The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is coming off one of the most exciting years in the league’s history. The Toronto Furies won the Clarkson Cup over the Boston Blades. Yes, a Toronto hockey team not only won a championship, they did so with a dramatic 1-0 overtime win against defending champs Boston in the Cup Final. With a variety of players, teams, and scenarios to look forward to in 2014-15 season, the CWHL hopes to capture the attention of the scores of hockey fans who were so captivated by the women’s gold medal game during the Sochi Olympics.
The Toronto Furies had moments of brilliance and moments of frustration en route to a .500 record during the regular season. But when push came to shove during the Clarkson Cup, Toronto found another level in their game. Spectacular and at times clutch goaltending from Cristina Kessler, strong defensive play led by Tessa Bonhomme and Britni Smith, and an offensive dynamo fresh off an Olympic Gold Medal in Natalie Spooner, the Furies won their first ever Clarkson Cup Championship. Spooner was a relentless scoring threat, tallying up five points in four Clarkson Cup games, including this shoot-out winner vs. Montreal.
After a roller-coaster season that ended in the ultimate ecstasy, the question is…
Can the Toronto Furies repeat as Clarkson Cup champions?
Pros: The Furies had a very strong CWHL draft, selecting USA Olympian Megan Bozek second overall. Both Bozek and fellow Golden Gopher alumna Kelly Terry should be able to immediately step into the lineup and contribute. The Furies already have some solid core consisting of players like Carolyne Prevost, Kori Chevrie, Jenelle Kohanchuck, Shannon Moulson, and the aforementioned Spooner, Smith, and Bonhomme. Adding the skills of Bozek along the blue-line, and the extra scoring punch in Terry should give the Furies more depth. Repeating as Clarkson Cup Champions is extremely difficult to achieve, but the Furies might just have the core in place to hoist the Cup once again.
Cons: The Toronto Furies are a team that was able to win in 2014 by finding their stride at the right time, and that’s a bit of a concern for me. Let’s not forget that the Furies finished the regular season with a 2-6-2 record in their final 10 games, limping into the Clarkson Cup before eventually finding that championship swagger. While you can’t question the skill, experience, or effort of this group, there is concern in a team that has a tendency to be streaky.
Considering the incredible success the Boston Blades had in 2013 (19 regular season wins and a dominating Clarkson Cup Championship) it would have been virtually impossible for the “Bladies” to replicate the same success the had one year earlier. So it really shouldn’t have been too surprising that Boston had a bit of a drop off in 2014. The Blades did finished second in the regular season with 13 wins, but the 2014 edition of the Blades had challenges in finding continuity and consistency in their lineup. Just three Blades players skated in all 24 games, while only 12 players suited up for 20+ games. I remember a conversation I had with Boston Head Coach Digit Murphy while the Blades were on a road trip in Toronto. It was February and Coach Murphy was talking about a number of things, including the impressive season of star rookie Blake Bolden, but the one topic we discussed in some length were the challenges the team had in finding continuity from game-to-game. In the end, the Blades found that continuity and were one goal away from repeating as Clarkson Cup Champions. The Boston Blades shape up to be a serious Clarkson Cup contender again in 2015, and I’m anticipating a couple of Bladies who could be in for a record setting season.
Can Kelli Stack and Hilary Knight each have 20 goal seasons?
Pros: It’s only happened twice prior in CWHL history and both times with the Montreal Stars, but the dynamic duo of Stack and Knight have a strong chance at becoming just the third recorded group of teammates to score 20 or more goals in a single season. Hillary Knight scored 17 goals and 32 points in her rookie season, and last year she scored 4 goals and 8 points in just 4 games. The former CWHL MVP definitely has the ability to score 20 or more. And Kelli Stack has already proven that she can also light the lamp with regularity. The Cleveland, OH native has only played one full season in the CWHL, which was in 2011-2012 as Stack scored 25 goals and 42 points in 27 games played. Heck, at the 2014 Clarkson Cup the combo of Knight and Stack combined for 12 points in 4 games played. Both of these dynamic talents have definitely have an ability to score 20 or more, and Boston fans should expect both Knight and Stack to have big seasons coming up.
Cons: There is some doubt as to whether or not both Stack and Knight will be back with the Blades this season. Both were integral parts of Team USA at the Sochi Olympics, and both have played a ton of hockey over the past few seasons, so you really can’t fault Stack or Knight if they choose to take the year off. But outside of their physical absence from the team, I don’t see any reason why both Hillary Knight and Kelli Stack can’t each score 20+ goals this season.
The 2013-14 CWHL regular season was actually a record setting one for the Montreal Stars, as the team finished with a .913 winning percentage, the highest in CWHL history. In the end, the success that Montreal enjoyed throughout the regular season was absent in Markham during the 2014 Clarkson Cup. The Stars never found that same swagger when it counted most, and for the first time in three years Montreal wasn’t playing in the Clarkson Cup Final. It’s hard to argue that the Stars aren’t a Cup contender, but it got me wondering what the fate of the 2015 Montreal Stars will be. Will this deeply talented team make a push for another Cup, or are we witnessing the end of a dynasty?
A bitter end to 2014, will the Stars shine or fade in 2015?
Pros: Let’s not kid ourselves; there are some world-class players on the Montreal Stars, including Julie Chu, Caroline Ouellette and 2014 MVP Ann-Sophie Bettez, so it would be foolish to write them off as anything less than a contender.
