Shannon Doyle said she was likely to retire after the sixth NWHL season, and though the offseason into season seven doesn’t have a clear free agency start yet, the Connecticut Whale are going to have to start thinking about how to build their defense.
The Whale have never had a blue line where Doyle, their captain, wasn’t leading it.
Connecticut has been the basement dweller of the NWHL since season one. In Lake Placid, they played some of their best hockey ever, including the defense in front of rookie goalie Abbie Ives.
Then, they lost 7-0 to the Whitecaps in the Isobel Cup semifinals. There’s plenty of reason why, but one look at Minnesota’s shot chart shows a clear issue.
The Whitecaps easily scored underneath the circles and in front of the crease. Minnesota is fast and they can make a lot of defenses look rough, but since the Whale are already likely losing Doyle, this seems like an obvious issue to address.
This offseason is particularly tough since as of now, no one has any idea who is eligible for the draft. Coaches within the league have said “95%” of college seniors are returning for another year. So the idea of adding defense in the draft who can step in and play isn’t terribly reliable.
Free agency hasn’t been announced yet either, but if it’s like any other year, everyone is up for grabs if they want to play there. Connecticut historically hasn’t landed huge free agents, but given what they’ve started to build, and roster spots being filled primarily where they’d contend for players — Boston and Metropolitan — perhaps there’s more leeway.
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For players likely to return, though, there are some building blocks.
Tori Howran was one of Connecticut’s strongest rookies, and she projects to be a terrific defender long term at the pro level. She’s a candidate to see even more time going forward and be relied upon as a defensive leader. The 22-year-old had three points in her four games to begin her Whale career, where she averaged over nearly 23 minutes of ice time per game.
Elena Orlando is the Whale’s most senior player without Doyle, as an original NWHLer herself. The 28-year-old defender doesn’t sound like she’s ready to retire just yet, so it’s probably a safe bet she will return next season.
She averaged just over 15 minutes on the ice this season, averaging a minute and a half on the penalty kill when she was out there. She’d be a key piece to that part of the game going forward.
Hanna Beattie would be going into her fifth season with the Whale, after she averaged two minutes on the penalty kill per game and more than 20 minutes total. A Division III player in college at Williams, she’s carved out a solid NWHL career for herself as a top four defender with the Whale. She often played with Doyle until Howran took that position this season.
Taylor Marchin, going into her fourth season, has also been a stay-at-home defender the Whale have needed, with 61 percent of her time coming in the defensive zone, with some strong zone entry ability, too.
That leaves Maggie LaGue, who played her first four career NWHL games this season, and Laurel Hill, who has been the seventh defender for the Whale the past two seasons.
They need some more depth, especially without Doyle, but the top four is a solid mix. Orlando is a veteran leader and potentially the next captain. Beattie has become one of the most solid defenders in the league, and Marchin has continued to improve, while Howran has a ton of upside.
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Even with LaGue and Hill, if they return, they likely need another piece. If that comes from the draft, it’s impossible to project.
The Whale haven’t drafted defense too often, either; last year they selected just Howran at defense. In 2018, they selected LaGue and Dominique Kremer, who signed with Buffalo after going to the SDHL and never playing a game with the Whale. The year prior, they drafted entirely forwards. They had bad luck losing Amanda Boulier, too, who went to the Whitecaps when she got a coaching job in Minnesota.
It’s tough to project who might be available or looking to switch teams. Briana Mastel on Boston is from Connecticut and there might be a squeeze on the Boston defense, but she’s also been an integral part when she does play. The Riveters also might see a roster shakeup that leaves a few defenders available, but it’s still impossible to predict. It’s going to be a challenging offseason all around, being an Olympic year and potentially more PWHPA lineup spots opening, and a difficult college draft. For teams with definitive need, even more so.
It’s not going to be easy to replace their captain in Doyle. It probably won’t be possible. The Whale have some building blocks on defense but a long way to go, and it’s going to be a challenge for the front office to piece it together.
Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.