It was a strange year for women’s hockey and, in particular, professional women’s hockey in North America. In 2019-20, the NWHL regular season was a record 24-games long. A year later, an already pandemic-shortened season was shattered into a brief, fractured schedule when the “bubble” burst in Lake Placid. It felt as if we were given an all-too-brief glimpse of what might have been before things spiraled out of control and the season was shut down. And all of this happened before single-elimination playoffs.
So, it would not be unfair to say that 2021 wasn’t much of a season. However, brief though it was, it was also unforgettable. For 10 days in late January and a weekend in March, we witnessed exceptional performances from both teams and players. Even with all of the setbacks, distractions, and disappointment, it was still a huge year for the NWHL.
The Isobel Cup has been lifted and an MVP — Jillian Dempsey of the Boston Pride — has been named but we’re not done reflecting on this year’s NWHL action — or recognizing exceptional individual performances. The greatness we saw is all the more exceptional because of the conditions surrounding it. These athletes deserve to be recognized for what they accomplished and achieved. So we’re bringing you a roundtable discussion on The Ice Garden’s NWHL awards for the 2021 season. After all, this is a year that none of us will soon forget.
Newcomer of the Year
Note: for Newcomer of the Year we chose from “true rookies” — players who made their NWHL debut in Lake Placid.
- Carly Jackson | There were a lot of exceptional rookies and first-year players in Lake Placid but the one who stood out the most to me was Buffalo’s Carly Jackson. Jackson is the workhorse starting goaltending that the Beauts were missing. She averaged 35.92 SV60 in 350:47 — in other words, she was under siege. And she finished Lake Placid with a solid .909 Sv%, a lengthy highlight reel of improbable saves, and the trust of Beauts fans everywhere. It’s hard to think of a new face who was more important to her team than Jackson. -Mike Murphy
- Carly Jackson | Like Mike said, I think so many of the league’s rookies and first year NWHLers shined in their first professional season in Lake Placid, but only one can shine the brightest, and to me, that was the Beauts’ Carly Jackson. Jackson put up such solid numbers and made so many highlight reel saves over the course of the regular season, and did it all with a smile on her face and gratitude for her teammates. While the smile part might not be integral to the award, I think it shows what a team player Jackson is and how she’s the glue of this new era of Beauts hockey. -Anne Tokarski
- Haley Mack | Jackson is an amazing and probably the obvious choice here, but I don’t feel right letting that season go by without seeing Mack’s name mentioned somewhere. So I’ll do it. She made me excited to watch hockey during a crazy time where distraction were prevalent. She provided the Whitecaps with multiple game winning goals, including a shootout winner in Lake Placid. She seemed to always be around when the big goals were happening and I may not have fancy stats to back myself up here but she’s certainly on a list of players who I hope we see long careers from. Just like Jackson, she’s making the game fun. -Leighann Strollo
- Elaine Chuli | I get the love for Carly Jackson, really. She looked spectacular on high-danger chances and on a better team would probably post some ridiculous numbers. But her final stat ledger is distorted from Buffalo’s lackluster performance in Lake Placid. Let’s instead look at someone who passes both the eye test and the numbers report in Toronto’s Elaine Chuli. Chuli finished with a 4-1-0 record in the regular season, the most wins of any goaltender. She had the second-best goals-against average and save-percentage of starters behind only Lovisa Selander. She notched a 25-save shutout to cap things off. She never allowed more than three goals in a game, whereas Jackson did it three times. Even when taking into account the marked differences of the respective rosters playing in front of the two netminders, Chuli’s numbers are that much better to where it’s too difficult to look past them for me. -Casey Bryant
- Sammy Davis | The goalie love here is palpable, and with good reason, but let me toss a new name into the mix. Sammy Davis came into the league with high expectations as the first overall pick for Boston, and with the second most goals out of anyone in Lake Placid (five), I think it’s safe to say she lived up to the hype. Davis was able to slot into an already stacked Pride team and give them the extra edge they were looking for. Boston didn’t have the best record in the “regular” season, but Sammy Davis was an unquestioned scoring threat every time she stepped on the ice. With a team full of so much veteran scoring power, it’s important to have younger players who can take the reigns every once in a while, and that’s exactly the kind of player Sammy Davis is. -Holly Morrison
Goaltender of the Year
- Amanda Leveille | This one wasn’t easy. I think you could make a strong case for a few goalies here but analyzing any of them is difficult because of the sample sizes we’re working with. With all of that being said, I have to give the nod to Leveille. Yes, she allowed four or more goals in two of her four starts but that’s not the number I care about. I care about the .936 Sv%, the 0.45 GSAA/60, and, above all else, the 38.81 SA60. Selander’s numbers are better but Leveille’s job was harder — a lot harder. They’re both deserving of the award but I think we need to look beyond wins, GAA, and save percentage when we evaluate goalies in the women’s game. Ultimately, that’s why I’m going with Lev. -Mike Murphy
- Amanda Leveille | Selander, Jackson, Leveille, and even Shelly all put up great numbers throughout Lake Placid, but each squad had a very different team in front of them in terms of defensive strength and offensive firepower. While Leveille may not have been dealt the toughest hand of cards, she didn’t have it made either, and that’s why her numbers are so impressive. I could repeat every stat Mike did, but the point stands: Leveille has been a rock for the Whitecaps this season. -Anne Tokarski
