Today, the Boston Pride announced that 25-year-old defender Lexi Bender will be back for a third season with the team. Bender is just the ninth player to agree to terms with Boston but is already the fourth defender to sign with the team for the upcoming 2018-19 campaign.
Bender is rejoining a blue line that will likely look much different from the one we saw last season. In 2017-18 the Pride replaced key blueliners — Blake Bolden and the Pride’s Olympians — with free agents from other NWHL clubs, including Meagan Mangene, Paige Harrington, and Kaliya Johnson. Unfortunately for Boston, and first year head coach Thomas Poeck, the new-look blue line struggled to get the puck up the ice all year long. The transition game improved when Kaleigh Fratkin joined the team in December, but the chemistry was never there.
A look at the numbers shows that Boston’s defense did improve after its rocky start. After the first four games of the season the Pride averaged 30.4 shots against per 60 minutes (SA60). At the end of the season Boston whittled that number down to 28.27 SA60 while also improving their penalty kill success rate from 83 percent to an impressive 87.3 percent. One could say that Boston simply ran out of time; they were clearly on the right track.
Fortunately for the Pride, Bender and the team’s other returning defender, Alyssa Gagliardi, were the best part of last year’s blue line. The two played together for much of the season — Gagliardi on the left, Bender on the right — and were one of the best shutdown pairs in the NWHL. However, the additions of Toni Ann Miano and Lauren Kelly might result in new head coach Paul Mara, a former NHL defenseman, playing with Boston’s d pairs. Both rookies put up impressive offensive numbers in college.
The bottom line is that it’s still a little too early to predict what we will see on Boston’s blue line. There is also a lot riding on what happens with Olympian Gigi Marvin and where she signs. Prior to winning gold in PyeongChang as a forward, Marvin played five seasons of professional hockey in Boston for the CWHL’s Blades and the Pride. She and Emily Pfalzer are the last remaining defenders from Team USA’s Olympic gold medal-winning roster who are still free agents.
Regardless of what happens with Marvin and the other free agents who have ties to Boston, the Pride already have a solid top four on paper. And that is a very good sign for a team that struggled to find its identity for much of the 2017-18 season.