Believe it or not, we are just weeks away from the 2020-21 NWHL season beginning in Lake Placid, NY. The structure of hockey in the bubble will be drastically different from any of the previous five seasons in league history. In addition to presenting logistical obstacles to the league itself, the 15-game regular season will be a new challenge for the teams and their players.
The 2019-20 NWHL season was the longest to date with a 24-game schedule wherein teams typically played twice a weekend. This year, each squad will play five games in a format that should be familiar to anyone who has taken in an IIHF World Championship. That regular season and the postseason will all take place in a two-week marathon.
There will be varying degrees of rust on display, but that should be abated by the practices teams have been holding to prepare for the season — in whatever form it may take — since September. Still, the result of at least the regular season will depend on which teams get into gear and which struggle out of the starting block.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the abbreviated season presents a unique challenge for the league’s newest franchise, the Toronto Six. Fortunately for the Six, they’ve been on the ice for months now. They also have an abundance of players with post-collegiate hockey experience, four of whom are skaters with NWHL experience. Furthermore, seven of the Six’s skaters competed in a U18 Worlds tournament — the most of any NWHL team entering the bubble. That could come in handy.
The Minnesota Whitecaps have the most players returning from last year’s roster (18), which could give them an edge in terms of pre-existing chemistry. Bringing back the dynamic duo of Allie Thunstrom and Jonna Curtis should go a long way for the Whitecaps. The same can be said for the Pride bringing back Jillian Dempsey and McKenna Brand and the Riveters having Madison Packer and Kate Leary for another year.
The team that might struggle the most in the early stages of the season is Buffalo. The Beauts have just nine players returning from last year’s roster, which underwent a massive overhaul in the 2019 offseason. Corinne Buie is now with the Whitecaps, so there may be less glue holding together a roster with nine rookies than there was last year. Still, this is a team with a ton of potential and most of the key figures from the 2019-20 squad are still here.
Chances are, this is going to feel like playoff hockey as soon as teams get up to speed. Every player going to Lake Placid will know that there is no time to waste and that momentum means everything in a condensed schedule like this. Players are going to go hard. Injuries are bound to happen in hockey and in playoff hockey they are all but inevitable.
This season is more a sprint than a marathon, but roster depth will still be a big factor. No team wants to find itself in the position of having to play with a short bench because of injuries and/or players being quarantined. In the past, NWHL teams have signed players to PTOs to temporarily fill a hole in the roster but that will be off the table in Lake Placid because of the protocols that are in place. And if it isn’t, it should be.
The Riveters and Whitecaps both enter the bubble with 22 players under contract — the most of any team. Meanwhile, the Six only have 17 players inked and the Pride are just slightly deeper with 20 players signed. A couple of injuries to either team could prove to be disastrous. Don’t be surprised if both teams look into adding a few bodies to provide some insurance before bags are being packed for New York.
We also know that 95 percent of the players under contract have committed to going to Lake Placid — that means there are a handful who won’t be there. That’s one more reason why we will likely see a few signings before Jan. 23.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: goaltending is important. It’s the most important position in the sport.
Three of the league’s six teams — the Whitecaps, the Pride, and the Whale — have goalies who finished the 2019-20 season (or the 2020 Isobel Cup Playoffs) as their team’s bona fide starter. That means half the league could have open competitions for the starting role. That will definitely be something to keep a close eye on in the coming weeks. With less than a dozen games on the docket for each club, NWHL coaches will have more incentive than ever before to go with the hot hand. If it ain’t broke, why risk trying to fix it when each game carries so much weight?
A goalie who gets into a groove could steal the show in Lake Placid and pave the way for multiple upsets. Of course, a superstar goaltender like Lovisa Selander or Amanda Leveille could simply slam the door shut and pave a path straight to the Isobel Cup Final for the Pride or Whitecaps, respectively. Although that is the most likely scenario, nothing is impossible. After all, this is hockey we’re talking about.