How will the NWHL adjust in an Olympic year?
After a trying first two seasons for the National Women's Hockey League, league administrators and players are hoping to put their adversity behind them.
Last season, player salaries were cut by about a third in November and the league's future was on shaky ground. But with a shortened season, an offseason of changes and added support from the NHL, the players and league are confident about Year 3 and beyond.
"Between the signing of more than 90 players and our new partnerships with Twitter and the New Jersey Devils, it was an exhilarating offseason," NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan said. "The work behind the scenes continues to make our league bigger and stronger, but now the games begin and we could not be more excited for this season."
The Devils' partnership with the newly renamed Metropolitan Riveters has worked to change the landscape of the league. With the backing of an NHL club, not only financially but in resources like a fully operating marketing department, there's hope that the league's history of being on thin ice is well in the past.
The big challenge to overcome in Year 3, which kicks off on Saturday, is operating a league without its star players, something it has been preparing for since its inception. Some of the biggest names to don an NWHL sweater won't be a part of the league due to required centralization from USA Hockey as the players prepare for the 2018 Winter Games.
Without that star power, will the fans still come out?
"I think it's business as usual," said NWHLPA president Anya Battaglino, who plays defense for the Connecticut Whale. "Fans might be used to seeing [Brianna] Decker on the ice scoring goals, but those same fans will fall in love with someone new. All of them on the ice are great players, and we're going to see new stars form."
And for those Olympic players, such as Hilary Knight, they know they have a home back in the NWHL when their run in February comes to an end.
"One of the reasons a lot of us moved together [to the same NWHL team] was to train together," Knight said. "To compete together, and go through adversity together. We're lucky to be able to do that and have a place to play post-college, so hopefully those opportunities continue."
It'll be tough to replicate the quality without the best players in the world, but that doesn't mean the NWHL will be without talented players.
"All of our players are remarkable role models," Rylan said. "Thanks to them, future generations of players can see it, dream it and become professional hockey players."
With less energy spent on worrying about the future, the players are instead concentrating on competing and having the best product possible without some of the usual suspects suiting up.
"Everyone has remained focused," Battaglino said. "They're growing at a league level and also giving a lot of respect to the players' association. There's a lot more structure, and I'm proud of that. There's a willingness to work together."
Each team has lost arguably its best talent, yet some are better positioned for the season ahead. And after having the summer to reinvent their teams, all four clubs have responded in different ways.
Take the Boston Pride. Oftentimes, teams that lose in heartbreaking fashion to end their seasons might struggle the next. Boston saw an undefeated run end in stunning manner to the Buffalo Beauts in the Isobel Cup final in March, and the Pride are looking to buck that trend.
Only thing is, their team looks different from the past two seasons -- so radically different that it's hard to identify the Pride as the same team. Losing Knight, Decker and Meghan Duggan is enough to gut a team. Then take out last season's Rookie of the Year, Alex Carpenter, and a defensive core of Kacey Bellamy and Gigi Marvin, and suddenly there are questions. Plus, Blake Bolden also left to sign overseas.
Boston may have been hit the hardest in an Olympic year, and now the Pride are left seeking their identity.
"We lost a lot of girls to Team USA," first-year head coach Thomas Poeck said. "They're all very talented, and we're all wishing them luck. We hope they win. But we can't replace them and the way they fit. The girls we have are getting used to it."
The potential is still there. Haley Skarupa is an elite player, and Dana Trivigno has a high ceiling. On the blue line, additions Kaliyah Johnson and Paige Harrington on paper should be one of the most solid pairings in the league, and Megan Mangene played like a top-pairing defender in the preseason.
It's the first time Boston has faced uncertainty, and that opens room for the rest of the league.
Enter the Riveters.
They have a new look in more ways than one. From the name change that strays from New York, to red-and-black sweaters similar to the Devils', Metropolitan is looking to get over the semifinal hump, and it begins Saturday in a doubleheader with the NHL's Devils at Prudential Center. The Riveters host the Pride in the afternoon, and the Devils host the Arizona Coyotes at night.
Each of the past two seasons, the Riveters have fallen in the semifinals, and last year's loss to Buffalo came as a shock. They looked like the league's second-best team all season long before running into Beauts goalie Amanda Leveille.
Turnover has affected the Riveters as well, with Amanda Kessel in the Olympics and Janine Weber now with the Pride. But they added Harrison Browne to their forwards, while Kelsey Koelzer will get her first full season on the blue line.
"Koelzer looks good," Metropolitan coach Chad Wiseman said. "She's skating really well, and she's plenty polished for a new player to our league."
Rebecca Russo has also emerged as one of the best talents in the league. With so many players gone to the Olympics, Russo could emerge as the NWHL's leading scorer. She'll play with Madison Packer and Miye D'oench, each of whom had solid campaigns last year. Alex Gruschow is also looking for a strong sophomore campaign and has played well with Russo.
"You can tell some of the girls got on the ice more," Wiseman said. "For some of them, if they live in a city, it can be tough to find ice. A lot of the veterans look solid."
The only team with three goalies, the Riveters last season rode Katie Fitzgerald, who burst onto the scene after joining the team as a walk-on and earning herself an All-Star appearance.
"I think we're fortunate," Wiseman said. "We lost a great piece with Kessel. But, we have a great group of girls still with us. We have 14 players returning, and lots of new faces together."
If not for the Beauts, the Riveters easily could have been raising the Cup themselves last season.
What about those Beauts?
After struggling to score last season, Buffalo might have a high-powered offense despite some major losses. Corrine Buie has exploded in the preseason, and additions like Canadian Women's Hockey League players Jess Jones and Rebecca Vint could make the Beauts' offense even stronger.
"We have to nail down our special teams next," said Buie. "There's so much talent, and we're working on getting everything set. With only so much time to practice so far, getting everyone together at the same time to be on the same page will be key."
The forward lines were untouched by Team USA, meaning the Beauts' rebuild is their own efforts.
Connecticut, meanwhile, lost Trivigno, Skarupa and Mangen to the Pride and Kelli Stack to the CWHL.
The Whale have struggled to score and stop the puck in their first two seasons, and it will only get tougher for them after losing a significant portion of their offense in Skarupa and Stack. Kelly Babstock will be heavily relied on. On defense, the Boston University pairing of Shannon Doyle and Battaglino has the Whale looking solid.
While all four teams have clearly been depleted in some capacity, the players and league hope the product on the ice remains strong enough to continue to secure more opportunities to grow and partner with other hockey entities.
"There are so many places hungry for women's hockey," Battaglino said. "We want to be in places with the NHL ready to support us. The Devils have supported girl and women, between young girls and our women athletes. Working together puts us as women athletes in a position of power to be treated as pro athletes."