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2019-20 NWHL Preview: Storylines to watch

What to keep an eye on as the season progresses

Pat McCarthy

Partnerships and ownerships

In December 2017, Pegula Sports and Entertainment bought the Buffalo Beauts, marking the first time in the NWHL’s history that a team was privately owned. At the time, three other teams had partnerships with NHL clubs. But none were as closely aligned as the Beauts and Sabres were, as PSE owned the NHL team as well as a larger portfolio of Buffalo professional sports team plus HarborCenter, the then-Beauts home rink.

Less than a year and half later, on May 8, PSE ended their relationship and gave the team back to the league. A little over a week later, the New Jersey Devils dissolved their partnership with the Metropolitan Riveters. Both of these came directly on the heels of the CWHL closing and rise of the #ForTheGame movement. Though neither directly referenced the events, it wasn’t a hard thread to follow.

Under PSE, the Beauts signed huge names to the team like Shannon Szabados, and players raved about the perks. Many have gone on to stay that PSE set the standard for how a team should be treated. The Devils partnership wasn’t quite as cushy but it did provide quality ice time.

Then on Aug. 17, the NWHL announced the Boston Pride had been purchased by a local venture capitalist’s group. Their new owner Miles Arnone was first a Pride fan who has attended games with his daughters. Arnone set goals for owning the team such as increasing marketing and youth initiatives plus working with the players more within their schedules.

He’s distinctly in-tune with team and league, the ideal type of buyer for teams if the league is moving in that direction.

New players, new rinks, new jerseys, oh my!

Newcomers

Thus far, 98 players are under contract for the fifth season of play. Of them, a whopping 54 players are brand new to the NWHL. It’s no secret as to why 55 percent of the players are new to the league following the #ForTheGame movement and the formation of the PWHPA.

But nonetheless, it has opened the door for a whole crop of newcomers to the league from a variety of places. About 20 of the players come from NCAA Division III schools and another three come from USports teams. Four are international players who didn’t play college hockey in North America. Seven different countries will be represented in the league this season as well — United States, Canada, Kazakstan, Russia, Sweden, China, and Czech — the highest in league history.

The Beauts have the most new players. Of the 20 players signed for the 2019-20 season, 17 of them have never played in the league before. That doesn’t mean they’re all fresh out of college though. Goaltender Mariah Fujimagari played for the Worcester Blades last season. Defenders Lenka Čurmová and Maddie Norton are Czech National Team members.

This is reminiscent of the third season, when the National Team players centralized ahead of the 2018 Olympics. Over half of the players were new that season. The game was definitely different from the previous season. Goal scoring went down - 170 goals were scored as compared to the previous seasons of 233. New fan favorites emerged. But the level of play was still high.

What that season proved - and this season most likely will as well - is how deep the talent pool is in women’s hockey. How the newcomers to the league perform on and off the ice will be another good test and something to watch closely.

New home rinks

Three of the five teams are moving to new rinks - the Riveters, Whale, and Beauts.

Given that the change in partnerships with the Riveters and Beauts — the Riveters were playing at the Devil’s practice rink which was attached at the Prudential Center and the Beauts were playing at PSE-owned HarborCenter — the moves aren’t a shock. One could reasonably assume that the end of the partnerships also spelled the end of their tenure in the rinks.

Meanwhile, the Whale have struggled to find a stable home. This will be their fourth home rink in five seasons.

The Riveters move is by far the most drastic in terms of location, especially given their longstanding fan base while they were in Newark. The Beauts might have a similar issue too, given how well attended the games at the end of last season were. The Whale have never drawn quite as well as the other two, but moving still means a new place for their fans to find.

In addition to moving their in-person fan base, the league also moved the home of their streams. Twitch will stream all NWHL games for the next three seasons.

Goaltending

On the ice, goaltending might be the biggest unknown factor heading into this season. While skater talent definitely has dropped off from last season, so has the goaltending talent in a way thus far unseen in the league.

Eleven goaltenders have signed thus far, and only one - Amanda Leveille - has full time NWHL experience. Kelsey Nuemann and Sam Walther are both veterans to the league but in limited backup roles. Mariah Fujimagari has professional experience, coming from the Worcester Blades, and Victoria Hanson played in Europe for a season after leaving Boston University in 2016-17. The remaining six all come to the league with only college experience under the belts, three of whom are from Division III teams.

This gives the Whitecaps — with Leveille returning — and the Boston Pride — with the all-time NCAA career save leader Lovisa Selander and Hanson — the biggest advantages. Both teams have proven goaltenders who can anchor a team. And in a season with so many new skaters who may take a while to really come together, having a solid goaltender behind them can do wonders early in the season.