The Montreal Stars are the closest thing we’ve seen to a dynasty in the CWHL, with 3 Cups and 4 Finals appearances between 2009 and 2013. With that kind of experience and pedigree, you have to consider the Montreal Stars as a perennial favourite.
Cons: The Stars have lost a fairly significant amount of talent over the past 12 months. Meghan Agosta-Marciano has since retired from the team to pursue a career in policing, while the Stars recently traded Hayley Irwin to the Calgary Inferno for future considerations. There are some bright young players with the Stars, like the aforementioned Bettez (26), and Sarah Vaillancourt (29), but the Stars are undoubtedly going through a bit of a transition, a passing of the torch so to speak. Key players like Ouellette (35) and Chu (32) could be eyeing retirement in the coming years.
The Brampton Thunder aren’t exactly accustom to missing the Clarkson Cup playoffs, so last season when Brampton found themselves on the outside looking in, you knew the team would be active in trying to get back into the playoffs. And after giving up a league high 99 goals against, the Thunder knew they had to bolster their defensive depth. In drafting Laura Fortino first overall at the CWHL Draft, the Thunder have certainly given themselves a chance to accomplish both tasks with one dynamic player.
I had the opportunity to chat with Laura shortly after the Thunder picked her first overall, and you can listen to that interview here.
So while there is a renewed sense of optimism within the Brampton dressing-room, can the Thunder be viewed as Cup contenders, or is there still more rebuilding to be done in Brampton?
Are the Brampton Thunder legitimate Clarkson Cup contenders in 2015?
Pros: There’s a saying that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. It certainly seems like Thunder GM Lori Dupuis has adopted that mantra in building this team. The additions of Laura Fortino and Jocelyne Larocque definitely strengthen the defensive core. Lets not forget that Fortino was a point-a-game player with Cornell University Big Red, amassing 133 points in 133 NCAA games. The duo of Larocque and Fortino give the Thunder a top pairing capable of anchoring the blueline with a scoring punch to boot. The Thunder should also get an offensive boost with the return of Vicky Bendus to the lineup.
Cons: Nowhere to go but up from last season, right? Well not necessarily, because Brampton still has some flaws. Scoring goals could still be a problem for Brampton. Tallying just 43 goals for last season, 19 less than Calgary, the Thunder didn’t have a single skater reach double digits in goals scored. Realistically Brampton need to score between 55-75 goals to even be in the playoff picture. And then there’s the depth issue in goal. Sonja van der Bliek really carried the load last year in goal for Brampton, with a league high in minutes played. But Brampton was never able to establish a quality backup option, and that was an issue for the Thunder, as van der Bliek was overworked. Without a doubt Brampton has strengthened their team defense, but the Thunder still lack another goalie capable of playing quality minutes in the CWHL, meaning that Brampton better play defensively tighter in front of Sonja van der Bliek, otherwise she could burnout down the stretch.
The Calgary Inferno was one of the most interesting teams from the 2014 CWHL season. After the first ten games the Inferno had just three wins, but a strong second half of the year capped off by a four game winning streak to end the regular season, spurred Calgary to a playoff birth. The Inferno proved to be a competitive and feisty team at the Clarkson Cup, and for a young group, that post-season experience was very valuable. But that was then, and this is now, and the now a bit murky for the Inferno. Kevin Haller, former assistant to Tim Bothwell, takes over as the Head Coach, goalie Kathy Desjardins retired, Bailey Bram and Hayley Irwin were traded to Calgary this summer, and while Meaghan Mikkelson was awesome along side Natalie Spooner on the Amazing Race Canada, the health of Mik’s hand is still a concern. So ultimately, can Calgary build on the success from 2014 or will the Inferno flame out?
Can Calgary build on the momentum from 2014, or will the Inferno flame out?
Pros: The biggest positive for the Inferno is their young core. Danielle Stone, Julie Paetsch, Jenna Cunningham and Delayne Brian are all 30 or younger. Draft picks Sarah Davis and Jessica Campbell will have an opportunity to make a positive impact this season. The team plays with a “never say die” attitude, and those aforementioned players are a big reason for that team mentality. I really like the additions of both Bailey Bram and Hayley Irwin to the team, as both should provide some extra scoring punch for Calgary. The Inferno roster now boasts seven players who’ve taken part in a centralization camp, and that experience should help Calgary take another step in becoming a Cup contender.
Cons: It’s hard to see the Inferno not picking up from last season, but there are a few factors that could see Calgary take a step back in 2015. Kevin Haller takes over as Head Coach, and while he was a part of that coaching staff last year, it remains to be seen exactly how the team will play under Haller. In adding Bailey Bram, the Inferno had to give up a defensive leader in Jocelyne Larocque. Once again, disciplined play is a concern for the Inferno. Calgary was shorthanded 142 times last season, second most in the CWHL. Plus, there’s a question of who will be in goal behind Delayne Brian. The Inferno did select two goaltenders in the draft, but neither one was picked before the ninth round.
For a more in-depth look at all five CWHL teams, check out the recent team profiles at http://pointstreaksites.com/view/cwhl/news-644/feature-stories-2
Nicco Cardarelli writes about all things Toronto Maple Leafs for TheHockeyWriters.com. Nicco has PxP & Color commentary experience calling IIHF, Hockey Canada, OHL and CWHL games. Follow Nicco on Instagram and Twitter @BroBehindTheMic.