One year ago today, the Metropolitan Riveters won the 2018 Isobel Cup Championship. It’s been over a week since the Riveters fell 5-1 to the eventual 2019 Isobel Cup champions in the semifinals. What a difference a year makes.
The 2018-19 season was quite the roller coaster for the Metropolitan Riveters. After inspiring a loyal fan base with an overall 15-3-1 record, the franchise barely matched its inaugural regular season record of 4-12-0 this year.
“For players like Miye [D’Oench] and some of the other players who maybe haven’t publicly announced their retirement … my heart breaks for those guys. They deserved a hell of a lot better than they got this year and they didn’t get it,” an emotional Madison Packer said after her fourth NWHL season came to a close in Minnesota last Friday.
It’s been puzzling to watch the Riveters stumble. While they are not the same team as last year, on paper they were expected win more than four regular season games. So, why the struggles?
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The story of the season has without a doubt been the replacement of head coach Chad Wiseman with Randy Velischek. From a media perspective, Wiseman was professional in interviews, but not very revealing. Games and practices were the best way to get a sense for how he and the team operated.
Wiseman knew how to get top performance from his players. He was often described as someone who knew when to push his players, like when he bag skated the team in season two. Yet, he was also knew when his players needed to reset. He once pulled Katie Fitzgerald for roughly 34 seconds in a game against Connecticut after she let in three first period goals. The Riveters went on to win 8-6 and Fitzgerald stopped 22-25 shots upon re-entering the game.
By comparison, Velischek came across as more comfortable with the media, but his comments when compared to his actions were misleading. At times, the mastery of his team and its potential left much to be desired.
Forward lines didn’t fall into place until late in the season and defensive pairings on special teams and even at full strength were puzzling. Velischek often claimed to make decisions on “merit”. However, even his merit systems were difficult to follow.
Impact players from last year like D’Oench, 2018 Defender of the Year Courtney Burke, Kelly Nash, and 2018 Isobel Cup Final MVP Katie Fitzgerald were left off the roster as healthy scratches throughout the season despite the team being desperate for a win. All this was perhaps overlooked because the use of his (eventual) four goalies was most inconsistent of all.
At a time when the team had yet to establish a set rotation or leader in the crease, Russian goalie Mariya Sorokina was traded to the Riveters from the Whale for “future considerations”. She instantly started upon arriving in New Jersey and backstopped the team in a the 6-3 win over Connecticut on January 6. She started the next game in Buffalo until being pulled for Fitzgerald on January 12 in Buffalo.
While there seemed to be reason Sorokina was unable or unwilling to stay in Connecticut, it was an odd trade for a team Velischek insisted needed more scoring options. It is also worth noting that the trade left Connecticut short a goalie after their starter Meeri Raisanen sustained a season-ending injury.
The inability to define and sustain on-ice chemistry seemingly resulted in a steep decline in productivity for the Riveters this season. Of 11 returning skaters, all underperformed their offensive output from last season. The top five scorers from last season (Alexa Gruschow-22 pts, Courtney Burke-19 pts, Madison Packer-18 pts, Rebecca Russo-17 points, Jenny Ryan-16 pts) dipped in performance at a 37% clip. Of the five, only Packer hit double-digits (8 goals, 5 assists, 13 points).
As a team, the Riveters underperformed by nearly 50%, per Game Score. Although questionable coaching decisions don’t deserve to be discounted, neither does individual or team efforts.
To begin, there is a reason former head coach Chad Wiseman chose to bag skate his team. The team has lacked of focus and discipline at times. Although the Riveters in the past three seasons have improved in talent, there is always a need to refocus and establish a professional culture
“I don’t know if we necessarily were working as hard as we could at the beginning of the year and I think we’re figuring out that every team in this league is really good, and some are more talented than others,” said Amanda Kessel after the 6-3 win over Connecticut in January.
The Riveters seemed to hit rock bottom when they fell to Boston 8-1 at home on Presidents’ Day. The next day, the team held a players-only practice. Sources close to the team indicated players-only team meetings also took place around this time. By the next ice session, a general manager of sorts was added.
An NWHL representative began working closely with the team as of Thursday, February 21. The staffer traveled with the team for their final trip to Buffalo and attended team practices for the remainder of the season. The staffer was referred to as ‘general manager’ by coaches and players.
The team also added an additional assistant coach, Terry Watt, with one game left in the season. After these changes, Fitzgerald was chosen as the starting goalie, forward lines were reestablished, and the team was provided post-practice meals.
