No player has meant more to the Connecticut Whale franchise in its three year history than Kelly Babstock. Unfortunately for Connecticut, Babstock decided to sign with the Buffalo Beauts on July 16. Now, Whale fans are wondering how the team will replace its most iconic player.
Babstock holds the Whale’s franchise records for all-time goals, assists, points, games played, shots on goal, and penalty minutes. She’s also the only Whale player to represent Connecticut at two separate All-Star Games and she’s the highest scoring Canadian player in NWHL history.
The bottom line: there is no replacing Kelly Babstock.
What makes Babstock’s departure all the more alarming for those who follow the Whale is that the team has yet to make a signing this summer. For nearly five weeks the Whale have watched the NWHL’s other four franchises build their rosters.
As rosters currently stand, the Beauts, Pride, Whitecaps, and Riveters all have at least two skaters and one goaltender. And with Babstock now in Buffalo, it’s hard to imagine what the Whale are going to look like for the 2018-19 season.
One could argue that Babstock was something of a holdover from the Whale’s identity in the NWHL’s first two years. An explosive skater and tireless battler, Babstock has always done her best work in the offensive and neutral zones. But last year the Whale became known for playing a tight defensive system designed to reduce scoring chances and win close games.
It’s not that Babstock didn’t fit in — her play away from the puck is frequently underrated — but there was a lot of pressure on her to carry the team’s offense. As anyone who watched the Whale play last season can tell you, it was not a winning recipe.
With Babstock now out of the picture, it’s up to the Whale’s head coach to reforge the team’s identity without her. For the moment, it is unclear if that coach will be Ryan Equale, who stood behind the bench in Connecticut last season. If it is Equale, we should expect to see the Whale continue to play defense-first hockey that focuses on suffocating scoring chances for the opposition. If it’s not Equale, the next head coach would do well to take a leaf out of his book. Unless something dramatic and/or unexpected happens in free agency, the Whale will likely have an under-powered offense for the second year in a row.
One way or another, this summer is going to tell us a lot about who the Whale are. Last summer, the Boston Pride — who needed bodies to fill the roles left vacant by departing members of the national team — signed four players away from Connecticut. The Whale never rebounded from the departure of those players, but can they find a way to rebound after losing Babstock?
The good news is that Connecticut was buoyed by a handful of youngsters last season that could help to carry the torch if they return. Emily Fluke, Amanda Boulier, and Sam Donovan (in a smaller sample size) all stood out on last season’s roster. Together that trio, along with veteran defender Cydney Roesler, have the makings of a solid new core group of skaters for the Whale’s next chapter.
As much as the end of the Babstock era in Connecticut is bittersweet, it also creates an opportunity for the Whale to reinvent themselves. And, after a 3-11-2 season in 2017-18, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. All that needs to happen now is that first step.
UPDATE: The NWHL has confirmed that Ryan Equale will return as the Whale’s head coach for the 2018-19 season.