Buffalo Beauts season preview: Revitalized defense highlights busy offseason

No worries for Buffalo in defense and goal this season

When it came to the Buffalo Beauts last season, timing was everything.

After dealing with visa issues for five players and a longer-than-usual adjustment period, the inaugural squad went from cellar-dweller to Isobel Cup runner-up in the span of just a few weeks. This was due mostly to having all of the pieces in place at once -- a full roster, an available Kelley Steadman (then just a practice player), and a strong team defense, as well as a netminder at the top of her game in Brianne McLaughlin.

This season, things are a little more interesting. The Beauts are gearing up to do it all over again, this time with a few shake-ups. Here’s the breakdown:

Cinderella run

The Beauts started off rocky in 2015-16, playing most of the first half of the season against the top two teams in the league (Boston and Connecticut) and without a full roster until November. However, they came together shortly after the All-Star Break. Thanks to wins against the Riveters in three of their final four meetings, they leapfrogged New York in the standings and finished the regular season in third place (5-9-4, 14 points).

In the postseason, Buffalo topped the Connecticut Whale in three games in the first round after not beating them all season, making it to the Isobel Cup Finals against a star-studded Boston squad. There, a fortuitous penalty shot call for the Pride gave Boston a 4-3 overtime victory, taking the wind out of Buffalo’s sails in Game 1. Game 2 saw the Pride dominate, becoming the first Isobel Cup winners in NWHL history.

Stats-wise, Kelley Steadman led the Beauts in scoring with 20 points (13 goals, 7 assists) in 13 games played, followed by Kourtney Kunichika with 17 (9 G, 8 A) and Meghan Duggan with 16 (6 G, 10 A). Devon Skeats led postseason scoring with three points in three games.

What’s different this season?

The biggest changes for Buffalo were perhaps in the front office. General manager Linda Mroz and co-head coach Shelley Looney stepped down over the summer, with Looney focusing on her work with the Buffalo Bison youth organization and Mroz continuing to assist with game-day operations. Co-head coach Ric Seiling stepped into the general manager slot and will continue his coaching duties alongside new coach Craig Muni.

Meanwhile, on the ice, the top line for the Beauts will look a lot different. Kelley Steadman returns to Buffalo as a rostered player, but her partner-in-crime Meghan Duggan won’t be joining her, having signed with the Boston Pride. Shelby Bram, who often centered the pair, is shipping off to Europe. Many of last year’s depth players, including Erin Zach, Hannah McGowan, and Jessica Fickel, have left, making way for Boston’s Corinne Buie, Connecticut’s Shiann Darkangelo, and 2015 draft pick Emily Janiga. In fact, the only line that remains untouched is the second line of Kourtney Kunichika between Devon Skeats and Hailey Browne -- all three will be back at HarborCenter this season. The Kunichika line contributed 43 points combined in the 2015 regular season, and six points in the playoffs. Practice forwards include Morgan Beikirch and Ashley Vesci of Robert Morris University.

There was also plenty of turnover on the blueline -- while three of the Beauts’ five defenders from last season have returned, including USWNT members Emily Pfalzer and Megan Bozek, Lindsay Grigg and Kelly McDonald will not return. In their places are Lisa Chesson, Sarah Casorso, and Anne Schleper (another member of the national team). Kayla Parsons and Jacquie Greco are also on the roster as practice players. Jordyn Burns is listed as both D and forward.

Casorso and Parsons were both signed out of free agent camp back in June. Responsible in her own end, but with a strong offensive edge, Casorso will be a great fit alongside Bozek and Pfalzer. If Parsons gets playing time, she provides a strong physical presence and great positioning on the puck carrier.

In net, Brianne McLaughlin is the sole returning goalie from last season. Joining her are 2015 draftee Amanda Leveille and Kelsey Neumann out of Plattsburgh on the practice squad. Leveille comes fresh off of an impressive career in Minnesota, where she led the Golden Gophers to back-to-back National Championships.

The X factor

Coaching. This team has upgraded a lot on paper, with a heftier defensive corps and some great roleplaying forwards, as well as a very good backup/1A goaltender in Leveille. However, both Seiling and Muni are exploring uncharted territory -- while Seiling knows the returning players well, he’s stepping into a new role in management, and Muni will be dealing with a sizable learning curve as he delves into coaching women. It’ll be up to the two of them to get the most out of this squad early, as this season will likely be even more competitive than the last.

Bottom Line

This Beauts team has plenty of promise heading into Year Two, with some of the best changes coming on the blueline. Having Kelley Steadman full-time is a huge boost, as long as the skaters surrounding her can provide secondary scoring. Leveille and McLaughlin could be an excellent tandem in net. The biggest question is how quickly the Beauts will gel under new coaching and management, and whether that can lead to a repeat of last year’s surprise run to the Isobel Cup.

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