TIG Roundtable: Our thoughts on the 2021-22 PHF season

Gather round ye ol’ TIG Table

The 2021-22 PHF season promises to be the biggest one yet following the development of the league’s broadcasting deal with ESPN+. Following an offseason chock full of surprises, The Ice Garden’s PHF writers are ready with some bold predictions and maybe a hot take or two before the puck drops on season seven.

Let’s get right to our roundtable, starting with some key newcomers to watch.

Newcomer to watch

Angelica Rodriguez: Now, this isn’t because she has the same name as I do, but it is because Anjelica Diffendal brings to mind a former Beauts captain in her size, skating ability, and playmaking skills. She tallied two points (1 G, 1 A) in the Beauts’ first exhibition game against Brown and seemed to find a good bit of chemistry with Dominique Kremer as well. Her ability to play both sides of the puck is a plus.

Mike Murphy: I am still buzzing about the Whale bringing in Kennedy Marchment. In my opinion, the SDHL has been on the same level as the post-PWHPA PHF for the last few years in terms of overall talent, competition, and entertainment value. And Marchment has been scorching the score sheets of the SDHL for the past three seasons, averaging a sizzling 1.77 points for Linköping and HV71. Oh, and Marchment is still only 24 — her best hockey is still ahead of her. She will be a staple in the Whale’s top-six and is a skilled forward they can build their offense and their PP around. Buckle up.

Anne Tokarski: After watching a bit of Emilie Harley in the NCAA with Robert Morris, I’m really excited to see what she can bring to the ice for the Beauts this season. She’s a big New York native (no, literally, she’s 6’0”. She’s a tall one.) who is extremely versatile, and she can put up numbers no matter what position head coach Rhea Coad decides to utilize her at.

Holly Morrison: Like Mike, I’m also very excited about an SDHL signing. Michela Cava absolutely tore it up in Sweden and and there’s no reason to believe that she won’t bring the same level of offense to the Toronto Six. She has the kind of confidence and skill that makes her a really fun and dynamic player to watch.

Leighann Strollo: I’m excited to see what Catherine Crawley can add as an addition to her hometown team. She had an impressive career at UConn, posting 83 points and wearing an ‘A’ her senior year. I very much thought she would join the Whale straight out of college, bout of course, COVID happened so after a year off, she will finally be back on the Connecticut ice and I can’t wait. Also, I can’t move on without shamelessly saying Abby Cook, who was one of my favorite defenders to watch in college. On a stacked team like Boston, I don’t know that she will stick out too much but make no mistake, she will have an impact.

Returner to watch

Angelica Rodriguez: Autumn MacDougall stood out during her brief stint in Lake Placid, and her speed and transitional ability will definitely help Buffalo get some dirty goals. The Beauts’ net presence was an issue last season, and while AuttieMac is small, she still packs a lot of heat with a quick release and instinct for the net. I’m excited to see what she can do with a full season and a boost in the form of fellow former Panda Kennedy Ganser (who’s already making an impact during exhibition games).

Mike Murphy: I think the Rivs are going to need a huge season out of Kendall Cornine. At this stage in her career, Cornine is an All-Star center and an established goal-scoring center. With Leary out of the picture, the Rivs will need her to step up and take her game to yet another level. A lot of that will come down to who is playing on Cornine’s wings at evens. I also expect her to be the Rivs’ target on the power play but I am still not sure who will have the puck at the point with Morse and Dosdall-Arena out of the picture. I think we are going to see Cornine put a lot of rubber on net this year with some added pressure on her to produce and light the lamp.

Anne Tokarski: After scoring the first goal in franchise history for the Toronto Six in Lake Placid, I think Lindsay Eastwood is going to have a big (haha, get it, because she’s six feet tall) season for the PHF’s only Canadian squad. Eastwood had a remarkable career at Syracuse prior to playing professionally, and I think that this season will be a breakout year for the defender’s pro career. The Six are going to rely on her to step up and lead the blue line while also producing offense and making plays.

Holly Morrison: I am a lifelong passenger on the Carly Jackson hype train (and not just because she has the best hair in hockey right now). CJ faced a truly ridiculous amount of shots in Lake Placid and finished the tournament with a .909 Sv%, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that the Beauts managed to get blown out just about every game. All signs pointing towards brighter days in Buffalo for Season 7, and I think Jackson is going to be a huge part of that.

Leighann Strollo: I love a good revenge tour and I think Cailey Hutchison will give us just that with the Whale this year after not returning to the Riveters. She has always been a gritty, playmaking player who doesn’t get enough credit but she is certainly due for a breakout season and some flashy goals. I can’t wait.

Storyline to watch

Angelica Rodriguez: It’s a tale of two comebacks — those of Shannon Turner and Elena Orlando, that is. Both retired after the past season, then announced their comebacks in separate press releases within the last month. Turner (nee Doyle) returned to her one and only team, the Connecticut Whale, while Orlando took Lisa Chesson’s place on the Beauts blueline. It’s clear each wants one more stab at winning Izzy, and with the rosters for both teams being loaded at this point, it’ll be fascinating to see who gets there this year.

Mike Murphy: I just wanted to say that I love Angie’s answer. It speaks volumes about what the Beauts and Whale have done to lure two players out of retirement for one more adventure in pursuit of the Isobel Cup.

With that said, my storyline to watch this year is what the ESPN+ broadcasting deal means to the league and, even more importantly, to the players and the fans of the PHF and women’s hockey. Something tells me a lot of fans are going to miss Twitch but will be happy to see the standard of production for broadcasts raised under ESPN. For the players, this means more exposure and, hopefully, a lot more. This is a big deal and we don’t know as much about it as I would like. Hopefully, that changes as the season gets underway.

