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2019-20 NWHL Season Preview: Returners Breaking Out

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What returning players are primed for a standout season?

Al Saniuk

Though there are many new faces around the NWHL this season, there are plenty of returning veterans who are in prime position to command the spotlight. Let’s take a look around the league to see which returner deserves the attention in 2019-20.

Boston Pride: McKenna Brand, F
Boston retained a good number of their important contributors from last season. Jillian Dempsey is back for a fifth season with the Pride. Kaleigh Fratkin, Lexi Bender and Mallory Souliotis lead an experienced defensive core.

With such a strong supporting cast surrounding her, McKenna Brand has the opportunity to erupt. Brand posted six goals and 11 assists last season in 16 regular season games; seven of those assists were primary. Entering her second professional season, she will likely see top line minutes with Dempsey, the Pride’s most dangerous goal scorer.

Dempsey, for the record, notched four assists last season, all primary. The two of them on a line together could be positively lethal.

Considering how great her vision of the ice is, Brand could easily be a point-per-game player, if not better, again this season.

One second in the offensive zone is all Brand needs to find the open player.

Buffalo Beauts: Kelsey Neumann, G
Kelsey Neumann found herself lost in the shuffle on an elite team her first few seasons in Buffalo. Whether it be playing second/third fiddle Brianne McLaughlin, or Amanda Leveille, or being forced off the roster entirely to make room for Shannon Szabados and Nicole Hensley, she has really not been given an opportunity to flex her muscles.

That changes this year. She is currently one of two goalies on the roster, competing for the starting job with Mariah Fujimagari. Fujimagari joins the Beauts after a long season backstopping a winless Worcester Blades team in the CWHL last year.

Considering the Beauts have gotten elite goaltending from the jump, Neumann has a terrific chance to grab hold of the reins and make a name for herself in the NWHL. Fans will certainly be rooting for her, since she is one of the most prolific online presences in league history. Win or lose, expect it to be a fun season for Buffalo in the goaltending department.

Connecticut Whale: Jordan Brickner, D
Brickner had an exceptional rookie season offensively. Then things changed. They changed for the entire Whale organization, really, as that 2015-16 season is the only one in which the Whale finished anywhere other than last place in the league. Specifically for Brickner, she was tasked with playing a more defensive role going forward on a team that struggled to muster many goals.

They could sure use a return to the Brickner from Season One. Now entering her fifth season with the team, Brickner will be relied on as one of the stalwarts of the defense alongside Shannon Doyle and Elena Orlando. Asking her to return to 12 points in 18 games may be ambitious, but they’ll need something a bit more than the single secondary assist in 13 games they got last season if they want to improve in the standings. Anticipate a rejuvenated Brickner to lead the way for Conneticut’s defense this season.

Metropolitan Riveters: Sam Walther, G
Another netminder with big shoes to fill. Katie Fitzgerald is/was a fan favorite for Riveters Nation. Brick Wall Fitzy got off to a rocky start, was shown the bench, then almost replaced by a mid-season trade for Maria Sorokina before reclaiming her starting job and leading Metropolitan to the semi-finals.

Now, all four of last year’s rostered goalies are gone. Sam Walther remains as the only goaltender with professional experience. Dana Demartino is also on the roster, but with minimal experience in the UWHL and at the ACHA club level at Farmingdale State College, it would appear the net is Walther’s to lose.

Riveters fans have loved their goalies dating back to the days of Nana Fujimoto and Jenny Scrivens. Walther could seize the throne with a few clutch performances in New Jersey this season.

Walther appeared in five games for the Whale last season in their goaltending carousel. Admittedly she was one of the least successful of the six goalies used, but a fresh start and some job stability could be all the 24-year-old needs to flourish. She put up insane numbers at Division III Hamilton College, finishing second in the nation with a .960 save percentage and fourth with a 1.08 goals-against average her senior season.

For the Riveters to rebound, they need to keep the puck out of the net. They were the most scored-on team in the league last season. A strong season from Walther would be a godsend.

Minnesota Whitecaps: Audra Richards, F
Audra Richards finds herself in a terrific position to build on a strong rookie campaign. She netted eight goals last season as a member of the Metropolitan Riveters, six of them against the Connecticut Whale. Who do the Whitecaps play a whopping eight times this season? The Connecticut Whale.

Richards’ numbers are peculiar when you consider she failed to register a single assist. Surrounding herself with a better offensive system will likely improve her offensive output. Minnesota averaged six more shots-on-goal per-game last year than the Riveters and scored 53 goals to Metro’s 30.

Teaming up with the likes of Jonna Curtis and Allie Thunstrom in a lightning-quick forward core with Amanda Boulier quarterbacking then offense from the blue line could mean a big boost in production for Richards.