The Connecticut are 2-4-2 at the halfway point of the 2018-19 season. Yet again the Whale are in forth place in the NWHL standings. However, there are a few reasons this season could be different than their two fourth place finishes.
To begin, there are now five teams in the league, so while the Whale are in fourth place yet again, as of now the Metropolitan Riveters occupy last place in the league. Additionally, Ryan Equale and the Whale have made some roster adjustments this season that might be on their way to fully taking shape.
With all of that said, here are our grade for the Connecticut Whale eight games into the current season.
Yet again, the Whale are lacking in scoring opportunities. The Stamford-based team is last in goals (13) and sub-ten percent on the power play (two PP goals for a 8.3% clip).
The shining light on offense is rookie Katerina Mrázová. She leads the team with six goals and is tied for third for league with Jillian Dempsey, Audra Richards, and Gigi Marvin. Maddie Elia leads all scorers with eight goals, her Beauts teammate Hayley Scamurra is second with seven goals.
Mrázová has centered the top line alongside captain Emily Fluke and rookie Nina Rodgers. The top line account for eight of the team’s 13 goals. Only three other forward have tallied a goal this season, making Doyle the second leading goal scorer behind Mrázová.
On Sunday, Swedish rookie Michelle Löwenhielm got her first goal of the season and spent time on a line with Fluke and Mrázová. “We like those three together, the challenge is, it really opens up a hole at center,” said head coach Ryan Equal after a 2-1 overtime loss to the Boston Pride at home. “We do it when we can, but it’s just not something right now with the current lineup we have, we don’t have enough pure centers to be able to do that as much as we’d like to.”
Whether moving Löwenhielm or not, the team also has to work on their finish. In Sunday’s loss, Equale wants his team to sacrifice a bit of style if it means more goals. “We were probably a little too fancy and creative with the puck. It’s fine to be creative, but we just need to be more productive with those puck possessions.”
I considered bumping the offense to a B-, but it is hard to justify giving them a higher grade for their potential, as opposed to their current productivity.
This was a hard grade to decide. As a defense purist, I appreciate defenders who can do their primary job, keeping the puck out of the net. On the other hand, at the professional level the blue line must be able to contribute to the offense. Finally, although there is a separate goalie category, goaltending was factored into this grade.
Let’s start with things to be improved. Whale blue liners are struggling to contribute to the offense on a team desperate for offense. All rostered defenders combined account for two of the 13 Connecticut goals. Both goals came off the stick of Shannon Doyle. Additionally, defenders account for only three Whale assists (Doyle, Taylor Marchin, Jordan Brickner all have one assist). The four-year Whale veteran is the only defender with a positive plus-minus (+1). That’s a total of five points from the blue line, not great.
However, in their stats categories —blocked shots, power play goals against, and penalty kill percentage — the Connecticut defense is best in the league.
The tradition of the Whale relying on exceptional goaltending continues, this year with a 2018 bronze medalist, Meeri Räisänen. The Finnish netminder is third overall in save percentage at a .917% tally. She has kept her team in several games and stole a point in an overtime loss to the Riveters and the Pride last weekend.
With all of that said, it is a bit concerning that the Whale have dropped to only two goalies with the news Mariya Sorokina was acquired by the Metropolitan Riveters. This could potentially create a depth issue.
To begin, if Räisänen is away with her national team or goes down with an injury, the Whale have no options to backup Sam Walther. Additionally, no other goalies seen time in net behind Merri. Will they be able to keep up with the fast, aggressive forwards throughout the league?
It is possible that Laura Brennan will bring the Whale back up to the traditional three goalies. She was on the roster last season and currently serves as the Connecticut goalie coach.
The Whale get pulled up to a B- behind Räisänen and the defense in front of her. The team stands on the shoulders of the Finnish goalie, without question. Despite their record, the Whale defense has also kept things within reach not only this season, but last year as well. Players like Doyle, Brickner, Elena Orlando, and Rachel Ade deserve more credit for what they do for Connecticut.
That said, the offense needs to pick it up. Part of the problem may be in the Connecticut recruiting game. Equale is still learning the league – oddly, he is the longest tenured coach – and what it takes to recruit players and keep them in the league.
Forwards like Sam Donovan & Randi Griffin playing little to no minutes this year has left holes in the Whale roster. This is also a residual for the state of the fledgling league, to be fair to Equale. Moving forward, he must learn how to recruit for his market. So far, it looks as though recruiting International talent might be his answer.