NWHL MVP race is too close to call

Five players who have been indispensable to their teams this year

As the 2019 NWHL All-Star Weekend in Nashville approaches we are still faced with a lot of big questions in the 2018-19 NWHL season. Even though the Minnesota Whitecaps have just two games left on their regular season schedule, a lot can still change in the standings and in the scoring race. The same can be said for the NWHL’s MVP race, which is simply too close to call.

With Alexa Gruschow’s production slumping this year and Brianna Decker piling up points in the CWHL with the Calgary Inferno, the path is clear for the third MVP in NWHL history. Today, we’re going to look at a few of the leading candidates for the MVP of the 2018-19 NWHL season. Here are five players who have proven to be utterly indispensable to their teams this season.

Meeri Räisänen | Connecticut Whale

Most would agree that Räisänen is not the best goaltender in the league — that title belongs to Shannon Szabados, But, really, that’s irrelevant when we’re talking about MVP candidates. The MVP Award shouldn’t go to the best or most talented player in the league. It needs to go to the player who is the most valuable to their team.

Honestly, can you name a player who’s been more valuable to her team this year than Räisänen?

Big things were expected when Räisänen, who is widely considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the world, joined the Connecticut Whale. And, thus far, she has more than lived up to that hype.

Connecticut’s star goalie has shouldered a tremendous workload in her first NWHL season. The Finn is one of just two goaltenders in the league to start in every game for her team this season. Räisänen also faces more shots per 60 minutes than any other starter by a significant margin.

Räisänen is the first goaltender to post a shutout in Whale franchise history and has the best save percentage of any Connecticut goaltender since the league’s inaugural season. She also deserves credit for helping turn the Whale’s success on the penalty kill around.

The best penalty killer on any hockey team is their goaltender, and the Whale are no exception. Last season, the Whale were last in the league with a 76.1 penalty kill percentage, this year they’re third in the league with an 88.1 percent success rate. That’s a huge turnaround, especially with national team players and the Whitecaps joining the league this season.

Räisänen’s superb play has kept her team in games all year long, even though the Whale are routinely out-shot and out-chanced by their opponents. She’s been more than a source for highlight reel saves and a cause for hope for Whale fans this year — Räisänen has impacted the league’s parity almost single-handedly.

Hayley Scamurra | Buffalo Beauts

Scamurra being named to Team USA’s roster for its Rivalry Series against Team Canada speaks volumes about her post-collegiate development. She’s become living, skating proof of the NWHL’s value as a developmental league for the national team. She’s also becoming a shining example of how women reach their athletic prime after their NCAA careers.

For the second straight season she’s been the spearhead of the Beauts’ imposing offense. What’s even more impressive is that she’s leading the league in points per-game and primary points per-game despite the return of Olympic talent to the league. In other words, Scamurra has done more than measure up to the best players in her sport, she’s proven that she’s one of them.

If you were looking to build a case against Scamurra, you might point to the fact that she is one-third of the best line in the NWHL. How can we consider her and not Maddie Elia or Dani Cameranesi? Well, Scamurra is tied for the league lead in points and goals and is second only to Kendall Coyne-Schofield in shots on goal. So, there is that.

Amanda Kessel | Metropolitan Riveters

The Riveters may very well finish last in the standings this season, but they have the potential to upset any team because of their resident superstar winger.

Amanda Kessel is a calculating, crafty field general with a hockey stick. There are few players in the game who make the players around them better the way that she does. Kessel creates chances and passing lanes better than any one in the league and is more-or-less a magician on the power play. And in her second NWHL season, she’s been all of that and more.

Amanda Kessel is the NWHL’s premier playmaking forward

The gold medal-winning winger not only leads the NWHL in assists, she’s has points on 14 of the Riveters 23 goals thus far this season. That’s over 60 percent of her team’s total offense. To put that into context: Scamurra has points on 44.73 percent of the Beauts’ goals this year. The gap between those two percentages should give you some idea of just how vital Kessel is to head coach Randy Velischek’s offense.

Another way to appreciate just how valuable a single player is to her team is to imagine what their team would look like without them. Without Kessel, the Riveters’ offense could very well be as meek as the Whale’s this year. That alone speaks volumes about how important and impactful she is to her team and teammates.

Amanda Leveille | Minnesota Whitecaps

Leveille, the reigning Goaltender of the Year, has been stellar for her second NWHL team.

The former Beaut has shouldered a heavy workload this year, which is made all the more impressive by Minnesota’s intensive travel schedule. She has started in all but one of the Whitecaps games and leads the league in quality starts and wins. Her .913 Sv% is third in the league behind Szabados and Nicole Hensley. Another mark of her consistency is her eight appearances this year with a .923 save percentage or better.

It’s no secret that the Whitecaps play something of a wide-open style because of their team speed. Oftentimes, that play style results in defensive breakdowns and prime scoring chances for the opposition at even strength. Leveille is behind only Räisänen in the number of shots she’s faced per 60 minutes among goaltenders who have started in at least three games this year. She’s been rock solid for Minnesota.

Jillian Dempsey | Boston Pride

If the NWHL had an award for the best defensive forward, Dempsey would undoubtedly be in the running for it every year. A lot of the things that she brings to the table don’t end up in the box score. But there’s a lot more to measuring a player’s value than looking at the stats that would show up on the back of their hockey card.

Jillian Dempsey talks NWHL hockey on NHL Network

Dempsey does it all for the Pride: she kills penalties, she wins faceoffs, and she generates chances at even strength. She’s the definition of a 200-foot player and she’s been brilliant for Boston in her fourth NWHL season.

Boston’s captain leads her team in goals, faceoff wins, and primary points this year, which is damn impressive on a team that has three forwards who won gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics. What’s even more impressive is that all 10 of Dempsey’s primary points this year have been scored at even strength. She and Scamurra are the only two players in the league with six goals at evens this season.

One way to measure Dempsey’s superb play away from the puck is her goal differential. Despite frequently being used in a defensive role, she’s been on the ice for just five goals against at even strength through 11 games this season. When she’s on the ice — which she is for at least one-third of every game — good things tend to happen for her team. They happen because Dempsey is a great player having another tremendous year.

Also in the Hunt: Gigi Marvin, Jonna Curtis, Maddie Elia, Kateřina Mrázová, Madison Packer

Data courtesy of NWHL.zone, Even-Strength.com, and the author’s own personal tracking.