Pre-Season Preview: Boston Blades

Boston Blades

The Blades finished second in the league last season, with 26 points on a 24-game season. This is quite a bit behind league leader Montreal, who finished with 42 in 23 games. It was in the Clarkson Cup tournament, however, that Boston stole the show from Montreal, looking like the clear top dogs — until Toronto upset them in an overtime victory.

Over the course of the last season, Boston had some of the worse special teams in the league, with a power play of 12.61%, and a penalty kill of 83.51%. Their power play is actually a tiny improvement over the previous year, but their penalty kill was a pretty big fall off, as it had been 96.69% in the previous 2012-2013 season. This fall off can probably be laid at the feet of their missing Olympians, particularly the loss at their blue line of Gigi Marvin, Anne Schleper, and Kacey Bellamy. Notably, they also lost Caitlin Cahow, their captain in the 2012/2013 season, first to Team USA before the Olympics and then to retirement from the league. They also lost both of their goaltenders — Geneviève Lacasse to Canada, who started the majority of the 12/13 season and had a .925 SV%, and Molly Schaus to the US, who had an .888 SV%.

While Boston remained one of the stronger teams in the league last year, it was despite a clear loss of some of their core players. They had several players step up to take on this challenge, particularly Jillian Dempsey, who was the 2014 Rookie of the Year, and finished the season 5th in the league for scoring. Brittany Ott, who started most of the games for Boston, was also a rookie in the 2013/2014 season, and in fact lead the league in save percentage, with a .921 SV% over 17 games. Blake Bolden, another 2013 rookie, also stepped up to try and fill that hole on the blue line — she had 19 points in 23 games with the Blades. She was also, however, the most penalized player on the Blades, with 44 PIM, twice as much as the next most penalized player. That’s a bad habit for a player on a team that’s having a harder time killing penalties. Overall, however, Boston was one of the least penalized teams.

So, this is supposed to be a preview of the upcoming 2014/2015 season, not a rehashing of last season–what are the Blades going to look like this year? And the problem is, I’m not quite sure.

Boston is currently without official commitments from Marvin, Schleper, Schaus, and Hilary Knight. On Knight in particular, there’s some speculation that she’s going to be trying out for a Swedish men’s league. Also, Meghan Duggan is going to be an assistant coach with Clarkson, which is six hours at least from Boston. (Or so Google Maps tells me). That’s quite a trek if she’s also going to be playing in Boston. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her time with the Blades greatly reduced, if she’s on the team this season. However, I’m told that Tara Watchorn will be moving to Boston, as her fiancée works there. I’d expect to see her end up on the Blades. Watchorn was very solid for Calgary’s defence, as well as for Canada in Sochi.

Jenny Potter at the 2010 Olympics
Jenny Potter at the 2010 Olympics

Even if the Blades are losing some of their more elite and veteran players, they made moves to address that in this year’s draft. Their first pick overall was Jenny Potter, the 35-year old forward previously of the US National Team and the Minnesota Whitecaps. She actually won the Clarkson Cup with the Whitecaps in the 2009/2010 season, making her a member of the unofficial Triple Gold Club, with the 1998 Olympic gold, the Clarkson cup, and gold in the Women’s World Championships. I’m actually a little surprised to see Potter go to the CWHL — I had thought she was focusing more on coaching these days.

Monique Lameroux while at the University of North Dakota
Monique Lameroux while at the University of North Dakota

With their second pick, the Blades picked up Monique Lamoureux, of Team USA and University of North Dakota. She’s listed by Team USA as a forward, but North Dakota lists her as D/F — I’ll be interested in seeing how that shakes out in Boston. She was often right behind her twin sister Jocelyne for scoring leader in North Dakota, and I’d expect her to bring that to Boston. She’s a very physical forward who likes to crash the net, but I’ll be honest — I’ve mostly seen her play for Team USA, and I’ve never seen her without her sister. Let’s hope they’re not as much like the Sedins as they’re painted, and can be just as good without each other.

Another excellent forward from Team USA, Boston picked Brianna Decker in the third round. She was the 2012 Patty Kazmaier winner while with the Wisconsin Badgers. In her last two years with them, she finished first in points for the team — ahead of both Carolyne Prevost and Hilary Knight, I’d like to point out. 🙂 Her first two years, she finished in the top three.

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Decker at the 2011 Women's Worlds. Photo by Becaro.
Decker at the 2011 Women’s Worlds. Photo by Becaro.

 

Boston took the most players in the draft, with 19 players in total drafted. The number is so high due to the geographical constraints of players having to live and have a job near their team.

