Welcome to the first installment of The Starting Six, an examination of the best starting lineup fielded by each NWHL franchise’s player pool. It’s tricky balancing raw talent over organizational impact, but we’re here to make the hard decisions. Feel free to make your picks/yell about how wrong this list is in the comments below!
The Starting Six
Center: Alexa Gruschow (‘16-’19)
Gruschow has one heck of a resumé. After a good introduction to the league her rookie year, she exploded in 2017-18, winning league MVP and scoring the Isobel Cup-winning goal against the Beauts in magnificent fashion (more on that in a moment).
In that MVP year, Gruschow tallied nine goals and 13 assists over 16 games. In her career, she had 36 points, 26 of them primary and 25 of them coming at even-strength per HerHockeyCounts.com.
Objectively, Gruschow had one of the single most disappointing seasons of any player in 2018-19, following up her MVP with just four points in 16 games and a brutal year defensively. But that era of Riveters hockey was tough on everyone under head coach Randy Velischek. It’s easy to write off as an aberration.
Defining moment: The Goal. Just look at it. Big players perform in big spots, and the league MVP scoring the Cup Final’s only goal is as big as it gets.
Honorable mention: Miye D’oench (‘16-’19). D’oench was a more consistent player than Gruschow over her three seasons and much better defensively, but never quite reached the same heights as a scorer. Had she played full seasons in ‘17-’18 and ‘18-’19, she almost certainly would have surpassed Gruschow in franchise lore.
Left Wing: Madison Packer (‘15-present)
Make no mistake. Madison Packer is the Riveters. Full stop. Period. The longest-tenured Riveter, Packer has been bringing the heat since Day One in 2015. She has accumulated 85 points in 84 games, 71 primary points, 13 powerplay goals and has averaged 3.26 shots-on-goal-per-game.
Packer plays a punishing game that yields tremendous results. True power forwards that have both the physicality to crash the net and the hands to execute away from it are hard to come by.
Defining moment: The Packers Take The All-Star Game. There are so many Madison Packer highlights to choose from over five seasons- goals, fights, playoff games, etc. Perhaps the best is the funniest. Like when Madison donned a Connecticut Whale jersey at the NWHL All-Star game last year. Out of context, an abhorrent sight for Riveters fans. In context, considering it was the jersey of her wife Anya Battaglino Packer? Iconic.
Honorable mention: Rebecca Russo (‘16-’19). Russo was a consistent appearance on NWHL fans’ Three Stars vote, and for good reason. Not only was she a talented player, racking up 41 points in 50 games over three seasons and taking home the league’s Fastest Skater award in 2017, but she was a vocal leader for the team. She was enthusiastic and charismatic, an easy personality fans could gravitate to. It is a shame she retired so young. She’s probably the toughest name to not crack the starting lineup, but given the talent on the wings, there’s some stiff competition. Case in point...
Right Wing: Amanda Kessel (‘16-’17, ‘18-’19)
Kessel holds the distinction of being the highest profile player to ever suit up for the Riveters, with name-recognition and Olympic experience on her side. Though she missed out on the Rivs’ capture of the Cup (taking a year off to win gold in Pyeongchang, you know how it is), her impact was felt when she was in the Metro lineup. The Riveters went their first season without truly having a “star” forward, someone who could change the game with a single shift. Kessel’s arrival changed that.
Amanda recorded 34 career points in 21 games, with 25 of those being primary points per Even-Strength.com. That kind of hands-on production and opportunity generation is remarkable. The ‘18-’19 Riveters were starved for offense, and Kessel was one of the few players who was consistently able to provide.
Defining moment: Five assist game vs Whale. On Jan. 6, 2019, Amanda Kessel did what Amanda Kessel does best: make plays. Kessel notched five apples against the Whale in a 6-3 win, beating her previous best of four assists in a 2017 game against- you guessed it- the Whale.
Honorable mention: Bray Ketchum Peel (‘15-’18). Ketchum deserves a lot of credit as one of the unsung heroes of the early Riveters. Ketchum collected 32 points in 51 games, with six of her 17 goals coming on the powerplay. She was the perfect complementary piece for the Riveters’ championship squad.
Defense: Ashley Johnston (‘15-’18, ‘19-’20)
The first captain in Rivs history, Johnston is the quintessential gritty stay-at-home defender. She never lit up the stat sheet, but was more than capable of jumpstarting the play with a crisp exit pass or long strides through the neutral zone. Her greatest asset was her size, which she used to her advantage locking down passing lanes and running off oncoming forwards to the outside.
