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2022-23 PHF Season Preview: Buffalo Beauts

It hasn’t been a beautiful two or three seasons for the former bridesmaids of the league, but can another new-look roster swing things back Buffalo’s way?

Michelle Jay

If we know one thing about this Beauts organization, it’s that they’re not shy about blowing the whole thing up and starting over again if they feel the situation calls for it. Last season certainly seemed like a rebuilding one, but despite some fits and starts, the 2021-22 squad just could not get itself into the right kind of groove in time to make any kind of postseason impression. The end result was far from the dream of the 2017 Cup winners, which has prompted yet another roster makeover and a question mark for the upcoming year.

2021-21 Season

Record: 6-14-0, 15 pts

PP%: 10% (5th)

PK%: 73% (6th)

Top Scorers: Autumn MacDougall (5-9-14), Dominique Kremer (6-5-11)

Biggest Additions

Mikyla Grant-Mentis (F), Kassidy Sauve (G), Emma Nuutinen (F)

It’s no secret that this team has struggled mightily on offense for a long, long time. I can’t remember a season where they’ve managed more than 2 goals forced per game, and that dismal power-play percentage speaks for itself. So why not set your sights on one of the biggest names in the Fed, and someone who’s already worn Beauts blue?

Mikyla Grant-Mentis Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Grant-Mentis has been a perennial contender for MVP since her first full season as a member of the Toronto Six back in Lake Placid, and as such she has probably the biggest price attached to her name at the moment. The forward affectionately known as “Buckey” has a tremendous ability to create and finish plays, which should bode well for the Beauts as long as the supporting cast around her does its own job.

Nuutinen is a lesser-known name to the PHF, but has cut her teeth overseas both professionally and as a member of the Finnish Olympic team. She’s got some great size, a smooth stride, and some beautiful hands (including a deadly backhand), plus the willingness to step in and do things herself when the situation calls for it.

Nuutinen didn’t really see a lot of exhibition as she was still coming back from an undisclosed injury, but I’m really excited to see where she lands on this roster and what she’ll end up doing points-wise for this squad.

As for Sauve, she makes the hop over from the PWHPA in what apparently was a long game for Buffalo and has already seen a good amount of ice time during the preseason. Her athleticism and technical ability is top-notch; the big question mark is whether or not she can handle a full regular season workload (since the PW’s schedules tended to be a lot more irregular over the past couple of years). Still, her tandem with Lovisa Berndtsson is strong and remains the clear high point of the roster, as per usual.

Biggest Losses

Carly Jackson (G), Emilie Harley (D), Taylor Accursi (F)

The biggest surprise over the course of free agency was the Beauts’ decision to part ways with Jackson, who had been a huge part of the team fabric and the workhorse on the ice over the course of her two seasons in Buffalo. The MVP of last year’s squad is now in Toronto Six red, likely with a reduced amount of ice time behind Elaine Chuli, but I guess that’s a fair tradeoff since the Beauts stole Grant-Mentis back. Still, that’ll make her first weekend against Buffalo (which coincidentally happens to be the Buffalo Believes Classic weekend of Dec. 16-17) even more of a dramatic one.

As for Accursi, her departure was a little bit more expected, especially since she played a minimal number of games last season due to her full-time job as a provincial police officer in Ontario. Still, the co-captain didn’t even get an offer as per her own statement back on Oct. 18, which naturally left fans wondering what the deal was.

Per general manager Nate Oliver, it was a difficult decision to make and he does have a bit of regret about everything shook out, but ultimately it comes down to the direction the PHF is going in with regard, not just to the salary cap and benefits, but also the number of practices and heightened commitment to a player’s respective team. With practices now a mandatory four times per week, plus off-ice workouts, film sessions, and team/community events, it can be a lot for someone to handle on top of a full-time or even a part-time job outside of the PHF. Apparently, the Beauts and Accursi just weren’t on the same page in that respect anymore, though Accursi definitely is interested in continuing her professional hockey career.

2021 draft pick Harley was another bit of a surprise, as she was one of the biggest standouts in her rookie season. Logging serious minutes on the top defensive pairing alongside Dominique Kremer, she was probably one of the most consistent blueliners and excelled on both sides of the puck, utilizing some great speed and skating ability for her size. While the Beauts have gained a bit of that size back in Toni Matzka (who has a similar style but is slightly smaller), I think losing both Harley and co-captain Marie-Jo Pelletier (who retired at the end of last season) puts a lot more on Kremer to anchor the new-look blueline.

