Connecticut Whale season preview: Disappointing playoff run leaves Whale with something to prove

Connecticut looking to bounce back from tumultuous first season

With a 15-3 record, last year’s team seemed poised for a confrontation with the Boston Pride in the Isobel Cup Final. Instead, they fell to the Buffalo Beauts in a captivating upset, ending their season on a disappointing note.

After a tumultuous inaugural season, the Whale looked for stability, which they got when both Heather Linstad and Lisa Giovanelli re-signed as the head coach and GM/assistant coach, respectively. With emphasis on system zone coverage and chemistry in the locker room, the pair approached free agency and re-signings with a common vision.

“Defense is so important in our game, and especially next year, the talent level is going to go through the roof for our league. Defense is…definitely going to be a huge focus for us,” stated Giovanelli. She also added, “We want to focus on team chemistry as well. Like I said, the off-ice stuff really does affect your on-ice product, so that’s a big thing we’re looking to change and make sure we move forward together.”

The Newcomers

True to their word, the Whale bolstered their defense by adding newcomer Ivana Bilic. The WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, Bilic led the league her senior year with 89 blocked shots. She will also be able to add to the Whale’s power play system, as she led the WCHA in power play assists during league play.

Despite stressing the importance of defense, the Whale also went for firepower. Perhaps the biggest signing of the offseason for the Whale was forward Haley Skarupa. A multiple-time Top-10 Finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, Skarupa’s resume is full of impressive offensive numbers. The Boston College graduate is also a clutch player in important games, as she is Hockey East’s third-leading career scorer in conference games. For a four-team league, this can only be good news for the Whale. She is joined by college teammates Dana Trivigno (F) and Kaliya Johnson (D). Boston College alum Meagan Mangene migrated from the Pride to join the Whale as well.

As Giovanelli and Linstad searched for the new additions to their roster, the returning players did the same. Kelly Babstock was the first to re-sign with the Whale, and she made sure to do her part in recruiting her college teammates. A Quinnipiac alum, Babstock played a role in the Whale’s signings of Quinnipiac Bobcats Nicole Kosta, Nicole Connery, and Cydney Roesler, a deadly trio. Kosta is second on the Bobcats’ program’s point list and was a 2012-2013 ECAC Hockey Best Defensive Forward Finalist. Connery was the fourth player in Bobcats’ history to reach 100 career points – one of which was the game-winning goal over Clarkson for Quinnipiac’s first title in program history. Roesler was captain in the 2015-2016 season and was named Quinnipiac’s best defender the season prior. Dangerous in their own rights, the three rookies should have impressive chemistry with Babstock.

Key Departures

While the front office added players to help them envision their goals for the upcoming season, key losses may derail those dreams. All designated leaders from the first season are no longer part of the Whale. Former captain Jessica Koizumi, who had such an integral part in the league’s inaugural year, retired from the NWHL to follow her coaching career to the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Koizumi provided not only a coach and player's perspective on the ice, but wisdom off the ice as well. As one of the players who saw time in both the CWHL and NWHL, she passed on the idea of not taking these professional opportunities for granted to the younger players.

Alternate captain Kaleigh Fratkin joined the New York Riveters, bringing her strong shot from the blue line. A fan favorite, in part because of her frequenting the penalty box or “Whale Jail,” Fratkin’s on-ice and social media presence for the Whale will be missed.

The Whale also lost Shiann Darkangelo, one of their Team USA players, to the Beauts. With sharp hands and quick speed, Darkangelo’s offensive threat, especially on the power play, will be a tangible loss. One less star player means opposing teams can turn their focus to key players like Stack.

Most of all, Jamie Leonoff, arguably the Whale’s best player last season, will not be returning as their goalie. She made spectacular saves on her way to a .939 save percentage and a shutout in the playoffs. (Though she signed with the Riveters this offseason, Leonoff will miss the season because of a torn labrum). The Whale will have to turn to Shenae Lundberg and Nicole Stock to continue Leonoff’s outstanding job in goal.

X Factor

Despite losing their leadership and starting goaltender, the Whale are still going to be a top competitor this upcoming season. They added reinforcements to their blue line. The mix of rookie Skarupa with veterans Stack and Babstock will form a nimble but deadly offensive squad.

Additionally, the Whale re-signed veteran defenseman Molly Engstrom, who was unsure about another professional season. She had initially signed on in the first season to enjoy the ride – making the commitment to drive hours from her coaching job at Kimball Union Academy (KUA) to give professional hockey another shot. Now, it seems like Engstrom has gone all in, resigning from her position at KUA. Engstrom’s energy and focus can provide the needed veteran presence in the Whale locker room.

Brief Summary (TL;DR)

The Whale’s offseason continued to be tumultuous. They will need to adapt to a new starting goaltender and new player leadership. While the other teams in the league looked to build on their existing core, the Whale lost key pieces for their game. It will be interesting to see how big a role Skarupa will play this upcoming season and what impact she will make.

Season prediction: 11-7. The Boston Pride seemed untouchable at the end of last season as they hoisted the Isobel Cup, and they have only added to their strength with Meghan Duggan. The New York Riveters pulled rabbits out of hats in the off-season, poaching players from the Whale and signing superstar Amanda Kessel. The Beauts took Darkangelo and swayed Anne Schleper from the Minnesota Whitecaps to the NWHL. There is no way the Whale sweep both the Riveters and Beauts this season.

Upcoming Events and Important Dates

Connecticut Whale at Buffalo | Sunday, October 9, 2016 | 7:30 PM ETTickets: $20 | (Cross-Ice Pass)

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