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CWHL Preview: Can the Markham Thunder do it again?

Returning Olympians and rookies have bolstered the Thunder roster.

The Markham Thunder celebrate their 2018 Clarkson Cup win Chris Tanouye / CWHL

Last year was a year of changes for the Markham Thunder. New city. New home arena. New uniform. New GM. New head coach. New Clarkson Cup winners.

Unlike last year, the team made very few changes this offseason. Same head coach. Same GM. Same goalies (well, that has not changed in a while). Sure there were a few retirements, but they have the most returning players (16) of any team in the league.

Time warp back to December 2017. The Thunder had won only five of their 17 games, and had points in five others that ended in either an overtime or shootout loss, all against Montréal. They had lost most of their defense from the year before to centralization, retirement, or to other leagues. Dania Simmonds, Jessica Hartwick and Kristen Barbara were the only full-time defenders remaining from 2016-2017, with Taylor Woods doing double duty as both defence and forward. Goalies Erica Howe and Liz Knox had to put in extra work with their rag tag team of rookies.

Things started looking up when they signed Megan Bozek in early January. Even though they began their winning streak started in February against the disenfranchised Toronto Furies, the return of Captain Jocelyne Larocque from PyeongChang the first week of March really empowered the team. Lauras Stacey and Fortino were back the weekend after. The Thunder went undefeated in the last two months of the regular season and throughout the playoffs. Having the Olympians back revived the team at a crucial point when they were fighting for the last playoff spot until the very last weekend.

The Olympians are around for the most part this season. Stacey, along with Jess Jones and first round draft pick Victoria Bach will add some scoring depth so that Jamie Lee Rattray need not shoulder the burden of being the team’s main goal-scorer. Not to be ignored are also Kristen Richards (13G, 10A) who really stepped up her scoring game in an Olympic year and free agent Brooke Webster (9G, 17A) who cracked the top 10 in points with the now defunct Vanke Rays.

Larocque, Fortino, and Bozek - along with last year’s top scoring defenseman Barbara - could make the Markham defense almost impenetrable. Perhaps they are the answer to stopping this much-feared Montréal lineup:

The 2017-2018 season was injury-plagued. 2017 first-round draft pick Nicole Kosta only played in 12 games after taking a stick to the head. Alexis Woloschuk was out half the season. Jenna McParland took a tumble in China and was out for seven games but still managed to close out the season with the third highest points on the team. At one point early in the season, the Thunder had 15 skaters on the bench and were dwarfed by their opponent’s full lineup. Having all of them back full-time would definitely add to the scoring and defense depth.

Using the preseason games as a point of reference (and we all know how reliable they are), Jones has yet to return to Angela James Bowl scoring form after her brief constitutional playing in the NWHL. Even though she managed a decent nine points (4G, 5A) with the Buffalo Beauts, her PPG average of 0.64 was the lowest in her career. Critics have speculated that it was because she didn’t have a linemate of equal ability, such as Rattray, feeding her the puck.

Coach Jim Jackson will need to figure out the best offensive lines from all his forwards. Will he put Rattray on a line with Bach and second round draft pick Ailish Forfar like in the preseason? Or will he pair Rattray up with her old linemate Jones? Either way, it looks like Rattray will be in the starting lineup.

Predictions

The Thunder have bolstered their roster with returning Olympians and rookies, but so has almost every other team in the league. The Calgary Inferno have nine Olympians from four different countries and a world-renowned coach. Les Canadiennes de Montréal have six Olympians and an extremely tenacious front line. The Toronto Furies had so much depth— drafting their roster with an even mix of veterans, rookies and free agents—that they cut their third highest scorer and several other veterans. Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays (say that ten times without fumbling) have increased the number of heritage players to seven, reducing the number of less experienced Chinese-born players from 11 last season down to seven this year and keeping the best of the imports from last year’s KRS and Vanke teams.

With so many changes across the league, the Thunder will most likely squeak into the post-season on the strength of their defense. In order to be in contention for the Clarkson Cup, they need someone not named Rattray to share the scoring duties throughout their different lines and keep the injuries and penalty kills to a minimum.

The Markham Thunder will raise their Clarkson Cup banner and start the 2018-19 season at the Thornhill Community Centre this Saturday October 13 at 7:30 pm against the Worcester Blades. Single game and season tickets are available now, and the game will also be streamed live.