Full Roster

(* - practice player)

Forwards: Autumn MacDougall, Madi Nichols, Emma Nuutinen, Cassidy MacPherson (A), Anjelica Diffendal, Claudia Kepler (A), Courtney Maud, Jenna Suokko, Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Michaela Boyle, Summer-Rae Dobson, Grace Klienbach, Amy Budde*, Iveta Klimasova*

Defenders: Samantha Fieseler, Maddie Truax, Dominique Kremer (C), Allison Attea, Antonia Matzka, Meg Delay*, Jess Healey, Whitney Dove

Goaltenders: Kassidy Sauve, Lovisa Berndtsson, Tera Hofmann*

Roster: 21/25, 4 practice players

Head Coach: Rhea Coad

Assistant Coaches: Julia DiTondo, Jeff State

General Manager: Nate Oliver

Greatest Strength: Goaltending

Come on now — no matter what’s going on in front of them, the goalies have long been the heroes of the Beauts’ season-long stories. From Brianne McLaughlin and Amanda Leveille to Shannon Szabados, to Carly Jackson, and now Sauve and Berndtsson, it’s clear to see that some of the biggest names in pro women’s hockey have worn that Beauts blue between the pipes at some point in their careers.

As has been the case for the last few seasons, I think we can expect both of these netminders to see a lot of rubber over the course of the next 24 games. What I hope to see more of is an even split in the amount of ice time each of them can expect. In my opinion, one of the biggest blunders the coaching staff made last season was starting CJ as much as they did, because come postseason, despite a valiant effort, there was just nothing left in the tank (plus, I mean, they were playing a team for the third straight game — the Pride were bound to find and exploit her weaknesses eventually). I really hope one of the lessons learned is that if you sign more than one goalie, you should trust that each of those goalies can win you games or at least put up a good fight.

Biggest Area of Opportunity: Offense/Special Teams (no I couldn’t decide which was more in need of help)

I don’t think this is a surprise. The Beauts have been near the bottom of the league for a while now in each of these categories, and I think that it really comes from the back end up even though I did pinpoint the offense specifically. In reality, offense needs to be a full-team effort. The blueline needs to be able to protect their goalie, break out the puck and push through the neutral zone to help their forwards get established. They need to rely less on the dump-and-chase that infuriated me last season and more on utilizing speed, a strong presence up the middle, and more creative passing plays that maximize your time spent with possession.

Obviously, if you can’t score even-strength, it’s not that likely that you’ll be able to score on special teams either — and it boggles me, because this team has some really good pieces in place to have a good specialty unit or two (or three, or four). MacDougall is pesky up top and has shown she can put away some shorties; MacPherson is also a stronger defensive forward but has been working on her speed and her shot, and of course you have one of the league’s most creative forwards now in Grant-Mentis. Allison Attea and Whitney Dove are also two defenders with some great hands on the offensive side, alongside PHF Defender of the Year Kremer, and I’m intrigued as to how Matzka and Nuutinen might fit into the fold.

That said, the volume of penalties can also wear down a team over time, and I don’t expect the officiating to get any better or more consistent in Year Eight, so the trick for me is just to weather that storm, calm down the play, and do your best to stymie whatever threat the opponents pose to your goalie. They’re also going to have to get more willing to clear the riffraff in front of their net and not give their opposing power play units so much space to do what they wish. In short, figure out how to be aggressive without putting yourself at risk of going even more shorthanded, and figure out how to make smart plays both on and off of the puck.

Prediction

Honestly? I think it’s not so clear-cut. While on paper it looks like the Beauts have improved, so too have the teams around them. Still, they’ve proven to shock some of the top teams before, and historically they’ve made it to the Final despite not having stellar regular season records. Anything can happen. I really think though that it comes down to how quickly this team full of newcomers can make things work on the ice. The team vibes are already immaculate, so I’m hoping that can turn into something really special for the standings and stats too. In the end, I think they can push for 4th or 5th place if they can stay focused and stay healthy. It’s not the top of the pack, but it’s much better than last place.