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CWHL preview: A new day dawns for the Toronto Furies

With lots of additions this offseason, is Toronto playoff-bound?

Toronto Furies locker room with player jerseys hung in every stall and other equipment ready to be worn. Chris Tanouye / CWHL

Pretty much the best thing that came out of the Toronto Furies 2017-18 season was the Erin Ambrose trade. One-season GM Nicole Latreille swapped the centralized defender to Montréal for a haul of picks that will benefit Toronto through the 2020 draft.

Which is to say, the Furies and their fans are looking to put last season in the rearview mirror, and have every reason to expect that 2018-19 will be a lot more fun.

The first changes came to the front office, with veteran goalie Sami Jo Small moving into the GM role and defender Courtney Kessel (formerly Birchard) becoming one of two female head coaches in the CWHL this season. Although they both bring a wealth of experience to the table, both Small and Kessel are rookies in their respective roles, at least at the professional level. It will be very interesting to see whether they’re up to the challenge of getting Toronto back into the playoffs.

Annie’s already had lots to say about the incoming class of rookies, and in their lone full pre-season game, they gave us plenty of proof that her excitement is justified.

Sarah Nurse and Shea Tiley headline the group, one an Olympian and one a two-time NCAA champion who will see her first action with Team Canada this November. GM Sami Jo Small acquired Tiley with Montreal’s first round pick, the first benefit of the Ambrose trade. Nurse brings soft hands and some badly-needed scoring talent, while Tiley will contend for the starting spot.

Speaking of goaltending, this will be the second season running that the Furies start out with a battle for the net. While Tiley comes in with plenty of well-deserved hype, but she’s unproven at the professional level. Elaine Chuli has plenty of pro experience — she led the league in minutes played (1513) and was second in shots against (851) last season but still managed four shutouts and a save percentage higher than either of Toronto’s regular starters. Meanwhile, by all accounts Amanda Makela — who became one of those starters late in the season when Sonja van der Bliek was out with a nagging injury — has stepped up her game in the offseason, impressing both her GM and her coach.

Small feels that all three goalies are an upgrade on what the Furies had available last season — quite the comment when she was one of their options herself! The plan going into the season is that two goalies will share the net for the first several games and then the situation will be re-evaluated. Who the two goalies will be, we’ll find out this weekend.

More than once, Small has stated that the team is looking to build from the net forward, a natural philosophy when the GM is a goalie and the head coach is a defender. Defence has been a perennial issue in Toronto and there was a concerted effort to change that over the offseason. Only one defender from the 2017-18 season will start on the 25 player roster this season: Shannon Moulson.

Moulson is a workhorse — with 246 games under her belt, she leads the league all-time in games played, and the active player who is closest (Markham’s Dania Simmonds) is 98 games behind her. There are few people around the CWHL who even remember what it was like before she joined in 2008.

Losing Ambrose was a blow but her trade allowed the team to pick up two defenders in the third round of the draft: Melissa Channell and Julia Fedeski. Channell has already been making an impact with some pretty pre-season scoring. They’re joined by fellow rookies Emma Greco and Megan Quinn.

It won’t be just Moulson and some rookies of course. Due to injuries, outside commitments and penalties, the Furies found themselves icing just four defenders more than once last season, so this year they’re carrying eight. Canadian Olympian Renata Fast, who led the Furies defence in scoring in her rookie year, and Japanese Olympian Sena Suzuki, who spent two years in Toronto blossoming into a solid defender, will add some veteran presence. Surprise addition Jordan Hampton spent last year playing with the Blades, which means she has plenty of experience defending against better teams. Hampton was singled out by both Small and Kessel as one of the surprises of training camp. She beat out a number of Furies vets for the job, so she’s definitely one to watch.

Stopping goals is important, but so is scoring them. Toronto scored just 56 goals in the 2017-18 season, an average of two a game, and only only had one player among the CWHL’s top 20 scorers (Carolyne Prévost, with 22 points in 28 games). The return of Natalie Spooner, their all-time leading scorer, should help there. (Toronto’s all-time numbers are sometimes combined with those of Burlington and Mississauga but since the Furies were established in 2010, Spooner leads the way.) She has a career average of 1.03 points per game (91 points in 88 games), a number that’s been fairly consistent from season to season. Plus the verb “to Spooner” as in “to Spooner one’s way 200 feet through the opposing team to score a goal unassisted” saw frequent usage in older recaps.

Of course everyone’s been talking about Sarah Nurse, the only Canadian Olympian available in this year’s draft. She’ll no doubt be just as fun to watch with the Furies as she was with Team Canada or with the Badgers. Fans should not forget second round pick Brittany Howard, who graduated from Robert Morris University last season as their all-time leading scorer by a significant margin, and was invited to Team Canada’s Fall Festival for the first time this summer. Shiann Darkangelo scored 18 points with Kunlun Red Star last season, which would have been good enough for second on the Furies. Vets Emily Fulton and Julie Allen are both still with the team and can usually be relied on to help with the secondary scoring as well.

Another dark horse to watch is Anissa Gamble, who was on the Calgary Inferno roster last season but never made it into a game. She was released by the team at the end of the season and was allowed to join the Furies tryouts. She impressed enough to make the team. Like Howard she’s an RMU alum, but unlike Howard, did not put up a lot of points in college. It will be interesting to see what she brings to her new team.

A quick note about one other rookie — Alysha Burriss was initially announced as part of the 25 player roster but has moved to the 40 player roster due to outside commitments.

top to bottom: Renata Fast, Sarah Nurse, and Natalie Spooner photo credit @pollockheather

The Furies have added in goal, added on defence, added up front. Can they make the playoffs this season? It’s very possible. However, with the exception of the Blades (sorry Worcester), every team has improved this season. The Olympians are back, it was a deep draft for most teams, every team has at least one national-team calibre goalie, Shenzhen has restructured, Calgary has a legendary head coach, Montréal’s lineup has been terrifying since before the draft... but Sarah Nurse is a Fury.

Anything could happen this season. Games will be fast, hard-fought and exciting. We’re going to see blowouts and barn-burners and goalie duels. There will likely be more than one playoff spot still up for grabs going into the last month of the season.

Will the Toronto Furies win the 2019 Clarkson Cup? I don’t know, but it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

Toronto Furies begin their season this Saturday October 13th, hosting the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays at 7:00 pm at the Mastercard Centre. Tickets are available online.