Developing blue lines and key unsigned defenders of the NWHL

 

Before the most recent signings by the Buffalo Beauts, only eight blue-liners had committed to an NWHL team for the fall. Here is a look at the current defenders for each team, courtesy of Mike Murphy of FanRag Sports.

Each team has some holes on the blue line to fill. The good news is that there are still some impressive free agents on the market that could improve any team.

Connecticut Whale: 5/6 defenders signed

It is unsurprising that Connecticut signed the most defenders for the third season. The team fell into last place despite having the second-highest scoring offense in the league. Shannon Doyle, Cydney Roesler, Elena Orlando and Anya Battaglino return to the Whale. Both Orlando and Battaglino are capable of playing forward as well.

Roesler led all Whale defenders in blocked shots (18) and was one of three defenders for Connecticut to score a goal. Doyle returns to the roster for “the Pod” after being a practice player last season due to other commitments. She tied for first among Whale defenders in points (seven assists) last season.

New addition Rachel Ade helped Vermont to its first two Hockey East semifinal appearances.  In her final season with the UVM, she tallied 14 points (seven goals, seven assists). As its stands, the Whale won’t get much goal scoring from the returning defenders.  Connecticut will have a new coach, so its prospects will rely on what Ryan Equale draws up for the team.

New York Riveters: 2/6 defenders

The Riveters return captains Ashley “Stretch” Johnston and Kiira Dosdall to the team.  Both women are eager to see things through as remnants of a thinning group of original Riveters. As of this week, Dosdall and Johnston are the only defenders on the roster. It should be noted that Johnston will be coming off an offseason injury.

It's how you handle adversity, not how it handles you #digdeep

A post shared by Ashley Johnston (@strettyit) on

The All-Star broke her left foot and is sporting a hard cast for the next several weeks. However, Johnston is optimistic she will be ready in the fall.

“This is definitely better than a hip (injury),” Johnston said in a phone interview, referring to a surgery she had last offseason. Johnston will be in a cast for a few weeks and then begin rehab to prepare for the season.

The Riveters focused on building a strong defense last season, bringing in Michelle Picard (26 blocked shots) and Courtney Burke (11 points).  Surprisingly, the team has not secured Burke or Picard from last season. Another surprise omission is No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Koelzer. Chad Wiseman made NWHL history by signing Koelzer immediately after her NCAA season concluded. Ironically, Koelzer earned the least action of the three college seniors (Mary Parker, Haley Scamurra) who made their pro debuts last season.

Buffalo Beauts: 4/6 defenders

The re-signing of Lisa Chesson brings an elite veteran to a team heavily hit by retirement and USA Hockey centralization. Jordyn Burns, Sarah Casorso and Kayla Parsons all return for their sophomore seasons in the league. Casorso posted the third-most blocked shots for the team (11), behind only Paige Harrington and Megan Bozek. She also added seven assists to her stat line. Parsons and Burns played supportive roles for Buffalo last year.

Absent from Buffalo this season are USWNT members Megan Bozek (and the Boz-Blast) and Emily Pfalzer. Including the playoffs, Bozek tallied 10 points with Buffalo last season (seven goals, seven assists), as well as 23 blocked shots, meaning the rest of the defense will have some big shoes to fill. Pfalzer has worn the captain’s C for the Beauts since their inception, and her leadership, skating, and positional versatility will be badly missed.

Boston Pride: 2/6 defenders

The Pride did well to pick up former Whale defender Kaliya Johnson in the offseason. The Boston College alumna will reunite with college teammate Lexi Bender. Johnson tallied three assists last season, while Bender notched two goals and four assists.

The Pride lost a lot of defenders, including Blake Bolden, who will play with HC Lugano in the fall. Like the Whale, Boston has a new head coach, as former NHL defenseman Thomas Poeck succeeds Bobby Jay in Boston. As the team rebuilds under Poeck, it will be interesting to see if the Pride stick to their swarming offensive approach. Boston has eight of a possible nine forwards inked, so we will see soon what the 2016 Isobel Cup Champions decide to do on offense.

Blue line free agents

Overall, more NWHL defenders contributed on offense last season. Among the four teams, defenders scored 30 goals in the 2015-16 season.  That number improved to 34 last year, mostly due to a 10-goal swing by the Riveters’ blue line. However, few Riveter defenders have been re-signed.

Connecticut and Buffalo would benefit most from an offensive defender. Given the current rosters, both teams will need to replace offense lost to centralization.

As of yet, the Riveters have not picked up Courtney Burke. A lower-body injury limited some of Burke’s numbers. However, in 13 games, she posted the most points (3-8-11) for Riveters’ blueliners. She also tallied six power-play points, the most of any defender in the league. If Burke is available, it is unlikely the Riveters will pass on her. However, if she is available, Connecticut would do well to inquire.

Wiseman experimented with Kaleigh Fratkin as a forward last season with mixed results. Fratkin could be a huge asset to an NWHL team, but she is not likely to return to Connecticut or New York. The Canadian went to Boston University, so a return to Beantown is possible.

Kelsey Koelzer is a talented player who got a look from USA Hockey as recently as April.As a senior, she was a Patty Kazmaier top-10 finalist and posted an even 100 points (39G, 61A) throughout her Princeton career. It would be a shame if she doesn’t find her way onto an NWHL roster.

Finally, both Alyssa Gagliardi and Picard should be priorities for the Pride and Riveters, respectively. Both bring an unassuming attitude to the game while contributing at a high rate. Gagliardi earned a 16 plus-minus score, including the playoffs.  Picard had a league best in blocked shots (26). She was second ranked in even-strength points by a defender, and racked up only four penalty minutes in 18 games.

Honorable mentions are Paige Harrington (Buffalo) and Milica McMillen (New York).  The league has more than enough talented defenders on the market. Now we will wait to see where they land.

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