- Elaine Chuli | Once again, I’m going to shake things up with my answer for the sake of the chaos. I’ve always said that in the NWHL and women’s hockey in general, there’s too much goalie talent and not enough teams for it to go and this season was no different. Like Anne pointed out, there’s a handful of goalies that brought it big time this year but I need to give props to Chuli who held it down for the inaugural Toronto Six in Lake Placid. Her .936 save percentage in Lake Placid matches that of Leveille but with more playing time, and also had the second lowest goals against average during the season. The Six had a bumpy road in their first professional season but that was never due to Chuli, and like my choice for Mack, I’m not sure we’re talking enough about it. -Leighann Strollo
- Amanda Leveille | To be honest, I didn’t consider Selander on the sole qualifier of strength of schedule. She faced the Beauts four times in Lake Placid. No offense to Buffalo fans, but that isn’t exactly the toughest workload. So I instead looked at Chuli and Leveille, and Leveille gets the edge. It’s a real close call, considering Leveille turned in two uncharacteristic performances in a 6-5 win and a 4-3 loss, plus Chuli deserves credit for backstopping an expansion team to the top seed in the regular season as a rookie. But Lev found a way to beat Toronto, she shutout Metro when they looked poised for a run and she locked down the Pride on opening day all while facing a much higher shot quantity. -Casey Bryant
- Elaine Chuli | I genuinely believe that the Six wouldn’t have had the success that they did in Lake Placid without the support of Elaine Chuli in the net. Like Leighann said, Chuli had the same save percentage as Leveille, but with more ice time. That alone is impressive, but when you consider Toronto’s frequent defensive breakdowns, especially early in the season, Chuli’s .936 is all the more impressive. -Holly Morrison
Defender of the Year
- Kaleigh Fratkin | Fratty’s ability to make an impact in the offensive zone and in the transition game makes her one of the most — if not the most — dangerous defender in the NWHL. She had nine assists in Lake Placid to share the scoring lead with Mikyla Grant-Mentis. Even more impressively, she had just one giveaway despite all the time she spent handling the puck. It definitely doesn’t hurt her cause that she played seven games in Lake Placid but she really did it all for Boston. She blocked shots, got the Pride out of their zone and flying on the attack, and pulled the strings on the power-play. I think Lindsay Eastwood of the Six and Sydney Baldwin of the Whitecaps also deserve recognition for how they played in Lake Placid. MJP’s underlying numbers were also fantastic. -Mike Murphy
- Kaleigh Fratkin | At the risk of sounding like a broken record here: once again, Mike nailed this one on the head. Fratkin spent Lake Placid as one of the most dangerous defenders and players in the league, and her nine assists definitely don’t hurt. She’s reliable, dynamic, and one of the most skilled players to take the ice for the Pride and take the ice in Lake Placid, and I think it’s worth it to hand over the honors of the league’s first 2x Defender of the Year Award winner. -Anne Tokarski
- Kaleigh Fratkin | There is just no getting around this one, Fratkin is the right answer. Like Mike, I thought about throwing Eastwood’s name in the ring. In the coming years, I would bet that it will be more of a debate for her, but Fratkin showed up to Lake Placid ready to score big and shut everyone else down like usual, and she did just that. -Leighann Strollo
- Kaleigh Fratkin | I don’t have any thing new to contribute. Fratkin’s numbers speak for themselves. So here’s a fun fact about Kaleigh Fratkin: did you know she has a master’s degree from Northeastern University in sports leadership? That’s really cool. -Casey Bryant
- Kaleigh Fratkin | Is there another answer? It’s obviously Kaleigh Fratkin, next question. -Holly Morrison
- Mikyla Grant-Mentis | In addition to being the most entertaining player to watch in Lake Placid, Grant-Mentis was also Toronto’s most valuable player. Her ability to fly into the zone and create scoring chances in one-on-one situations helped the Six keep defenders on their heels and vaulted Toronto to the top of the standings. Grant-Mentis had nine points — seven of which were primary — in six games for the Six. She had points on just shy of half (7/15) of the Six’s even-strength goals and averaged 4.67 SOG/GP. She was electric. She was special. She was my favorite player to watch in Lake Placid. -Mike Murphy
- Christina Putigna | I am finally deviating from the norm Mike has established when I say I think Christina Putigna is deserving of the MVP honor for her efforts in Lake Placid. With eight points (2 G, 6 A) in just seven games, Putigna has been a playmaker and a force to be reckoned with on the ice, and is a crucial piece to the puzzle — or, rather, the masterpiece — that is the Pride’s top line. -Anne Tokarski
- Christina Putigna | I am going to agree with Anne here. When the Pride were struggling early in the season, Putigna was the shining light. She was the one showing up with the big goals and puck possessions. While we promised to base our choices off of Lake Placid, it is worth nothing that that effort didn’t stop in the playoffs too. All around, Putigna is someone who represents the heart and soul of this team, on and off the nice. I don’t know what else to call someone like that but the most valuable player. -Leighann Strollo
- Mikyla Grant-Mentis | Grant-Mentis is maybe the greatest example of a player living up to lofty expectations this league has seen since Hayley Scamurra. That’s a high compliment. MGM was superb, plain and simple. She’s strong on the puck, quick with her release, she stretches the neutral zone with her speed... She’s a coach’s dream. On top of the intangibles, she leads in most statistical categories, like: goals (5), points (9), shots on goal (28), game-winning goals (2, both in the third period in one-goal wins) and Points/Game (1.5). -Casey Bryant
- Mikyla Grant-Mentis | Not to copy everyone else’s homework, but MGM was the most fun and the most dominant player in Lake Placid without a doubt. Grant-Mentis had a strong start, scoring the second goal in Toronto Six history and showed no signs of slowing down after that. She really started to thrive after being moved from the center to the wing position in Lake Placid. Grant-Mentis made the hard stuff look easy, with her speed, hands and killer shot, she’s a shoe-in for MVP. -Holly Morrison