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CWHL’s Boston Blades showing slow and steady improvement

Kirsta Daveys/CWHL

The Boston Blades clearly have a lot of work to do before the team returns to the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup Playoffs. Building a team — even in a hockey hotbed such as Boston — is not easy with another professional franchise thinning the talent pool. The Blades just didn’t have enough skill this past season. As a result the team finished with two wins in 24 games.

For the uninformed that might not sound like a step in the right direction, but it was. The Blades won just one game (in overtime) in the 2015-16 season. The team averaged 0.75 goals per game and surrendered an average of 5.08 goals against. The Blades were a mess and could barely dress enough players to compete most nights.

General manager Krista Patronick had her work cut out for her last offseason. She added players from the United States national inline hockey team and graduates from local colleges. Patronick and head coach Brian McCloskey promoted chemistry and small victories over winning results.

That cohesion was most conspicuous when Boston won back-to-back games in December. It was the first time the Blades managed such a feat since Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker were on the team. The fact that such a modest accomplishment has been so rare in Boston is a commentary in itself. The Blades’ lack of top-end talent overshadowed the positive steps the team made.

Visiting teams routinely dominated the Blades in shots, goals and puck possession. Boston didn’t fare much better on the road. Despite the front office’s best efforts, the Blades were on the wrong side of several major blowouts this year.

“It’s always nice to win, but if you go in not expecting that I think you find other bright spots on your team,” Patronick told FanRag Sports in February. “I think the little wins become more of the focus. Getting the job done, having all your lines be productive and move the puck well.”

The numbers show that this conservative, realistic approach to building a competitive team is starting to work. Most noteworthy was the improvement of Boston’s offense this year. Kate Leary, the team’s top scorer, more than doubled the Blades’ leading scorer from the 2015-16 season.

Losing Kayla Tutino to Montreal to complete the Nachi Fujimoto trade is a major disappointment for Boston. Tutino was the first overall pick of the 2016 CWHL Draft. Last season she provided the Blades offensive depth and speed, two things the team can’t afford to lose.

The Blades still have a lot of ground to make up on both sides of the puck.

The good news for Boston: A lot of the pieces the team needs to build on last season’s momentum are still around.

Tara Watchorn is one of the CWHL’s most underrated defenders. Her exclusion from Team Canada’s centralization roster should mean she will be available for another season with the Blades. Watchorn’s leadership, size and composure have been invaluable to Boston the last two years.

Watchorn is the right defender to build around, but the Blades are still hurting for quality and depth on the blue line. No team can be expected to win games when opponents shoot twice as many shots every night. If not for the heroics of rookie goaltender Lauren Dahm, the Blades would be in a much more dire situation. Dahm kept the team close in games it had no business contesting. She excelled at the toughest goaltending gig in North American professional women’s hockey.

There’s more evidence of growth on offense for Boston. Rookie forwards Leary, Meghan Grieves and Melissa Bizzari are all clearly part of the solution. On a team with 13 rookie skaters, that trio stood out as especially productive. It gave Boston a power play that could change the outcome of a game — something the team didn’t have two years ago.

If Patronick is still interested, the CWHL shouldn’t hesitate to bring her back as the Blades’ boss. She has come by her popularity in the league honestly. Her rebuilding plan for Boston may be conservative, but it’s pragmatic and is already showing signs of success.

Progress may be slow and agonizing for Blades fans, but it exists. With so much Olympic talent lost to centralization, the Blades should be able to gain even more ground next season.

The focus should remain on the “little wins.” It’s the only way the Blades will return to the Clarkson Cup Playoffs.

 

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