Vanke’s four-goal third period. As one might expect, Webster earned honors as the first star of the game because of her four-point night. Cayley Mercer was named the second star of the game with her three primary assists.
The 6-1 win was a result of Vanke’s best players being at the top of their games. In addition to the Rays’ best skaters breaking the goal lamp, Chuli stopped 29 of the 30 shots she faced. In the second period alone she stopped 14 shots.
Team MVP - Cayley Mercer
Cayley Mercer wasted no time establishing herself as the Rays’ most valuable player. Vanke’s first-ever draft pick was the engine of the offense and emerged as one of the CWHL’s best playmakers in her rookie campaign. Clearly, the Rays did their homework when they signed and drafted the former Clarkson University captain.
The 24-year-old center led the Rays in assists by a wide margin — Mercer had 26 helpers in 28 games — and shared the team lead in goals (15). She also had 15 more points than Vanke’s second-highest point scorer. If that doesn’t convince you of just how important Mercer was to her team, nothing will.
The fact that Mercer didn’t take home the CWHL’s 2018 Rookie of the Year Award is downright scandalous.
Standout Rookie - Ashleigh Brykaliuk
Ashleigh Brykaliuk was the definition of a “standout rookie” in the 2017-18 season. While playing for a team defined by its rookies, Brykaliuk established herself as an exceptional player. The two-way defender’s skill, speed, and strength made her a must-watch player.
We don’t have access to time on ice data in the CWHL (or NWHL), but if we did there’s little doubt that Brykaliuk would be among the league leaders. The former captain of the University of Minnesota-Duluth also set herself with her offensive prowess. Brykaliuk led all CWHL defenders in points this season (25) thanks in large part to the nine points she piled up on the power play.
Brykaliuk put up all of those impressive numbers despite having just two assists in the last 12 games of the regular season. Perhaps, like Chuli, she ran out of gas during the season and hit a wall. But the 17 points Brykaliuk posted in the first nine games of the season was a clear display of just how lethal she was in the transition game and on the power play.
One could call Vanke’s season a disappointment because of how the team unraveled in December and the New Year. But with that being said, the Rays still accomplished something special as an expansion franchise with a roster filled with question marks. The Rays are a team filled with potential, but it’s hard to say what kind of growth there will be next season if Vanke’s Chinese players don’t see more ice time.
Data courtesy thecwhl.com, Crease Giants