2019-20 NWHL Season Preview: Connecticut Whale
There’s nowhere to go but up...right?
Forwards: Kayla Meneghin, Jane Morrisette, Kaycie Anderson, Kendra Broad, Emma Vlasic, Hanna Beattie, Sarah Hughson, Grace Kleinbach
Defenders: Taylor Marchin, Shannon Doyle, Erin Hall, Elena Orlando, Jordan Brickner
Goalies: Brooke Wolejko, Sonjia Shelly, Cassandra Goyette
Space: 16/25 spots filled.
Home Ice: Danbury Arena, Danbury, CT
How Last Season Went
There’s no way to put this lightly, so let’s just rip the band-aid off. The Connecticut Whale experienced the worst season in NWHL history last year, finishing with a dismal record of 2-12-2. They were routinely outshot and lacked offensive potency as a cohesive unit despite talent up front. Of the five All-Stars the Whale sent to Nashville last season, only defender Shannon Doyle is returning.
Kateřina Mrázová led the team with 12 points, with Emily Fluke following behind with 11. Of the returning players currently on the roster, Doyle had the best season, to the surprise of no one. Her defining moment was undeniably netting the game-winning goal in the final minute of regulation against the Riveters in one of the Whale’s two wins.
Needless to say, the Whale have hit bottom and are ready to bounce back.
While the roster itself has experienced a massive overhaul, perhaps the most important move of the entire offseason for the Whale was that of the team itself. The team relocated to Danbury Arena, currently undergoing renovations and improvements to their 2,000-seat arena. They will share a home with the Danbury Hat Tricks of the FPHL and the Danbury Colonials of the NA3HL.
Colton Orr has been tapped as head coach of the Whale this season. This will be Orr’s first professional head coaching job, and one in close proximity to his other ventures; he runs a hockey academy based out of Danbury Arena and owns the aforementioned Colonials junior team. Laura Brennan will serve as assistant coach. Former Isobel Cup Champion Bray Ketchum Peel has maneuvered into the team’s general manager role. It certainly seems that there is a knowledgeable, invested leadership group in place for the Whale this season.
The bad news, however, is that most of the bright spots in a forgettable season have departed the team, be it to pursue other opportunities overseas or as part of the #FortheGame movement. Kateřina Mrázová and Michelle Löwenhielm have signed in the SDHL, as has star goaltender Meeri Räisänen. Emily Fluke remains unsigned with no clear indication as to whether she will play this season. While every team lost a bit of star power to this tumultuous offseason, it is a tougher pill to swallow for the Whale who had so few “stars” to begin with.
With that said, it would appear they have a sturdy backbone in net with the formulation of a capable trio: St. Lawrence teammates Sonjia Shelly and Brooke Wolejko, as well as Nichols College standout Cassandra Goyette. They also have a core of fifth-years on defense led by Doyle, Elena Orlando and Jordan Brickner (more on her in a second).
Three Players to Watch
Shannon Doyle | D
The obvious choice for a category like this, from both a talent and leadership perspective, is Shannon Doyle. Doyle is entering her fifth season with Connecticut, and has been steadily improving with each passing season. Last year was a career high in both goals (3) and points (8) from the blue line in 13 games. Offense has come at a premium for Connecticut since 2015-16, and with a need for veteran leadership on an otherwise young team, Doyle will be leaned on heavily. Barring a last-minute return from Emily Fluke, one would imagine Doyle a near-lock for the captaincy this season.
Jordan Brickner | D
Another veteran defender entering her fifth season with the team, Brickner is a player Connecticut would love to have return to the form of old. Though her numbers were no doubt aided by being on a far superior team relative to the years following, Brickner posted 12 assists in 18 games in 2015-16 and was named to the NWHL All-Star team. Since that year, she has two goals and five assists in 42 regular season contests. While her stellar rookie season may have set unrealistic expectations, it would be a godsend for the Whale to get Brickner back on track offensively when her defensive game has been so steady.
Sonjia Shelly | G
Shelly would appear to be the number one option in goal for the Whale based off her collegiate numbers. She finished her season season at St. Lawrence 5-8-2 with a 2.16 goals-against average and four shutouts. Her junior season was her best, posting a 10-4-1 record with a .925 save percentage, 1.80 goals-against average and four more shutouts.
Goaltending has always been the x-factor for Connecticut. In their first season, Jaimie Leonoff recorded one of the best single-season campaigns in league history. Two years later Sydney Rossman impressed as backstop for a team routinely needing to be bailed out by their netminder. Meeri Räisänen often singlehandedly kept the Whale competitive last season before a lower-body injury prematurely ended her season.
Three Games to Watch
Opening Day vs Buffalo | Oct. 5, 2:30 p.m. ET at Danbury Arena
Connecticut’s opener will be a good litmus test for what kind of team they will be in 2019-20. They have the benefit of home ice and will have a litany of new faces looking to make their mark on the league against a team that has been decimated by roster turnover (Buffalo will have just three players returning in Corinne Buie, Taylor Accursi and Kelsey Neumann).
They will also still be developing their new system. Laura Brennan has been serving as the team’s interim head coach while Colton Orr fulfills his commitment to CBC’s figure skating competition program, “Battle of the Blades.” Orr should return to the US in time for the opener.
Playoff rematch vs Riveters | Dec. 1, 4:10 p.m. ET at Danbury Arena
Both of Connecticut’s wins last season came against the Metropolitan Riveters. Their rivalry has come to a boil over the last two season thanks to back-to-back first round matchups in the Isobel Cup Playoffs, both of which were won by the Riveters.
Metropolitan fared only marginally better than Connecticut last season. If there was any team the Whale would be looking to leapfrog in the standings, logically it would be the Riveters. Expect this first meeting to set the tone. The Whale and Riveters will meet five times this season.
First trip to Minnesota vs Whitecaps | Jan. 18, 2:00 p.m. ET at Tria Rink
The Connecticut Whale play the Minnesota Whitecaps a whopping eight times this season thanks to the expanded schedule. The Caps dominated home ice wholeheartedly last season, with the cherry on top being an Isobel Cup Final overtime win in front of a sold-out crowd at TriaRink. The quality of opponent coupled with the laborious trek westward makes it the toughest road matchup in the league. But if the Whale want to reinvent themselves, stealing one in the State of Hockey would be a terrific statement win. They will get four such chances.
It won’t be a pretty season for the Whale, but it’s not like there isn’t a lot to look forward to either. There will be growing pains- three consecutive years in the league basement doesn’t get fixed overnight- but a hungry roster in a larger venue with accomplished new leadership could turn some heads with a few early wins. After all, Orr’s modus operandi in both his own career and his academy’s curriculum is tenacious work ethic and aggressive checking. While they likely don’t have the talent to surge past the likes of Minnesota or Boston, the climb of the tallest ladder begins by grabbing the bottom rung.
Don’t write off the Whale just yet.