Boston is going to be DEEP AS HELL next year. We don’t know exactly who they’re going to have, between uncertain commitments and the fact that you can only roster 25 players. Based on how we’ve seen their defense fumble when they’ve had major personnel disruptions, I’d suspect their blue line is going to have some friction coming together, particularly if Gigi Marvin doesn’t come back. It’s always been my impression that the Blades’ defense was largely built around Marvin. However, I’m hopeful that the added veteran presence will smooth out their transition, and Digit Murphy is a good coach who will hopefully be able to re-mold them into a cohesive team. I’d expect them to remain strong in the league, but I’m also anticipating early season struggles, on the ice even if not on the league board. I think their goalies are good enough to shore up a rough defense, but that’s not a long-term solution.

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EDIT: According to a September 16th USA Hockey article, Duggan intends to continue playing for Boston while coaching at Clarkson.

Pre-Season Preview: Brampton Thunder

Brampton Thunder

Brampton ended last season bottom of the league. They had 13 points on a 24 game season, with only five wins to their name, the most penalty minutes of any team, and their starting goaltender had the worst save percentage in the league. It was kind of rough.

But! New season coming up, new players, new chances to address those issues and improve!

Laura Fortino
Laura Fortino, first pick of the 2014 CWHL Draft

Brampton had this year’s first overall pick, and chose Laura Fortino, a defense from the Canadian Olympic team. Fortino won silver at the 2013 Women’s World Championship, and gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Fortino assisted on Marie-Philip Poulin’s heartbreaker of a game winning goal in overtime against the US in the final match. Fortino played for Cornell University in college, where, in her freshman season, she lead all NCAA defense in scoring, and later was named to the First Team All-American and was a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier. Fortino was the only defense that Brampton picked up in the draft, and I’d expect to see her make an impact.

Four players were drafted from last year’s NCAA champ Clarkson, including Jamie Lee Rattray, the 2014 Patty Kaz winner. All but Vanessa Gagnon went to Brampton– Gagnon went to Montreal. Interestingly, this includes Erica Howe, the former starting goaltender for Clarkson, who had a .941 SV% over 41 games and who lead the league in her senior year. Brampton has mostly been starting Sonja van der Bliek, who was drafted in 2013. van der Bliek had a SV% of .883 over 18 games in the 2013-2014 season. For reference, in van der Bliek’s senior year at Rensselaer, she had a .893 save percentage over 32 games. While we don’t know exactly how Howe is going to adapt to the CWHL, nor do we know how the goaltenders are going to be deployed, I would expect to see Howe steal the starter position. Depending on how the defense in front of her sorts out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Howe leading the league at the end of this next season. Going to be interesting to see how that situation sorts out.

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Last season, Brampton was bottom of the league in their penalty kill– picking up a stud defense and improving their goaltending are big steps to try and correct that. But according to the work Mike Burse has done with the CWHL Stats program, the power play is actually the more valuable of the special teams, in the sense that it correlates to more team wins. Even more valuable is shots on goal (and goals), and Brampton didn’t skimp on any of these needs.

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As I mentioned, Brampton drafted Jamie Lee Rattray, the 2014 Patty Kaz winner, with their second pick. Rattray was also Clarkson’s all time leading scorer, with 70 goals, 100 assists in four years, 138 games with Clarkson. She was also the NCAA Women’s Scoring Champion for 2013-2014, and led in power play goals particularly. My one concern with Rattray is her penalty minutes. She had 53 PIMs this last season with Clarkson, just behind Gagnon for the team lead. I don’t have a real feel for why Rattray had such high PIMs, not having watched her play a lot, but it could be a problem for Brampton, already a highly penalized team.

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I was slightly surprised to see Rattray fall to the second round– I had rather expected her to go like hot cakes. The other Clarkson forward that Brampton drafted isn’t any slouch either– Carly Mercer was 13th in league scoring with 14 goals, 31 assists.

Overall, I think Brampton picked up some really good pieces. I’m hopeful that between van der Bliek and Howe, and improving their blue line with Fortino, Brampton can get their “getting scored on a lot” situation more under control. They picked up a crop of good forwards who appear to have a great chance to get started on the other half of winning at hockey, the “scoring a lot on the other team” part. I don’t know that Brampton will be winning the Clarkson Cup next May, but if the team can put their new pieces together with their existing team and maybe calm down on the penalties, I think they’re going to be a lot better. It’s a five-team league– better is all you need to go to the Clarkson Cup tournament. 🙂