It’s time for another installment of overlooked performances from the 2021 NWHL season.
This time around we are turning our attention to the Connecticut Whale, who were knocked out of the playoffs by the Minnesota Whitecaps. Even though they played just five games it was obvious that the Whale made major strides this year. Once a team routinely dominated in the shot share, Connecticut had some of the best puck possession numbers in the league, which was made possible by a deep and balanced group of skaters.
Is it possible that the player who led the Whale in goals this year was overlooked? Well, I think so.
Russ simply isn’t talked about enough for what she’s brought to the Whale in the short time she’s been in the NWHL. If we include the playoffs, Russ has four goals and an assist in nine games as a member of the Whale. Those are damn boxcar stats. This year, she shared the team lead in scoring chances (13) with Alyssa Wohlfeiler and, per InStat’s data, led the team with 28 shots on goal. Looking closer at Russ’s shooting rate, she averaged 18.0 SOG at even strength per 60 minutes. That’s impressive.
There’s a very good chance that Russ is the most underrated shooter in the NWHL. I definitely have a tendency to overrate high-volume shooters because of the dearth of data we’ve had to analyze NWHL players in years past, but I think Russ’ underlying numbers reinforce my perception that she’s one of the most underrated forwards in the league. Did I mention that she had nine shots on goal against the Whitecaps in the Isobel Cup semifinal? Nine.
Russ is one of those players who is really exciting to watch around the net because she’s a natural finisher. If Russ has a prime scoring chance, she’s going to deliver — or come damn close. She has great hands around the net and definitely knows where she needs to be to finish on chances.
Maybe Russ doesn’t get enough love because she played her college puck at Union or maybe it’s because we just haven’t seen much of her at the professional level — in two seasons she’s played six regular-season games. But I like her game a lot. I think she’s a player who could put up surprising numbers if she got time on the top power-play unit and was a regular in the top-six at evens during a full NWHL season.
It was easy to overlook Weber this year. She was a veteran forward on a Connecticut team with a small army of rookie forwards, she failed to register a point, and she didn’t play in the playoffs. But a closer look at the film and the numbers reveals that she was one of the team’s strongest forwards in Lake Placid.
Oh, and a quick note: she did technically score a goal. However, officials ruled that the puck went in off of Weber’s glove even though she had a dent in her face cage to prove it went in deflected off her helmet. These kinds of things just happen to the Whale.
Through four games, she averaged 16:56 TOI/GP and three scoring chances per game. Even for the small sample size, that volume of scoring chances speaks volumes about what Weber brought to the Whale when she was in the lineup. It’s very rare that you consistently get scoring chances via puck luck and fortuitous bounces. Weber is a very cerebral player with a sound 200-foot game. She gets her chances because she puts herself and her linemates in a position to succeed.
When Weber joined the Whale last season it felt like Connecticut’s offense was capable of finding another gear when she was on the ice. The skill that made it possible for her to produce 10 goals and 12 assists in 17 games in 2016-17 with the Riveters is still there. This year, in more of a supporting role, she was just as effective.
There was real chemistry between her and Kayla Friesen that I’d love to see develop next season. They played a lot together in Lake Placid, with Nicole Guagliardo or MacKenzie Lancaster as the other forward on that line. I think most would agree that Friesen was one of the Whale’s top three forwards in Lake Placid. Going by the eye test, Weber looked like a great fit with her.
There are also those things we can’t quantify — the experience, the intangibles, the leadership. I think it says a lot about Weber that she joined Laura Brennan behind the bench in the playoffs when head coach Colton Orr was unavailable due to possible exposure to COVID-19. She brought a lot the Whale on and off the ice. They would definitely be lucky to have her back for a full season in 2021-22.
Big things were expected out of Tori Howran when she joined the Whale. The 7th overall pick of the 2020 Draft definitely delivered. Howran had some of the most impressive underlying numbers in Lake Placid, headlined by a team-leading iCF of 71%. Small sample warning aside, those possession numbers are just silly. The Whale were a different team with Howran on the ice. Period.
Howran had three points in three games at Lake Placid, all at even strength, to finish the year as the Whale’s top-scoring defender. She and Weber were also the only two players on the Whale to draw more than one penalty in Lake Placid — oh, and Howran missed a game. In other words, she made a huge impact in four games in Lake Placid. In the semifinal against the Whitecaps, she clocked in with 21:35, put three shots on net, and led all skaters with 13 takeaways.
It’s rare to see a defender make an impact in all three zones in their first few games of pro hockey in the way that Howran did but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. We know she’s a special player. There was a lot of hype surrounding her and Maggie LaGue and what they could bring to the Whale’s veteran blue line and they both looked great this year. Still, Howran didn’t get nearly as much attention (or credit) as she deserved. That, too, is something of a tradition for star players in Connecticut.
There’s no way to replace Shannon Doyle with a single player. But if the Whale can bring back Howran, they will have their next franchise blueliner to build around. She’s that good. Hopefully, we’ll get to see a lot more of her in a Whale jersey.
All data courtesy of InStat, TheirHockeyCounts.com, and EliteProspects.com.