In a way, Johnston embodied what the Riveter brand is all about. She is a literal engineer essentially moonlighting as a professional hockey player after hours-long drives across state borders to the rink. To pull off that commitment and play at an elite level while also captaining the team and leading them to a championship...that’s legend-status stuff.
Defining moment: The Cup Hoist. It feels like cheating to pick so many “defining moments” from the 2018 Cup run, but it’s fitting for Johnston. After all, she was an original Riveter who suffered through some miserable growing pains as a team to deliver them to the promised land. Her finally retrieving the Isobel Cup felt like a release. She announced her retirement shortly thereafter, though she returned for a brief stint with the team back in December of 2019.
Honorable mention: Kelsey Koelzer (‘17-’19). Koelzer gets the slight edge over Jenny Ryan. Koelzer had a higher primary point percentage as well (71.4% to Ryan’s 42.1%), and her shot was a bit more booming. They both had a similar career trajectory in Jersey, though, and you can’t go wrong with either.
Defense: Michelle Picard (‘16-’19)
“Shelly” Picard is, for my money, the most underrated player in Riveters history. Much like Johnston, she never lit up the scoresheet, logging just 14 points in her 50 game tenure with the team. Hers was a game you had to watch closely to appreciate. She was a pure-hockey defender’s dream.
Picard was sneakily physical. She stands at just 5’4”, but she was brilliantly smart in using her body to force opponents to the outside, clear the front of the net and get in shooting lanes. Every moment on the ice was nails tough, swarming puck-carriers like a bee. It’s no wonder that she picked up the mantle of Riveters Captain when Johnston retired in 2018.
Picard has not played since the 2019 IIHF World Championships, where she had three assists in six games for Team USA. She currently serves as Deputy Commissioner of the NWHL. While her service to the league and ambassadorship for the sport is admirable, it’s hard not to miss her grinding it out on the ice.
“I had an amazing experience playing hockey. Now I’m really passionate about spreading that.”— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) September 27, 2019
Learn more about Shelly Picard's hockey journey and how girls in the NYC metro area can learn the basics at our free events on Oct. 5-6 ➡️ https://t.co/1HBpban7Rj pic.twitter.com/bcjUpEl596
Defining moment: The Comeback (2/19/17). You know the one. THE Comeback. The one where the Riveters battled back from down 4-0 and 5-1 to take down the Whale in overtime. The Riveters never truly looked defeated despite the early deficit, and climbing back into the game was a slow burn. Picard scored a crucial goal with 8:18 remaining in the third period to bring the score to 5-4. Connecticut took a penalty on the play giving Metro a powerplay on the ensuing shift, which Miye D’oench converted on to tie it. The Comeback does not happen without Shelly Picard.
Honorable mention: Courtney Burke (‘16-’19). Burke scored the overtime winner in that comeback, which makes sense. She was one of the finest offensive defenders, if not the finest, in franchise history. Burke attained 37 points in 40 games, with 15 of her 31 assists being primaries. From a pure skill standpoint, is she better than, say, Johnston? Probably. But I’m pretty sure leaving Johnston off any Riveters-oriented list is a federal offense. Moreover, Picard’s record speaks for itself.
Goaltender: Katie Fitzgerald (‘16-’19)
Brick Wall Fitzy stands alone in the goaltending department in Riveters history. Fitzgerald spent three years in a Riveters’ uniform, winning 20 games, an Isobel Cup and the 2017-18 Goaltender of the Year Award along the way. In that ‘17-’18 campaign, Fitzgerald was 11-4-0 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
Fitzgerald’s career in New Jersey came to an unceremonious end during the aforementioned Velischek-led ‘18-’19 season. But fans will rightfully hardly remember that tumultuous time when they consider Fitzgerald; only the ring and the banner.
Defining moment: The 2018 Isobel Cup Playoffs. Goodness gracious, was Katie Fitzgerald on when it mattered most. She posted back-to-back shutouts of the Whale and the regular-season-champion Buffalo Beauts to secure the franchise’s first and only Cup on home ice. Her defense played stupendously in the Final, limiting Buffalo’s potent offense to just 21 shots- but the shots that came were of high quality, and Fitz stood up to the task.
Honorable mention: Nana Fujimoto (‘15-’16). The Riveters’ first goaltender was also the most popular jersey purchase in the league in its inaugural season. She earned each of the Riveters’ four wins that season while posting a 3.29 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. All things considered, that’s quite good for a last-place team in what was a high-scoring year for the league.