(Photo: Melissa Burgess)
The NWHL's Connecticut Whale looked like a pretty different team heading into the league's second season.
Their first captain, Jessica Koizumi, hung up her skates to pursue a coaching career at Ohio State. Their assistant captain, Kaleigh Fratkin, signed with New York over the summer.
Also gone: their leading scorer, Shiann Darkangelo, who signed with Buffalo in the offseason, and goaltender Jamie Leonoff, who would miss the entire season after undergoing surgery to repair a hip injury.
With that, before the puck even dropped on their sophomore season, the Whale were missing a few of their key players. Though they still had offensive powerhouses like Kelli Stack, Kelly Babstock, and Molly Engstrom (at least in the beginning), a void remained.
It's a little easier to understand, then, how the Whale went from a 13-5-0-0 record in their first season to a 5-12-1 record in their second season.
Connecticut opened their season with a 5-4 loss to the Beauts, but proceeded to win the next two games against New York and Buffalo, as they outscored their opponents 11-7. Then, they went on a three-game losing streak that included being shut out twice.
After two more wins, the Whale found themselves in second place in the NWHL, eight points back of the Pride.
That would be the turning point of the season, as the Whale would drop eight consecutive games between December 18 and February 24. This period also included the departure of Engstrom to Sweden in late December, which put another absence in Connecticut's already depleted lineup.
Heading into their last two games, the Whale were still in a position to reach third place in the league, but they needed to win out over Buffalo. Though they defeated the Beauts on February 26, a bye week followed by a loss to Buffalo in the regular season finale put them at the bottom of the NWHL.
That left the Whale to fend for themselves against the reigning champs, the Boston Pride, in the Isobel Cup semifinal. Ultimately, the Pride looked like they belonged in the playoffs, topping the Whale 8-2 and ending their season. This is the second straight year that the Whale were eliminated in the semifinal, after losing to Buffalo last year.
Although their roster had changed significantly from the team's first season, the Whale's front office was much more stable. While they went through three general managers in the first season, this season saw only one: Lisa Giovanelli, who also acted as assistant coach for the second straight year. Heather Linstad also returned as head coach.
In the end, the Whale were at their best this season against the Beauts, against whom they went 3-3. They went 2-3-1 against the Riveters and 0-6 versus the dominant Pride (0-7 if you include the semifinal).
Looking deeper at some of the stats, Connecticut was by and large a first-period team, more so than any other team in the league. Nearly half of their goals (26) came in the first period. But they often struggled to hold on, allowing the most goals-against in both the second and third periods (29 each).
The Whale had a league-low nine power-play goals, scoring on just 13.8 percent of their opportunities. They also had a league-worst penalty kill, having allowed 18 power-play goals against -- a 76.3 percent PK.
With Leonoff out, Nicole Stock and Shenae Lundberg stepped up to split the goaltending duties. Neither was particularly spectacular, as Stock had a 4.07 GAA and Lundberg a 4.30.
While the Whale lost some key players, they gained a new one in rookie forward Haley Skarupa. Acquired over the offseason from the Riveters, Skarupa stepped right into the professional league, notching a hat trick in her debut.
She continued to be an offensive powerhouse throughout the season and led the team with 22 points (11-11). As a new piece of the puzzle, she was joined by fellow leaders Kelli Babstock (10-9) and Kelli Stack (12-7), who each registered 19 points. Nicole Kosta also potted a respectable 17 points in her rookie season.
When all was said and done, two Whale players earned awards following the season. Elena Orlando was Connecticut's winner for the NWHL Foundation Award, while Anya Battaglino was voted by fans as one of the Three Stars of the Season. Battaglino appeared in five games during the season, but often appeared on game broadcasts, did work in the community, and was named Director of the NWHL Players' Association.
The biggest question going into next season for the Whale is about Leonoff. Her status is uncertain at this point -- it was originally reported only that she would miss the entire 2016-2017 season. If she does return in goal, that will be a huge development for Connecticut.
Of course, there's also the underlying questions of salaries for the NWHL going forward, and how this year's pay cuts mid-season may influence some players in terms of returning to the league. In addition, the impending Olympic year will leave a lot of open slots on league teams.
Considering that Connecticut seems to have found some front-office stability, it'll be an interesting offseason to see just who they pick up and where they stand as they head into the NWHL's third season.