NWHL

Toronto Six season preview

The Toronto Six are about to embark upon their inaugural season, one like no other in a year like no other. 

It’s difficult to envision how an expansion team would shape up in a normal season, let alone in a compressed schedule amidst a pandemic. The variables are countless. Any advantage that the Six have at their disposal must be capitalised on – there’s no recourse for getting off to a slow start. Familiarity between players is one such method that can mitigate the traditional expansion franchise woes, jumpstarting the on-ice chemistry. It’s evident the Six recognises this, especially when observing the manner in which their roster has been constructed.

Kasumi Kobo/NWHL (Courtesy of The Puck Authority)

Question Marks

There are plenty of them. Roughly half of the Toronto Six roster is comprised of players who have never competed in the NWHL before, and/or women’s professional hockey above the collegiate level. That’s not a slight – this is a young roster full of energy, excitement and a hunger to cement their place in this league. They’re rearing to go, chomping at the bit to prove they belong and to make their mark with each opportunity that they get. Who can blame them?

First Defensive Pairing

Look for the Six to build upon the reunion of Kristen Barbara and Taylor Woods in defence as the first pairing. The two were teammates for three seasons with the Markham Thunder franchise of the CWHL, and arguably would make a solid and dependable top pairing in this condensed season. Barbara statistically has had more success offensively than Woods, but relatively speaking, their career totals have progressed similarly. With Sarah Steele coming off of a point-per-game season with KMH Budapest, she will look to earn a spot on the first pairing as well. Expect Barbara and Woods to play together from the get-go and to eat up significant minutes in the first few games, and for Steele to force her way higher up the lineup with her offensive play. 

Rookies Who Will Find Success

A two-way forward, Emma Woods has all the tools to be a highlight of not only this team, but of the entire tournament. She has consistently produced at nearly a point-per-game rate at each step of her career. The same can be said about Brooke Boquist, a consistent plus player with a knack for scoring goals. What makes this duo all the more intriguing is that they spent the 2019-20 season playing together for Leksands IF of the Swedish Women’s Hockey League (SDHL). They finished the season level in points, good for second on Leksands with 29. Effective in the SDHL, this dynamic duo nevertheless will be NWHL rookies – can they prove successful at this level? 

Starting Goaltender

Who will be the starting goaltender? Will it be a tandem pair? Samantha Ridgewell performed exceptionally well in the SDHL with a .920 save percentage. However, the SDHL isn’t the NWHL, and it’s been her only professional season to date. Elaine Chuli meanwhile possesses two seasons of professional hockey experience in the CWHL, splitting the crease with Shea Tiley for the Toronto Furies in 2018-19. In 15 regular season games, she finished with a disappointing .899 save percentage. Save percentage isn’t the be-all and end-all, especially when considering factors such as the quality of opponent; it offers only a glimpse into the performance of a goaltender. Will Ridgewell or Chuli be the starting goaltender on opening night? 

Quinn and Eastwood: a Successful Pair

Expect the Toronto Six to embrace the reunion of former Syracuse defensemen Megan Quinn and Lindsay Eastwood. A rookie in 2018-19, Quinn will look to build upon her solid debut season and help Eastwood acclimatize to the league. This will be the first taste of professional hockey for Eastwood; she will have to find her feet rapidly and prove that she’s ready to make the step up to this level with hardly any time to do so. As an offensively inclined defenseman, it could prove beneficial twofold for Eastwood to be matched with Quinn, whose strong defensive play can give her the freedom to create. There’s no doubt that familiarity between these two will prove useful down the stretch and in years to come – why not pair them together now?

Former Boston Star Emily Fluke

The biggest question mark on the entire roster is Emily Fluke. She broke out in 2018-19 as a star playmaker for the Boston Pride with 27 points in 23 games. Will she be able to rediscover her scintillating form nearly two years removed? It might be premature to state that as Fluke goes, so too will the Six. With so many players new to this league, Fluke will need to perform her best for this team to make it far.

What We Do Know

In a season full of uncertainty, the two certainties are Shiann Darkangelo and Julie Allen. A member of Team USA, Darkangelo has a IIHF World Championship gold medal on her CV and the pedigree to go with it. Don’t let her 2018-19 numbers fool you – Darkangelo is a goal scorer; expect her to have a rebound year. 

Julie Allen is a Clarkson Cup winner from nearby Brampton, Ont. who played prior for the Toronto Furies with several other members of the Six, including Darkangelo, Elaine Chuli and Megan Quinn. Full of energy, Allen will create offensive zone opportunities for teammates, set the tone and likely be matched up against the top lines of opponents in a shutdown role.

Expect Darkangelo and Allen to bring much-needed experience to a shortened season and to add character to the team. These two have proven successful at this level and will no doubt perform consistently — that much is guaranteed.

These are the storylines to anticipate for this season: either that the inexperience of the Toronto Six will be their undoing, or  the Six will prove their naysayers wrong as they battle through adversity and many question marks. No matter the outcome, hockey fans can expect this team to delight and excite as the season unfolds .

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