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A new pod: the Whale are shaping up to be a brand new team

Can strong returning core plus some new star power help them swim to the top of the league?

Michelle Jay/NWHL

Connecticut Whale general manager Bray Ketchum has signed 13 players thus far in the 2020 offseason. Even though just five of those players are new faces, the Whale already look like they have the inside track on being the most improved team for the 2020-21 season.

The Core

In addition to re-signing the majority of the veterans that make up the foundation of the team like Shannon Doyle, Kaycie Anderson, Hanna Beattie, and Elena Orlando, the Whale also re-signed the biggest additions to last year’s roster.

Ketchum started her offseason by re-signing goaltender Brooke Wolejko on April 1 and All-Star center Emma Vlasic on April 8. On May 11, the Whale re-signed Union College alumna Katelynn Russ, who was just named Union’s senior scholar-athlete of the year. Fans of the Whale already know they should be excited about the return of Wolejko and Vlasic, but they shouldn’t sleep on Russ.

Russ was a postseason hero for the Whale after joining the team just before the playoffs. We are dealing with a small sample size of what she looks like at the pro level, but what she accomplished during her collegiate career might suggest she is capable of playing a top-six role in the NWHL. At face value, Russ’ production numbers for Union don’t jump off the page, but consider the fact that the 16 goals she scored as a sophomore in 2017-18 was the most goals scored in a single season by a Dutchwoman since Courtney Riepenhoff scored 21 goals in 2002-03 as a sophomore. That’s 15 years of hockey. That’s big.

It’s no small feat to be a productive forward on a perennial underdog in the ECAC, and that is exactly what Russ did at Union. She led the Dutchwomen in goals as a sophomore, junior, and senior. In 2019-20, she averaged 3.53 SOG/GP. Union, as a team, averaged just 23.38 SOG/GP.

Star Power

Let’s talk about Melissa Samoskevich.

Samoskevich checks off so many boxes for the Whale. Connecticut fans know her from her time at Quinnipiac and with Team USA — she’s also the highest Whale draft pick in franchise history to sign with the team. She’s won gold with USA at the 2015 U18 Worlds, 2019 IIHF Worlds. Samoskevich is an elite two-way winger, which means she fits the Whale’s team needs and team identity like a glove.

Over the past few years the Whale have had a bad habit of losing their most valuable forwards to free agency. In 2017, it was Kelli Stack and Haley Skarupa. In 2018, it was Kelly Babstock. In 2019, it was Emily Fluke and Kateřina Mrázová. You get the idea. Being able to re-sign Emma Vlasic and bring in Samoskevich this offseason has broken that chain.

Another addition that should help the Whale’s offense move in a new direction is NCAA DIII superstar Amanda Conway.

Conway signed with the Whale on May 28 after being selected 19th overall in the 2020 Draft. Conway’s 116 career goals at Norwich University is the third-most in DIII history. It’s important to note that just 27 of those 116 goals was scored on the power play, which suggests she did the majority of her damage and made the biggest impact at even strength. If you’re a Whale fan, that should be music to your ears.

New to the Blue Line

The Whale’s biggest team need after adding some star power and offense was bolstering a blue line that badly needed players who can move the puck. Ketchum was all over this when she signed RMU alumna Maggie LaGue and UNH’s Tori Howran.

LaGue put up at least 22 points in all four of her seasons with the Colonials and was first or second among RMU’s defenders in scoring as a sophomore, junior, and senior. She can move the puck out of her zone in all situations and make an impact for the Whale on the power play. Even more importantly, she’s well-accustomed to playing a ton of minutes.

Howran is a big defender who can play the left side, which is good news because both LaGue and Doyle are right-handed. Her production with the Wildcats was heavily-dependent on the power play, but she also led the team’s defenders in even-strength shot attempts (93). Howran won a silver with Team Canada at the 2016 U18 Worlds before her standout career at UNH. She’s a player with a ton of potential who just might make a world of difference on the Whale’s blue line.

Data courtesy EliteProspects.com, NCAA.org, pick224.com, collegehockeynews.com, and the author’s own tracking.