On paper, the Buffalo Beauts shouldn’t look like a sub-.500 team. They shouldn’t be starving for offense from everyone besides their top line. They shouldn’t be allowing 30-plus shots a game, or more than four goals per game.
After eight games played, the Beauts have one win and four points total to show for it. Despite having some of the best offensive players and the PHF’s 2021-22 Defender of the Year, they’re facing down a double-digit goal differential. Even-strength scoring has been woefully anemic, with Buffalo dead last in the PHF alongside Metro at a -14. And while their special teams have been improving — indeed, they inexplicably have the best power play in the league currently at 21 percent — there’s still enough inconsistency to ask some serious questions about where this team goes from here.
Where’s the scoring?
Outside of two-thirds of the top line (Claudia Kepler and Mikyla Grant-Mentis), the Beauts are starving for offense. While it’s not quite the sub-2 goals forced average of the past two seasons, the 2.6 average of the past eight tilts is far from a winning number, especially when players like Autumn MacDougall, Dominique Kremer, and Emma Nuutinen are also on this roster. (Of course, that would mean actually playing Autumn MacDougall... but more on that in a moment.)
In fact, for much of the 2022 portion of this season, Buffalo has been buoyed by its blueline. Antonia Matzka, Whitney Dove, Maddie Truax, and Kremer have all found the back of the net, Matzka and Dove both with multi-goal and multi-point games. Other players, like Jess Healey, have proven to be solid playmakers with a handful of assists. But even they haven’t been much of a factor in the last couple of weekends bookending the holiday break, and have more games where they’ve allowed 30-plus shots on their goaltenders than not.
Uneven playing time, line mixing, and other... choices
It makes sense, then, that the top line of Grant-Mentis between Kepler and Maud would be getting the bulk of ice time. Summer-Rae Dobson’s line with Nuutinen and Jenna Suokko isn’t far behind. But there are a couple of names noticeably absent, especially this past weekend against the Whitecaps, on the ice.
As mentioned before, MacDougall has been uncharacteristically quiet so far in her third year as a Beaut, and the reason has become very clear: she’s not getting the time. On Saturday, she touched the ice a grand total of five times with her line of Grace Klienbach and Madi Nichols. Sunday’s game didn’t see #9 on the ice after the first period, with Anjelica Diffendal and Michaela Boyle joining her in limited ice time.
Post-game, when asked if the lessened shifts were due to injury or just a choice in personnel, head coach Rhea Coad stressed that it was entirely up to choice: “It’s really who’s showing up and going with who’s breaking the puck out, and who’s putting us into a good area, and not just playing the game.”
(Uh....huh. Oh, for the record, jury is still out on if any of this has been communicated before or since to any of those players benched. Also for the record, MacDougall has the Beauts’ only game-winning goal this season and has established herself as a quality penalty killer.)
Reading between the lines (heh), one could be led to believe Coad doesn’t think certain forwards are pulling their weight enough. For reference, all three forwards who were benched Sunday were present on the ice for the two Minnesota goals scored in the first period, which could explain that; however, they also weren’t really a line at that point, which could explain the lack of communication leading to said goals. And either you have the worst luck in the world and lines were changing leading to both of those goals, or you mixed the lines up again on the fly, which has historically not been successful.
Line mixing mid-game isn’t new to this team, and I can’t fault anyone for wanting to figure out what sticks, but with the potential for good comes a lot more negatives. You disrupt the flow of your game and its players, who are used to two certain linemates and now have to adjust to another two linemates’ styles. But it’s even more than unlocking some secret to a line combination.
Know the roles
Take Diffendal, for example, who was on ice for six of the Whitecaps’ combined nine goals this past weekend. She’s spent some time in the bottom six this season, and I’m not sure what the goal for her is this year — while there is more depth to the forward corps than there was last year, there’s something to be said as well for matching skillsets and styles of play, and she just seems a little more out of place than she was last season.
Diffendal is one of those players with a great eye for the net, but is a bit slower than the average skating-wise. Where she thrives is in a purely offensive role, and recently it doesn’t feel like she’s been given the opportunity to play that way, especially alongside players like Boyle and Cass MacPherson (who are great, just not as productive offensively).
The same could be argued for Grant-Mentis, whose eight points are mainly assists as she’s played a supporting role to current goals leader Claudia Kepler. She has been able to adapt well to that, still showing off incredible playmaking skills as well as vastly improved defensive and penalty-killing abilities. Still, it seems like a waste not to give her some more freedom offensively, especially considering that’s what she was signed to do. We know how creative and unstoppable she can be, and she hasn’t even shown half of that so far this year. In fact, quite a few players we know are offensively gifted have had to put that on the back burner, when they were signed to elevate the “goals forced” column (Emma Nuutinen also comes to mind).
There just isn’t yet that seamless kind of transition where a pass isn’t telegraphed, or a puck isn’t coughed up in the corner, or someone doesn’t get beat along the boards. Clears aren’t happening, shots pile up, and players are sacrificing their bodies to lessen the blow on their goaltenders (simply because I’m not sure they have any other idea at this point what to do). There’s been some flashes of brilliance with the top line and with the defense, as mentioned, and early in the season especially the way players like Matzka, Dove, and Healey had been moving the puck really made me think this team was turning a corner. But as soon as they approach, something just keeps holding them back from actually, ya know, turning. Either there’s an issue with the style the Beauts are trying to play, or an issue with the overall vibe of the team — one where little things aren’t focused on, shifts are phoned in, and suddenly you find yourself on the bench without explanation, with the bar set somewhere it’s never been set before now.
In short, to me, the system is just lacking, and it’s been made painfully clear with this past weekend against a team the Beauts should have managed at least a win against. No offense to Jenna Brenneman in the least, but when the Whitecaps give their workhorse starter a rest, it says a lot about how they view their chances. The Beauts had a chance to make them regret it, and instead they mustered 13 shots total. Not a very inspiring effort.
So who are the Beauts, really?
The answer is... we don’t know. They signed a bunch of talented forwards, but aren’t really scoring enough. They have a solid defense and a good number of grinders, but haven’t seemed to reflect that hardworking, grind-it-out mentality for a full game. They’ve been much more disciplined than previous seasons (save Sunday, where no doubt fatigued played a factor since only nine forwards were really skating), but in place of a lack of penalty-related discipline, there’s a lack of... anything. Especially consistency.
You can point to other teams and figure them out immediately — the Riveters are gritty, the Six are an offensive juggernaut, the Pride are poised and constantly in control — but when it comes to Buffalo... What is there, really?
I’m not even so sure they know at this point, and I think that’s one of the biggest problems they’ll have to solve in the next nine-day stretch of games (including four against two of the toughest teams in the league to play against). It’s a hole I fear might be dug even deeper if some serious changes aren’t made soon.