Categorizing the 2018-2019 Riveters’ season as a rocky one is an understatement.
This year was in many ways worse than even their inaugural season; the Riveters recorded a franchise-low 0.5 points per game and only just scraped themselves off the bottom of the table just one year removed from hoisting the Isobel Cup.
Many things have been attributed to the fall of the Riveters, including the redistribution of national team players post-Olympics. However, the one that stands above them all is the reign of Randy Velischek. With his coaching style, player management, and understanding of the women’s game criticised almost from the onset, it’s been a hard year in New Jersey.
In the world of Women’s Hockey Analytics, Game Score (referred to as GS from here on out) is as close to a ‘catch-all’ metric as you can get. The number — originally adapted to women’s hockey by Shawn Ferris — takes into account Goals, Assists, Shots on Goal, Faceoffs and Penalty minutes. It is used largely to provide us with a one-number glance at how good a player was in any individual game. In this instance, however, we will be looking at a player’s average GS across the season as a metric of how well they or a team have performed across time.
Riveters players’ GS, when ranked by percentile, saw a team-average 20-point drop between the 2018 and the 2019 regular seasons. The Season Average game score for 2019 came out to 72 percent lower than their career average. In fact, when we look at the chart below we can see how the distribution of Riveters players sits within the wider league landscape across all four seasons, with special attention being called to the drop in the 2019 season.
This chart also calls out the fact that it isn’t fair to compare players’ average game score across seasons; as the quality of competition increases, the average player GS decreases due to increase goaltender competition and the quality of teams’ defensive structures. Thus, in order for us to more accurately compare between years, we adjusted the data to account for changes in the quality of league competition. However, even with the adjusted chart, we can still clearly see a drop in the average adjusted GS (henceforth called aGS) per Riveters player.
Even with the era-adjusted numbers employed, only two Riveters recorded better-adjusted GS than their career average, with Amanda Kessel and Rebecca Morse both recording differentials in the positives. Across the board, there was still a 44% drop in comparison to returning players’ career aGS. For transparency’s sake, Connecticut players also saw an average decrease of 12%. While players returning to the league for the three other teams all saw increases (Boston 5%, Buffalo 15%, and Minnesota 55%).
The most affected Riveters have been almost without a doubt the goaltenders, with Kimberly Sass and Katie Fitzgerald both recording massive losses. Beyond that comes a slew of other names, Alexa Gruschow (-52%), Courtney Burke (-31%), Madison Packer (-27%), Kiira Dosdall (-41%), Michelle Picard (-49%).
Say what you want about this, but there’s no denying that this trend extended to almost 90% of the Riveters’ returning roster. This season wasn’t the fault of a couple of missing players, or an off game, or star players not performing to their expected level. This was a product of bad coaching, poor systems, and blatant misuse of some of the best women’s hockey players in the world.
The fact is, many Riveters players recorded the worst season of their professional careers, just one season after their best.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Alexa Gruschow, who saw catastrophic drops across the board after winning league MVP for 2017-18. Even if we discount her MVP season, she performed abysmally under Velischek’s leadership and recorded the worst percentile ranks of her career.
Courtney Burke, another player who shone last year in an increased role, performed comparatively worse than her rookie season in 2017-18. Burke dropped across the board, most noticeably in goals failing to find the net all season.
Not convinced yet? Look at Michelle Picard. Even in a season that shepherded her return to Team USA she struggled under Velischek, with massive drops in both goals and assists compared to her 2017-18 numbers.
If this had been another professional sports team in another league, would management have stood by while their reigning MVP struggled to produce under a new coach? What about while goaltending floundered and the majority of the team struggled to put up even career-average performances?
You can point fingers all you want, blame it on national team players, on increased goaltending quality, on whatever you like. But when you look at it, really look at it, this team had the skill to compete, yet posed no threat all season. This team’s skill was squandered, stepped on, poorly managed, and thrown aside at the hands of one man who should have been fired midseason.