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Rachel Llanes’ journey from role player to star

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Llanes has stepped into the spotlight in the ZhHL while helping to mold the future of Chinese women’s hockey

Al Saniuk

Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays star forward Rachel Llanes recently played her 150th game of professional hockey. She hit that milestone at the conclusion of her most impressive professional season to date. Llanes piled up 42 points in 26 games in the ZhHL — good for second in the league in scoring — and she is within striking distance of becoming the first player in the history of women’s hockey to win championships in the CWHL, the NWHL, and the ZhHL.

Since her standout collegiate career at Northeastern University, Llanes has blazed her own trail through the wilderness that is professional women’s hockey from one side of the globe to the other. Along the way she won a Clarkson Cup in 2015, an Isobel Cup in 2016, and has carved out a role for herself as one of the most important figures in Chinese women’s hockey.

Llanes began her pro career in the CWHL with the Blades in 2013-14 following a 38-point senior season with the Huskies. But the San Jose native was known more for her dogged work ethic and versatility than for her scoring touch with the Blades. The same was true for her two seasons with the Pride (2015-16, 2016-17), where she played a supporting role behind an offense featuring stars and staples of the United States women’s national team.

Connecticut Whale vs Boston Pride. National Women’s Hockey League. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

As a role player on two stacked Pride squads, Llanes saw little of the spotlight and a modest amount of ice time. In 33 games in the NWHL, she never picked up a point on the power play. That goose egg was a direct result of the lack of opportunity that came with playing on a team led by the likes of Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan, and Alex Carpenter. However, she picked up 10 primary points at even strength and won 50.13 percent of her draws. Her value was further evidenced by a 0.49 average game score (GS/GP) in her NWHL career.

There were clear signs that the natural center was capable of much more.

In 2017, Llanes was presented with a unique opportunity to return to the CWHL both as a player and as the strength and conditioning coach for Kunlun Red Star and Team China. In women’s hockey, if you aren’t receiving a stipend from a national team, it is next to impossible to make a living playing the sport that you love. But in China, Llanes has been able to do just that.

In her first season playing for a Chinese team in 2017-18, Llanes was tasked with doing the heavy lifting as a depth center while getting her teammates to give up fried food and start drinking water instead of soft drinks. Her second stint in the CWHL greatly resembled her first — but she was playing behind Kelli Stack and Zoe Hickel instead of Decker and Knight. She finished that first season with five goals and nine total primary points and fell just short of winning her second Clarkson Cup.

The following year, the two Chinese teams in the CWHL became one and Llanes joined the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. Benefiting from ice time with Leah Lum and Carpenter, the 5-foot-3 center’s production picked up in a significant way. Llanes finished the 2018-19 campaign with 15 points (11 primary) in 19 games — good for fifth on the team in scoring. But when the CWHL folded, Llanes’ time playing professional hockey in North America came to an abrupt end.

On July 25, 2019 Shenzhen’s team joined the ZhHL and Llanes and Carpenter signed on for their first season of professional hockey in Russia. It became clear almost immediately that the duo would utterly dominate the league.

In years past, the ZhHL scoring race was a two-horse race between Agidel Ufa’s Olga Sosina and HK Tornado’s Anna Shokhina. This year, Sosina (38) and Shokhina (38) finished tied for fourth in scoring behind Carpenter (54), Llanes (42), and Biryusa’s sniper Valeria Pavlova (40).

It goes without saying that Llanes’ numbers were buoyed by playing with a talent like Carpenter, but she was far from just being a passenger to the Team USA star’s production. Five of Llanes’ 21 goals were unassisted by Carpenter and nine of her 21 assists were picked up goals scored by a player on Shenzhen not wearing No. 5. Of course, it’s also important to note that nine of Llanes’ 12 primary assists were earned on Carpenter goals.

Llanes snipes one home on the rush.
Mike Murphy

So, why the sudden explosion in production? Shenzhen’s star center recently told Emily Kaplan of ESPN that the ZhHL was definitely a step slower than the North American professional leagues, “It has allowed me to work on a few things, individually, to improve my game.” Still, that hardly takes away from Llanes’ individual achievements and what she helped Shenzhen achieve this year.

The KRS Vanke Rays finished the season in second place in the standings with 63 points (22-5-1), just three points behind defending champions Agidel Ufa. Llanes finished the 2019-20 ZhHL season with a 61.03 faceoff percentage, 33 primary points, an average of 4.77 SOG/GP, and a league-leading +46 plus/minus. She is one of just 10 players to record at least 20 goals and 20 assists in the ZhHL in a single year since the league re-formed in the 2015-16 season.

At Northeastern, Llanes played in the shadow of Kendall Coyne-Schofield and Casey Pickett. In the CWHL and NWHL, she was afterthought on veritable dream teams spearheaded by Decker and Knight. In the ZhHL, she has proven herself to be a star in addition to serving as a key architect for the growth of the game in the most populous country in the world.

Llanes and her teammates begin their path to making history as they try to become the first non-Russian team to win a ZhHL title. Their first game of the semifinal round is against Tornado on February 28.

Data courtesy of cwhl-tracker.herokuapp.com, EliteProspects.com, whl.khl.ru, and the author’s own tracking.