CWHL 2016-17 Predictions: Who will come out on top?

Predictions and analysis before the start of the CWHL's 10th season

The 10th season of the CWHL is upon us; many special events are happening around the league this year, from commemorative games to events and fundraisers.  CWHL Live has taken to YouTube, making games easily to accessible for all.  It has never been a better time to be a CWHL fan.

That being said, the upcoming season will certainly be interesting.  Teams were kept busy over the summer, coordinating their draft choices, signing new players and hiring new personnel.  Some teams had better offseasons than others, and that will play a huge role in determining the final standings of the league this year.  As each team plays 24 games in total during the regular season, there is not a lot of room for failure.

The 2016 CWHL draft was a huge success.  Many rookies are entering the league this season, and the CWHL is becoming an increasingly attractive option for college players looking to continue their careers after they graduate.  Teams like Toronto and Boston have upwards of half their rosters comprised of rookies.  These changes are both daring and exciting for two teams who are looking to improve upon last year’s seasons.

Many factors weigh into a team’s success in a single season; chemistry amongst teammates is a hugely important in the CWHL, more so than other leagues.  Good coaching and systems are important as always, as is having a good core and adequate secondary role players.  That being said, who is going to dominate the CWHL this season? Who is going to fall short? Here are my predictions for the 2016-17 CWHL season, listed in the order to which I believe they will finish in regular season league standings:

1.  Calgary Inferno (18-5-1-0, 37 points)

The Calgary Inferno will remain dangerous yet again this year, powered by their star-studded roster and their strong core of players.  The reigning Clarkson Cup champions did not make too many moves during the summer, but the addition of Geneviève Lacasse, the former Boston Blades goaltender, can only improve upon an already solid Calgary team.  Lacasse will be sharing the net with Delayne Brian, who played 20 out of 24 regular season games for Calgary last year and tallied a 0.890 save percentage.  That number is not particularly stunning, and Lacasse will be a huge and crucial piece for the Inferno heading forward.  Goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, a NCAA superstar, joins the already-deep group of Calgary goaltenders.

The additions in goal will help Calgary remain a league-wide powerhouse throughout the upcoming season.  Expect many exciting wins from this star-studded team, as well as solid goaltending and an increased focus on offense.  Calgary’s special teams were only average last year, and that may be the one weak spot on an otherwise solid team.

2.  Les Canadiennes de Montreal (16-5-2-1, 35 points)

Les Canadiennes have one of the strongest cores in the CWHL.  From Marie-Philip Poulin to Charline Labonté to Caroline Ouellette, there is certainly no lack of leadership on Les Canadiennes.  This extremely talented group of core players remained the same over the off season; the personnel changes came mostly from a shakeup of secondary and supporting players.  Many rookies will be taking to the ice for Les Canadiennes this season, Sarah Lefort being one of the bigger names.  Lefort, a Quebec native and recent Boston University graduate, broke a BU program record for most goals (92) and points (183) in a single season- a record previously held by her new teammate and captain, Marie-Philip Poulin.  Lefort is a welcomed addition to Montreal’s already talented group of forwards.

After a successful 2015-16 regular season, a change in secondary players helps to add variation to a team who is likely used to winning games handily, though a disappointing end to a successful season leaves Les Canadiennes vengeful and ready to dominate.

3.  Brampton Thunder (13-9-1-1, 28 points)

The Brampton Thunder saw tragic end to a decent 2015-16 season, after being knocked out of playoff contention with two back-to-back losses to the Calgary Inferno.  Not many moves were made by the Thunder over the offseason, and their roster is very similar to that of last years.  A huge issue for Brampton last year was discipline, as the team lead the league in penalty minutes and often found themselves short-handed. The core players remain the same, with the addition of Hayley Williams, a former NWHL player who joined the team via free agency.

The Thunder’s strong group of players, as well as solid goaltending, will prevail this season.  I predict a third place finish yet again for the Thunder, while noting the opportunity for significant improvement was not utilized over the offseason.