Following the personnel changes, the team earned a 4-3 shootout win over the second place Buffalo Beauts in the regular season finale. The Riveters continued to roll with a 5-2 win over the Connecticut Whale for a play-in playoff game on March 7.
Whatever momentum was established following the first consecutives wins for the Riveters since last year was endangered after 30 hours of travel delays en route to Minnesota for the semifinals. In addition to being mentally and physically draining, the delays led to some logistical nightmares for the league and its players.
The league rescheduled the semifinal for the following Friday so the Isobel Cup Final could be played two days later. However, the change in schedule left three players unable to travel for Friday’s semifinal and still others likely in a tough position with their employers.
Neither Kimberly Sass nor Kelsey Koelzer was available to travel for a Friday evening game because of work. Kelly Nash was also unavailable due to her commitments to Princeton Women’s Ice Hockey.
Coming up short
Despite the disappointments of not finishing out the season with their entire team, the game went on. The Riveters came out of the gate aggressive. They deployed a strong forecheck on Friday as a means to disrupt the speed of the Minnesota Whitecaps.
“We watched one of the last games [the Whitecaps] played and Boston did a good job of neutralizing their speed, especially through the neutral zone, and honestly I thought we did everything we needed to do but put the puck in the net,” said Velisheck after the 5-1 loss to Minnesota in the semifinals.
The Riveters equaled the Whitecaps in shots in the second period and took two penalties throughout the first 40 minutes. Yet, the Whitecaps still took a 3-0 into the final 20 minutes. In the the third period, things fell apart for the Riveters. The defending champions were booked for three more penalties while the Whitecaps added two empty net goals.
“Things got a little out of hand in the third with the number of penalties that were called. You never want to look at the referees, but from our perspective, we certainly don’t feel like we got a lot of breaks” said Velischek.
The defeat was tough for the Riveters in part because of coaching inconsistencies all season. But also because the team sensed all year they were capable of more. However, it is also worth noting the league got stronger.
This season, the league hosted 12 Olympians from four different countries. Combined, these athletes own 18 Olympic medals. Additionally, the Minnesota Whitecaps are an expansion team that has been around for 15 years. That is almost as many seasons as the NWHL founding four teams combined.
Last year, the Riveters had what the Whitecaps had, a solid leadership core. Six original Riveters including Wiseman and athletic trainer Ashley Robbins hoisted the Isobel Cup last season. This year, Kiira Dosdall and Madison Packer were the only original Riveters on the roster, though another 13 Riveters returned to the roster (including Kessel who was away last year for the 2018 Winter Olympics).
Next season, how many returning players can the Riveters recruit? Only time will tell, but we know the Riveters will be without at least one key player.
The Final Act
While others have yet to confirm their plans, D’Oench has most definitely finished her playing career. When reflecting on her time with the Riveters, the Stanford Law bound forward was nothing but grateful, “I’ve done a lot of reflecting this week, knowing this would be my last weekend no matter what,” said a tearful D’Oench.
“So, you know, looking back, it was a really fun and exciting career. It’s been … I’m just really grateful, is the bottom line. And, it’s obviously emotional.”
Even if D’Oench wasn’t going to law school, she would still have to contemplate her future. NWHL players sign one-year contracts, meaning all players are free agents at the close of the season. Only three former Riveters (Elena Orlando, Celeste Brown, and Kaleigh Fratkin) have ever signed with a different team in the offseason. Under Wiseman, four former Beauts (Tatiana Rafter, Harrison Browne, Kristin Lewicki, and Kimberly Sass) signed as free agents with the Riveters.
Wiseman helped re-sign and recruit the 2018-19 New Jersey roster. It will be interesting to see who handles recruitment for the team this offseason. Prior to last season the league switched the leadership structure, effectively making all head coaches responsible for recruitment. However, if Velishek required league assistance down the stretch, will the step-in general manager recruit players? Will Velischek or any of the other coaches be retained?
Needless to say, there are several questions that need to be answered this offseason for the Riveters. As for Packer, she expects to play next season. But, if she does, will she be the only remaining original Riveter? Will she become the fourth player to sign elsewhere?
Can the Riveters land their first overall draft pick (and newly minted NCAA National Champion) Annie Pankowski?
Next season will also marks the third and final season of the existing “strategic alliance” between the Riveters and the Devils. Needless to say, this is an important offseason for the New Jersey-based team.