A team needs a goaltender. A goaltender needs a team. Faith, trust, pixie dust, and bravo?
Veteran Finnish goaltender Meeri Räisänen, 28, is a two-time Olympian with the drive and ability to be both a starter and a difference-maker. She was drafted in the eighth round of the 2018 CWHL Draft by the Markham Thunder, the team’s second goalie pickup behind Elijah Milne-Price in the seventh round.
Both the late pick and the team in question were unexpected, as Räisänen’s resumé merits a much higher ranking and the Thunder’s net is already well-tended. Last year Erica Howe and Liz Knox split the crease at a fairly even 15-13 respectively during the regular season. Is Räisänen capable of cracking the Thunder’s lineup? Absolutely, but so is Milne-Price, a Mississauga native who’s coming off a career year at Robert Morris University and doesn’t face any of the challenges of moving to a different continent.
Then there’s the issue of playing time. Why should she leave her home, her family, and her dog to warm the Thunder’s bench? Räisänen played 23 games last season in the Naisten Liiga as HPK Hämeenlinna’s starter and won the league’s Tuula Puputti Award for Best Goaltender. She’s unlikely to be content with a backup role and nor should she be, with her accolades and proven ability.
Which is where the Connecticut Whale come into this equation.
Last year’s Whale starter Sydney Rossman departed for the Minnesota Whitecaps earlier this offseason. Currently, the Whale have only one goalie signed for next year, Sam Walther of Hamilton College. Walther put up great numbers in NCAA Division III, but she faces a potentially challenging transition period to the pros when facing offensive dynamos like Amanda Kessel, Madison Packer, and Kendall Coyne-Schofield. In Connecticut, Räisänen makes a very compelling case for the starter job right away without the wealth of competition she faces in Markham.
Signing with the Whale over the Thunder or another CWHL team doesn’t alleviate the financial and logistical issues of Räisänen actually getting to play in North America. The Whale have already shown a willingness to sign international talent this offseason with the additions of Michelle Löwenhielm (Sweden) and Katerina Mrázová (Czech Republic). Adding another player with ample experience on the world stage will only bolster the rebuilding Whale’s status.
Ah. The rub.
Räisänen wants to win and knows she may not have too many season left to do it:
“I’ve spent so many years now in teams where that possibility hasn’t existed. As an experienced player I know where I’m at, and I don’t want to go to survive at any team anymore. It’s not very motivational,” she told Finnish public broadcaster YLE earlier this month.
The Whale had a dismal 2017-18 campaign, finishing 3-11-2 with eight points. The Thunder took home the Clarkson Cup. The Whale aren’t in a position to challenge for a championship, but what they can’t offer in Isobel Cup contention that can offer in playing time, critical for Räisänen’s standing on Team Finland. They have nothing to lose by making her an offer. It’s late in the offseason, each has something the other wants, and a good goaltender can take a team to new heights, as Räisänen’s .941 SV% last year on a very young HPK team showed.
While it may not be the greatest move from a PR standpoint for the NWHL to try and poach a CWHL draft pick, Räisänen is not yet formally tied to the CWHL. At present she’s a prospect, not under contract, and free to sign with any league she chooses. Signing with a different league is also not entirely unprecedented, as CWHL prospects Nina Rodgers and Tatiana Rafter showed; Rodgers signed with the Whale after registering for the CWHL draft while Rafter signed a contract to play in Russia. If in the future Räisänen should choose to return to the CWHL, she’s already drafted and will not have to go through the process again.
If the Whale were inclined — and they should be — they could present their case and sign a world-class goaltender.
Thanks to Sara for the Finnish translation help.