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Shatalova emerging as a star for the Riveters

The youngest player in NWHL history is developing in front of our eyes.

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Tatiana Shatalova
Michelle Jay

Before the puck dropped on the 2019-20 NWHL regular season there were a lot of question marks about the largest class of newcomers to the league since its inception. Metropolitan Riveters rookie forward Tatiana Shatalova stood out from that class not only because she was just the fourth Russian skater in league history, but also because she had turned 20 in August.

Shatalova is the youngest player to step on the ice in NWHL history. After a slow start to her rookie campaign, she has established herself as one of her team’s most valuable and dynamic players.

Biryusa and Team Russia

In the ZhHL, it’s not uncommon for teenagers to share the ice with women twice their age. In the 2019-20 season, 63 players under the age of 20 have played in at least one game. With that being said, it’s no small task to stand out as a teenager in a league that features some of the best European players in the world.

Shatalova was just 16 when she played her first season for Biryusa Krasnoyarsk in the ZhHL in 2015-16 but managed to score five goals and pick up two assists in 19 games.

In her sophomore season with Biryusa, at the age of 17, Shatalova scored eight goals and picked up five assists. Unsurprisingly, she earned a spot on Russia’s U18 Women’s World Championship rosters in 2016 and 2017. Shatalova earned bronze at the 2017 U18 Worlds, picking up two assists and 14 shots on goal in six games.

Shatalova’s promising performance for Russia’s U18 women’s national team and Biryusa was enough to earn her the nod as a reserve player for the Olympic Athletes from Russia roster at the Pyeongchang Olympics. However, she never saw the ice at Pyeongchang. During the 2017-18 ZhHL season, she picked up 11 points before winning a World Championship as a featured weapon on Russia’s women’s ball hockey team.

Japan v Russia - Women’s Ice Hockey Friendly Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

The 2018-19 campaign was Shatalova’s least productive year in the ZhHL. She scored four goals and picked up a single assist in 32 games playing in a depth role for a team that finished third in the regular season standings. From the outside looking in, it appears that Shatalova was somewhat lost in the mix on Biryusa because of the team’s forward depth. Just like this year, Biryusa’s offense was built around Valeria Pavlova and the top line.

Pavlova scored 33 goals in 35 games in the 2018-19 season. She and Anna Timofeeva accounted for 28.98 percent (226 and 125 shots on goal, respectively) of Biryusa’s total shots on goal in 2018-19. Although she finished the season with just five points, Shatalova finished fourth on the team with 95 shots on goal. That’s an average of 2.98 SOG/GP and a paltry 4.21 shooting percentage.

It must have been an incredibly frustrating season for an up-and-coming player who was considered to be one of the top 14 forwards Russia had to offer for the 2018 Olympics. On Aug. 14, 2019, just three days before her 20th birthday, she signed with the Metropolitan Riveters.

The Big Move

It’s unclear whether or not a lack of ice time and opportunity in Biryusa convinced Shatalova to take her talents across the ocean. In the most recent episode of the Third Intermission Podcast, hosted by Riveters general manager Kate Whitman Annis, Shatalova revealed that she had her sights set on playing in North America for awhile. “When I played in Russia I always thought about someday playing in America or Canada and in one moment I decided and left.”

Shatalova had a slow start to her rookie NWHL season in terms of production. She had one point, a secondary assist, in her first ten games with the Riveters. After Kate Leary joined the team, Shatalova found herself as a fixture on the team’s third line. She played frequently with Bulbul Kartanbay, who was struggling to adapt to the speed of the NWHL game, and a rotation of Brooke Avery, Nicole Arnold, and Nichelle Simon.

Despite playing primarily with grinders and defensive forwards, Shatalova frequently displayed flashes of being much more than just a depth player. On Dec. 14, at the home rink of the reigning Isobel Cup Champions, she put the league on notice by scoring a gorgeous goal in the shootout.

The Flipped Switch

Since her flawless execution of “The Forsberg” against Amanda Leveille, Shatalova has piled up nine points in her last eight games — good for fourth (tied) on the team in scoring at the All-Star break. Five of those points were earned the weekend of the Labatt Blue NWHL Buffalo Believes Classic. Shatalova scored a goal and picked up a primary assist in the outdoor game on Dec. 28 and had a three-assist performance on Dec. 29 before earning a one-game suspension for her fight with Nikki Kirchberger.

Looking back at the shootout goal she scored against Leveille, one can’t help but see the surge in Shatalova’s confidence. She started the season as a role player adjusting to a carousel of linemates and a language barrier. By December, Shatalova was making highlight reel plays and, at the age of 20, going toe-to-toe with one of the Beauts’ most physical skaters.

It would be a stretch to say that Shatalova is a completely different player from the rookie who made her NWHL debut on Oct. 5, but she’s undoubtedly developing before our eyes.

You have to be more than just confident to pull off moves like these — you have to be skilled. Shatalova’s deft stickhandling has made her one of the most exciting players to watch in one-on-one situations. Shatalova’s newfound swagger and the recent addition of veteran Kelly Nash — who also has an amazing set of hands — could give the Riveters the depth offense they need to get past the first round of the 2020 Isobel Cup Playoffs.

The Spotlight

If Shatalova continues this upward trend, she has a chance to carve out a spot for herself on the Russian women’s national team for the 2020 IIHF Women’s World Championship.

At the All-Star break, she is level with former Riveter Lyudmila Belyakova for the most points scored in an NWHL season by a Russian-born player (10)—although it’s worth noting that Shatalova was born in Minsk, Belarus despite her allegiance to the Russian women’s national team.

While it’s true that she is succeeding in a league very different to the one that Belyakova played in back in 2015-16, Shatalova’s skill is conspicuous. It’s no secret that there is a significant gap in talent between Russia and hockey’s North American super powers — one needs only look at Alex Carpenter averaging 2.04 Pts/GP in the ZhHL this year to appreciate that fact. That gap hasn’t stopped Shatalova from making big plays against seasoned defenders like Lauren Kelly, Lexi Bender, Shannon Doyle, and Amanda Boulier — all of whom more than held their own against national team players in the 2018-19 season.

If that isn’t enough evidence to prove that Shatalova is indeed something special, well, there’s always the highlight reel.

Disclosure: the author of this piece is currently employed by the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).

All data courtesy of whl.khl.ru, IIHF.com, EliteProspects.com, and the author’s own tracking.