Anne Tokarski: Yeah, I’m going to give this one to Angelica because she nailed exactly what I was thinking. It’ll be so weird to see Orlando in a different uniform this year, but I know she’ll be a great addition to the Beauts’ locker room and make a huge impact for them on the ice. To the same effect, the return of Shannon Turner to the Connecticut blue line brings the Whale from a difficult competitor to a serious contender. There’s something ineffable about the way that Turner leads on and off the ice, and I think her long-awaited return might be the final piece to the puzzle for the Whale.

Holly Morrison: Like Mike, there’s a lot of off-ice organizational storylines (sorry about that, Sport Management major brain is hard to turn off). The ESPN+ deal combined with the shift to an independent ownership model and the rebrand makes Season 7 key when it comes to the growth and trajectory of the PHF.

Leighann Strollo: Angelica definitely said it best but to narrow in even closer on the Whale, I really do think it’s their year. The story of the last Founding Four team to work their way to an Isobel Cup win after six years of being the underdog. I can already see the ESPN+ branded celebration video in my head.

Dark Horse

Angelica Rodriguez: The Whale have been in stealth mode all offseason, and although they have lost a few of their key players, the look of their roster right now should have teams concerned. Not only did they gain back their longtime blueliner in Turner, but they’ve added another strong vet in Rebecca Morse, plus Taylor Marchin, Hanna Beattie, and Tori Howran on the back end to protect Abbie Ives. On the forward lines, Cailey Hutchison joins the Pod, joining returner Alyssa Wohlfeiler and free agent offensive juggernaut Kennedy Marchment. If they can get clicking quick, they’ll definitely be a threat to longtime frontrunners like Boston and Minnesota.

Mike Murphy: I think I have underrated what the Whitecaps are capable of every year they have been in the PHF (NWHL). I don’t want to make that mistake again but it would be a stretch to call the team, as a whole, a dark horse. We all expect them to be a top team in 2021-22. So, I’ll specifically highlight the Whitecaps’ offense. It would be easy to temper expectations after the loss of Amanda Boulier and Nina Rodgers, but have you seen who the Whitecaps have added? Schammel is back. Brykaliuk, Woken, Marshall, and Langei are all new additions and we are still waiting on the rest of the roster. Also, Thunstrom is healthy, Morrison (Richards) will be burying pucks again, and Curtis remains the most underrated star in the league (in my opinion). I think this offense is comfortably inside the top-three in the league.

Anne Tokarski: There’s a high likelihood that we see another repeat Isobel Cup champion this year — whether it’s the Whitecaps, who, like Mike mentioned, have brought back some huge names like Nicole Schammel and Allie Thunstrom, along with the additions of Alex Woken, Patti Marshall, and Mak Langei to the blue line, or any of the other three previous champions. That being said, my vote for this season’s dark horse is definitely the Whale. They’ve historically been the underdogs in the PHF-NWHL, so seeing them make some dangerous moves this off-season is extremely promising.

Holly Morrison: It’s definitely the Whale. They’re the only founding four team without a cup and they’ve struggled in the past. They’ve got new ownership, new players and a familiar face returning for one more season in beloved captain, Shannon Turner. This is a “go for it,” year for the Whale, and they’ve got all the pieces to make it a successful one.

Leighann Strollo: It seems like we are all on the Whale train (as we should be) but I’m going to throw a curveball here and say the Six. It seems like we’ve had them for so long at this point because it’s been almost two years since the team was formed but in reality we’ve only seen them play six games ever. Truly, we still don’t know what we’re going to get and for that I’m calling them a dark horse.

Who will win the Isobel Cup?

Angelica Rodriguez: Honestly, the parity in this league is beautiful to see — we really noticed it during the shortened season in Lake Placid, and we’re noticing it more with each signing and exhibition game. It’s hard to count out Boston, who just continue building a great roster each year; however, I wouldn’t count out upstarts like Connecticut or Buffalo in the slightest. Connecticut has done a great job of building from the net outward over the past few seasons, while Buffalo seems to finally be getting its legs under them post-Pegula ownership. Then there are the Rivs, who will have a lot to prove after withdrawing from LP, and of course, the Whitecaps who pose a threat every year. Finally, we have sophomores the Toronto Six, who have some incredible goaltending and always dangerous offensive firepower. To me, it’s a toss-up.

Mike Murphy: I am buying into the hype — let’s go Whale.

The team that Laura Brennan helped build before she stepped down is so full of potential and talent. The return of Turner will have a huge impact on the ice and in the locker room for this club. I am not here saying you should bet against the Pride. But I am here to say you can bet on the Whale and feel good about it. They are underdogs no longer. Connecticut is ready for its first Isobel Cup.

Anne Tokarski: I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the Whitecaps are winning their second ever Isobel Cup. I feel like the team is often overlooked just because of how consistent they are and how far away from the rest of the teams, geographically, they are, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some serious firepower. Like Mike and I mentioned before, they’ve made some impressive additions to their blue line and brought back their leading scorers. The Cup is the State of Hockey’s to lose.

Holly Morrison: Am I manifesting what I want to happen? Maybe a little bit, but... Whale, all the way.

They might not be the favourites, but they have a real chance based on the moves they’ve made so far. They’re contenders no matter what, but what puts them over the edge is Shannon Turner. Turner believed in this Whale team enough to go back on last season’s decision to retire, you’ve got to think everyone on that team wants to win it for her.

Leighann Strollo: I can’t not say the Whale, right? Even if it’s out of sheer heart and hunger alone, I really think they can do it this year. At the very least, it will be the closest they ever come.