2019-20 NWHL Season Preview: Buffalo Beauts
The Beauts are not the team they were last year
Forwards: Corinne Buie, Taylor Accursi, Brooke Stacey, Kim Brown, Becki Bowering, Cassidy MacPherson, Maddie Norton, Kandice Sheriff, Emma Ruggiero, Ashley Birdsall (D/F), Sara Bustad (D/F)
Defenders: Meg Delay, Marie-Jo Pelletier, Iveta Klimášová, Lenka Čurmová
Goalies: Mariah Fujimagari, Kelsey Neumann
Space: 17/25 spots filled.
Home Ice: Northtown Center in Amherst, NY.
How Last Season Went
Last season, the Beauts had the best goaltending and the best first line in the league. They were a deep, talented team that looked downright dominant at times at even strength thanks to their formidable group of forwards. Despite the fact that the team changed its coaching staff, changed its general manager, and lost two of its top defenders mid-season, the Beauts were a force to be reckoned with. They finished the regular season with a record of 11-4-1, second only to the Whitecaps.
The Beauts defeated the Boston Pride in the semifinals to punch their ticket to a fourth consecutive Isobel Cup Final appearance. Unfortunately for Buffalo, Lee Stecklein scored in overtime to seal Minnesota’s Isobel Cup victory.
The Beauts are a dramatically different team heading into the 2019-20 season. The vast majority of last year’s roster chose to join the #ForTheGame movement and the PWHPA’s boycott of the 2019-20 NWHL season. The only returning players from last year’s roster are forwards Corrine Buie and Taylor Accursi. That means that Hayley Scamurra, Maddie Elia, Blake Bolden, Kelly Babstock, Savannah Harmon, Shannon Szabados, and Nicole Hensley are all no longer with the team — the same is also true of Pegula Sports and Entertainment. The Beauts are, once again, owned by the NWHL.
It’s no small task to rebuild a team without the Goaltender of the Year (Szabados), the Players’ Top Player of the Year (Scamurra), the Defender of the Year (Bolden), and the MVP (Maddie Elia). But that is exactly what new general manager Mandy Cronin set out to do in the offseason.
The new-look Beauts roster features the first Slovakians to play in the NWHL, former Worcester Blades goaltender Mariah Fujimagari, and three USports alumnae. On paper, the Beauts are a distinctly Canadian team, which is not terribly surprising considering Amherst’s proximity to the Canadian border.
Buffalo Beauts name Pete Perram head coach
Three Players to Watch
Corinne Buie | F
A former Beauts captain, Buie will be counted on to be a leader on what is shaping up to be the youngest team in the league. Head coach Pete Perram will also be looking to the two-time Isobel Cup winner to produce in a top-six role, which is something that she’s proven in the past that she’s more than capable of taking on. Buie is just one of three players in the league this year who has scored nine goals in an NWHL season.
Buie played in what was largely a depth role for the Beauts last year, scoring three goals and picking up two primary assists in 16 games. Her 0.63 average game score (GS/GP) was a clear step down from her 0.81 GS/GP in 2017-18, but that’s hardly surprising considering the change in her role. It’s also important to note that her shooting percentage dropped from 18.75 in 2016-17; to 8.33 in 2017-18; to 6.67 last season.
The power forward has the potential to be the key to the Beauts’ offense this season with her quick hands, knack for getting to rebounds, and deceptive shot. She was also the first player to re-sign with Buffalo this summer. For all of those reasons and more, Buie is the Beaut to watch this year.
Marie-Jo Pelletier | D
On paper, Pelletier appears to be the Beauts’ best option for a power play quarterback who can also log significant ice time at even strength. Over the past three seasons, she’s scored 13 goals from the blue line for the University of New Hampshire. Last year, Pelletier led the Wildcats in power play assists and led the team’s defenders in shots.
No one is expecting Pelletier to replace Bolden or Harmon, but the Beauts are going to need a puck-moving defender to take command of the point on the power play. It is for that reason that the 5-foot defender from Dalhousie, New Brunswick will likely be a key cog on her first pro team. Expect her to get pucks to the net and to feature on the power play.
Mariah Fujimagari | G
There are few goaltenders in professional women’s hockey who faced more shots per minute than Fujimagari did last year. She earned a modest .866 save percentage in her rookie season with the Worcester Blades. However, that number looks very different when we take her workload into consideration. Fujimagari faced an unrelenting 50.4 SA60 (shots against per 60 minutes) with the Blades, which was the highest SA60 of any goaltender who started in at least six games in the 2018-19 CWHL season.
The University of Maine alumna has also played in the Elite Women’s Hockey League (EWHL), where she posted a .912 save percentage in the regular season with SKP Bratislava in 2017-18. Her experience with the starting role at the professional level makes her an early favorite to be the Beauts’ top netminder. It also doesn’t hurt that she has a pre-existing relationship with Mandy Cronin who is the team’s goalie coach in addition to being its general manager.
Three Games to Watch
Buffalo Believes Classic | Dec. 28, 6:30 p.m. ET at RiverWorks
The Beauts will host the Riveters three days after Christmas for the NWHL’s first outdoor regular season game. This is not only the Beauts game to mark on your calendar this season, it’s also the most anticipated NWHL regular season game since the Whitecaps’ home opener at TRIA Rink last year.
Beauts will host Riveters in first ever outdoor game in NWHL history
Adding extra significance to this historic game is its location — Buffalo — the city that the Beauts called home up until this season. It’s also worth noting that former Beaut Colleen Murphy signed with the Riveters during the offseason.
Isobel Cup Final Rematch | Nov. 23, 7:30 p.m. ET at Northtown Center
Chances are that the rematch of the 2019 Isobel Cup Final will be worth the wait. The Beauts may only have two holdovers from last season’s roster, but almost all of the Whitecaps core players are back — excluding Lee Stecklein and Kendall Coyne Schofield. The rosters and players may be different, but there is a lot of pride on the line and the Beauts will be looking to make a statement at their new home rink.
Conclusion of Whale Season Series | Nov. 30, 4:30 p.m. ET at Danbury Ice Arena
The Beauts will travel to Connecticut to wrap up their season series against the Whale at the end of November. We are going to learn a lot about the Beauts, the Whale, and the landscape of the rest of the league in the first two months of the season. On paper, Buffalo should be a better team than Connecticut, but we won’t know for sure until the puck drops.
After the fifth game of the season series between Buffalo and Connecticut, the Beauts will be off the ice until Dec. 21. When they return to action, they will start a six-game homestand, which includes the Buffalo Believes Classic, that extends through Jan. 5, 2020.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to predict how the Beauts will finish when we don’t know the full roster of the team. With that being said, the roster that Cronin has cobbled together thus far is definitely an intriguing one. The fact that the Beauts play the Whale in four of their first seven games might be a boon to the young team, but they also play Boston in the other three games. There’s a lot riding on how this team does out of the gate with so many games on the road and so many new faces in the lineup.
If I had to make a prediction, I’d put my money on the Beauts finishing third in the standings with a record of 12-10-2. If Fujimagari proves to be the starting goaltender she has shown flashes of being in the EWHL and CWHL, Buffalo could have an edge over the Whale and Riveters who have bigger question marks in net.
All data courtesy of nwhl.zone, EliteProspects.com, HockeyEastOnline.com, and the author’s own tracking.
Disclosure: The author of this story is currently employed by the NWHL.