Boston Pride head coach Paul Mara chose to start rebuilding his blue line for the 2019-20 NWHL season by re-signing veteran Kaleigh Fratkin.
What sets Fratkin apart from so many other defenders is her ability to contribute in the offensive zone.
Over the past five seasons she has established herself as one of the premier offensive defenders in professional women’s hockey. Fratkin currently holds a narrow lead over Courtney Burke as the highest scoring defender in NWHL history. Over her four-year NWHL career she has twice been named an All-Star and has averaged 0.59 points per-game (Pts/GP) and 1.52 shots per-game (SOG/GP).
Fratkin set the bar high for offensive blueliners in the NWHL’s first season. She scorched the league in 2015-16 with 11 primary points — five of which were picked up on the power play — and averaged 2.0 SOG/GP from the Connecticut Whale’s blue line. The five goals she scored that year as a defender is a record that has been matched several times, but has yet to be broken.
The following year Fratkin signed with the New York Riveters, where it quickly became apparent that she was not a great fit with head coach Chad Wiseman. Her new coach experimented with her as a third line winger the season after she led all NWHL defenders in scoring. In Newark, Fratkin saw limited time on the power play and her production dropped off a cliff. She finished the season with one goal and five assists in 16 games.
In December 2017, Fratkin signed with the Boston Pride. After she got up to speed with the rest of her team she carved out a feature role for herself. She finished the season with five assists — four of which came at even strength — in just 11 games.
The 2018-19 season was something of a bounce back year for the veteran defender. She scored two goals and piled up seven assists in 16 games in her second year with the Pride. Fratkin picked up five of her nine points on the power play, which was her highest total since 2015-16. Unsurprisingly, she relished the opportunity that Mara gave her to play a big role on Boston’s power play.
“Sometimes when you’re playing under a certain coaching staff, you may not get an opportunity on the power play,” Fratkin told The Ice Garden. “Everyone kind of knows that at this level special teams is huge ... Having the opportunity to play on power plays and get that ice time definitely helped [my game]. I think my style of play really matched up with what [Mara] was trying to do as a coach.”
Fratkin, who is a coach herself, is excited to play another season under Mara who was behind the bench as an assistant coach with Team USA’s gold medal-winning team at the 2018 Olympics. She respects Mara not only as a coach, but also as a defenseman. The 6-foot-4 New Jersey native played 734 games in the NHL and was the 7th overall pick of the 1997 Draft.
Clearly, working with offensive defenders behind Team USA’s bench and playing with them in the NHL made an impression on Mara. It’s a lesson that he applied in Boston and Fratkin’s play was a shining example of that.
Under Mara, the Pride had the most dangerous blue line in the NWHL last season. Boston’s blue line scored 10 goals in 2018-19; no other NWHL defense scored more than seven. The Pride’s dangerous defense is one of the reasons that Mara’s team finished with more goals than any other club last year. The five power play goals scored by the Pride’s blueliners also contributed to the team’s league-best 22.6 percent power play.
“What I have noticed from college to turning pro is that defensemen being very offensive is extremely helpful to the NWHL style of play,” Fratkin remarked. “Obviously, there are times where you have to buckle down and play defense, but a lot of the time the focus for us was, ‘why not have four or five players on the ice who are offensively-minded?’ As a defenseman, you’re always going to [think] defense first, but in Boston we were coached to get involved and quarterback the offense.”
Fratkin believes that every coach is different, but she considers Mara to be a great fit for her style of play. It appears that Mara thinks the same of the Canadian defender.
“In my view, Kaleigh was one of the top defenders in the NWHL last season,” Boston’s head coach shared in a league release. “She plays the game with intensity, with great intelligence, and she has one of the hardest shots in the league. I always try to have her on the ice against the opponent’s top line.”
Fratkin couldn’t help but laugh and joke that she’s starting to feel old when asked how her game has changed after five years of pro hockey. During her career she’s learned how important it is to pick her spots and to bring a positive attitude to her team, but her strengths have always been her skating and her physicality.
Fratkin’s physicality is definitely hard to miss. She’s the NWHL’s all-time leader in penalty minutes and has never been shy about battling in front of the net. The edge to her game goes beyond a healthy dose of Western Canadian toughness. Like so many women who have reached this level of hockey, she grew up playing with and against young men.
“I started the sport in the men’s game and played there up until college,” Fratkin told the Ice Garden. “Yeah, I played for the national team and for Team British Columbia, but generally speaking my game developed and grew in a totally different game. I think there are areas where I have definitely seen a shift in my game — and I think it comes with the position as well.
“D is a position that the longer you play, the better you become,” she continued. “I think women’s hockey is tough too because we haven’t had the opportunities to continue playing pro for girls who don’t play in the Olympics. To be able to play hockey at 27 — which is usually the prime for NHL players — who knows if I’m hitting my prime now?”