4.  Boston Blades (8-14-1-1, 18 points)

With a roster that barely resembles that of last seasons, the Boston Blades are expected to have a significantly better year.  The loss of Geneviève Lacasse to the Calgary Inferno is a significant blow to the Blades - Lacasse was a very important part of the team last year, facing the most shots in the CWHL by a significant proportion.  Replacing Lacasse in goal is Shelley Payne (Goteborg HC, Europe) and Lauren Dahm (Clarkson University, NCAA). Captain Tara Watchorn will be anchoring the blue line yet again this year.

New additions via the CWHL draft will be of much help to the Blades this season.  Kayla Tutino, the former captain of the BU Terriers and the first-overall selection in the CWHL draft, is expected to be an important contributor in Boston’s scoring depth.  The Blades management team is very excited for the upcoming season, and it is likely the team will see much more success than last year.  The loss of Lacasse is still looming, though, and this is why Boston will finish fourth in the CWHL.

5.  Toronto Furies (5-14-3-2, 15 points)

The Toronto Furies will be icing a team only slightly resemblant to that of last season.  Michelle Bonello, Korie Chevrie and Alyssa Baldin, three of Toronto’s core players, retired over the summer and will not be returning to the CWHL this season.  The loss of these three key players is certainly felt amongst the Furies, but leaves ample opportunity for new beginnings for many rookies who are stepping up and claiming their roster spots.  Amongst new additions, Jenelle Kohanchuck, Julie Allen and Sami Jo Small are all returning to the Furies this season; Kohanchuck lead the team in scoring in 2014-15, Allen is a welcomed veteran presence and Small is a solid option in goal.  Not to mention, CWHL superstar Natalie Spooner has recently taken over the captaincy after Michelle Bonello’s departure.

Though the Furies are expected to improve upon their point totals from last season, they still have ways to go before they are a dominant CWHL team.  I expect the Furies to be a respectable team in seasons to come, but their lack of talent and veterans leave them as the odd man out this season.

The league's standings last year showed only 3 teams capturing the majority of the points: Calgary, Montreal, and Brampton dominated the league throughout the season.  I believe the points will be more evenly dispersed this year, as Boston will see significant improvement upon last year’s season.  Calgary will still dominate, and it’s hard to argue against that if you take a glance down their star-studded roster.  Les Canadiennes will remain a league powerhouse, and will likely go head-to-head with the Inferno for first/second in the league throughout the entire season.  At this point, I would not be surprised to see Les Canadiennes finish ahead of the Inferno.  Those two teams are interchangeable between first and second place, as are the Furies and the Blades at fourth and fifth.  Brampton’s lack of moves in the off-season has them finishing third; a few scattered personal changes is not enough to fix major issues.  The Blades will finish inside top four, as the team’s new additions could potentially be enough to supplement the loss of Geneviève Lacasse.  Toronto saw improvement on their roster with many new faces joining the team during the off-season; though a huge part of their core left, their new-found scoring depth will help them win some games this season.

Bonus prediction

Clarkson Cup Champions: Les Canadiennes de Montréal

Les Canadiennes are a very solid team; their stellar special teams and incredible forward depth will play a huge role in their success this season.  They have learned a lot from their loss in the finals to Calgary last season, and are certainly out for blood this year. Their veteran core will help the rookies transition into the league, and I believe Les Canadiennes can beat any team they are put up against this season in a head-to-head matchup.

There you have it, folks.  Those are my predictions for the 2016-17 CWHL season.  There is certainly ample opportunity for upset, though.  The CWHL is one of the most sporadic leagues in the world, and anything can happen in a 24-game season.

One thing is for sure, though: all of us here at the Ice Garden are very excited to bring you coverage of the CWHL for the entire season.   Stay tuned for news and analysis from our talented team of writers, coming your way soon!