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2019-20 NWHL Season Recap: Connecticut Whale

There appear to be some silver linings to derive from an otherwise lackluster season for the Pod.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

The Connecticut Whale finished at the bottom of the league standings, posting a 2-20-2 record.

On the one hand, you are what your record says you are. On the other, this was a far more entertaining product on the ice than in years past. Twelve of their 22 losses were decided by two or fewer goals. A few bounces along the way and this team might have earned fourth place.

There was a difference in the way the Whale played, and they matched up far more evenly with the rest of the league than before. They even managed to make history this season, earning their first Playoff series victory by topping the Buffalo Beauts 5-3 in the 4-vs-5 matchup. The Whale had not won a playoff game since 2016.

Rebuilding

In years prior, it’s been hard to label the Connecticut Whale as a “rebuilding” team. Trades are hard to come by in this league, there’s very little mobility in the free agent market, and building through the draft is darn-near impossible- at least, as it stands right now.

No, the Connecticut Whale were not rebuilding. They were just bad.

That seems to have changed this season, however. They were as competitive as they have ever been, hanging with all four opponents throughout the season with some landmark victories along the way. Getting regularly blown out was a thing of the past- this Whale team played tight defensively, got stellar goaltending and fought to the bitter end, even against the Big Bad Pride. It’s a point to grow from.

More than anything, this team had what the Whale have not truly had since 2015-16: an identity.

Moving forward, the Whale will benefit from a full season of Colton Orr behind the bench (who arrived late to the party but exacted an immediate improvement from his players) as well as some stability in facilities. After rink-hopping for several seasons, negotiations are underway to keep the Whale in Danbury next season. Having a definitive home in a barn built for professional hockey is a major plus in attracting players and fans alike.

Team MVP

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Brooke Wolejko to the Connecticut Whale. A team that doesn’t score many goals has to rely on its goaltender to steal games, and that’s exactly what Wolejko did. More importantly, she was consistent. There were only three games in which Wolejko allowed five goals or more. Two of those games were against the Minnesota Whitecaps, one was against the Pride. In two of the three, she faced over 50 shots.

Wolejko was always there with a timely stop. Rarely did she give up a momentum-killing softy, and she was able to pull out some ludicrous acrobatics when the chips were down on a high-danger chance.

There are other names worthy of consideration- Shannon Doyle chief among them as the team’s leading scorer, shot-generator and wearer of pucks- but in the end, no one player meant the difference between defeat and victory the way Wolejko did.

Side note: “Another Brooke in the Wol” is a dynamite fantasy team name. We also accept “Well she’s a Brooke....Wol” and “Brooke by Boring Brooke” if Pink Floyd isn’t your thing. You’re welcome.

Grades

Offense: D-

The Connecticut Whale did not score a whole heck of a lot. They averaged just 1.65 goals-for-per-game, which is only moderately better than last year’s aggregate (1.375/gm) and exactly on par with the year prior. They scored 39 goals as a team, the worst in the league. Metropolitan, the second-worst, tallied 70.

The 2016-17 Whale averaged 3.3 goals-per-game because they had the personnel to do it. They had established offensive weapons up front like Haley Skarupa, Kelli Stack, and Kelly Babstock with strong role players like Dana Trivigno and Nicole Kosta.

This Whale team lacked a game-breaker. A true stud that was a goal-scoring threat every time they took the ice. Retaining someone like Kateřina Mrázová would have helped immensely.

There are some nice building blocks around the roster: Emma Vlasic had a good nose for the net; Kaycie Anderson established herself as a playmaker; Kayla Meneghin was a solid sparkplug when healthy. But when every other team has at least one bona fide star on their roster capable of putting up 15-20 goals and the Whale can’t produce anyone who so much as hits 10, it becomes apparent that this team needs to add some oomph to the top line.

Defense: C+

Shannon Doyle gets a passing grade. Doyle had two goals and nine assists to go along with a whopping 65 blocked shots in 24 games. Doyle did her bit as the captain of this team.

The rest of the defensive core gets a less positive review.

The fact is that outside of Doyle, nobody can really drive the offense from the blueline as the roster stands right now. Jordan Brickner contributed seven points in 10 games, but was spotty in her own zone and had her season cut short on December 8th to an injury. Other defenders like Taylor Marchin and Elena Orlando don’t bring much to the table offensively.

A defensive core unable to move the puck up ice would be an easier pill to swallow if they were consistent in their own zone, which this particular group was not. The first month of the season was haphazard, frequently overcommitting on puck plays and leaving prime scoring areas uncovered. Even when Colton Orr arrived midway through November, it took a while for his teachings to truly take hold.

Things improved dramatically as the season wore on, especially in the penalty kill department. But again, this team needs a true blueline quarterback to complement Doyle next season. Marie-Jo Pelletier’s and Amanda Boulier’s don’t grow on trees, but boy would the Whale like to find one somewhere.

Goaltending: B+

Brooke Wolejko entered her first professional season having posted stellar numbers at the DIII level at SUNY-Plattsburgh. She played herself into the Goaltender of the Year conversation, backstopping all three victories Connecticut would earn in the regular and postseason. She only took the reins in December, however, as Sonjia Shelly and Cassandra Goyette split time prior to her emergence.

A breakdown of the trio:

  • Wolejko: .914 Sv%, 458 saves, 3.62 GAA, 2 wins in 11 starts
  • Shelly: .894 Sv%, 387 saves, 3.99 GAA, 0 win in 12 starts
  • Goyette: .800 Sv%, 20 saves, 7.50 GAA, 0 win in 1 start

Goyette lasted just one period in her lone start with the Pod. Shelly had several strong performances that likely would have earned wins on a stronger offensive team. She and Wolejko, should they both return, will make as formidable a 1-2 punch in goal as any in the league.

Overall: C-

The Whale were better than their record indicated. This was not a two win team at work. That being said, they are in dire need of reinforcements if they are going to climb the ladder and take home more Ws.

They’ve got the right coach at the helm. They’ve got a stable home. They’ve got a collection of good core players. If they could just lure a couple big fish to join their Pod and bolster their offense, they’d be in fairly good shape.

That metaphor doesn’t really work as well considering whales are mammals and not fish, but the point remains.