By: Spencer Fascetta
Looking at the Boston Pride, it is easy to narrow in and gush about their diverse offensive talent. A team running off 19 straight wins and a league best +77 goal differential. What’s more difficult, however, is to acknowledge how well the team performed defensively this season. While their goal differential sat at a +77, they only scored 14 more goals than the next highest scoring team, the Minnesota Whitecaps. They actually allowed the fewest goals against with 43, 9 fewer than the Whitecaps. I’ve waxed poetically about the elite defensive forwards the Pride boast – both Lexie Laing and Jillian Dempsey are among the best in the league in that aspect, but they are only a piece of the puzzle. The players most often overlooked are the defensive defenders, who don’t put up a lot of points, but maintain a significant positive impact on the team. For the Pride, those players are Lauren Kelly and Jenna Rheault.
Kelly, 24 just finished her 2nd full professional season. The Northeastern alum was the 16th Overall Pick in the 2017 NWHL Draft by the Pride, and has, through 39 career games, contributed 3 goals and 12 assists. For context, in her career with the Huskies, she scored 25 goals and tallied 39 assists for 64 points in 140 games. Rheault, also 24, was the 25th Overall Pick by the Pride the following season. The UNH grad contributed a goal and five assists in 24 contests this year. Her statline with the Wildcats was even more paltry, given UNH’s lack of scoring prowess throughout her collegiate career – a mere 6 goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 142 career games. The whole point of giving you this information is not to tell you that either of these players is ineffective or bad because they don’t score a lot. It is that they DON’T score a lot despite being tremendously effective that should pique your interest.
Ignoring their considerable contributions on the penalty kill, let’s look at what impact each player has on the team at 5 on 5. In terms of raw totals, both Rheault and Kelly were on the ice for 7 goals against at even strength this season. The Pride scored 17 goals while Rheault was on the ice at even strength, and 23 when Kelly was on the ice at even strength. Rheault seems to fit more of a suppression mold – not a lot gets generated while she is on the ice for either team, whereas Kelly slides a little more towards a player with a plus/plus impact – not a lot is generated against with her on the ice, but the team generates a lot on the other end.
Let’s factor estimated Time on Ice into this analysis. This shifts Kelly more into the suppression mold as well. Rheault actually has marginally better shot suppression numbers than Kelly does, although, again, Kelly’s shot generation numbers are a bit better than Rheault’s. What’s important here is that both players boast some of the best suppression numbers in the sport. In fact, if you look only at defenders, Rheault actually was the league’s best shot suppression defender at even strength this season, and Kelly was a very close second. Even on a stacked roster like the Pride, that’s tremendously impressive.
If defenders aren’t scoring, they should be contributing to the team’s offense in some form or fashion. While we currently do not have entry or exit metrics for the NWHL, some contextual information can be gleaned from looking at each player’s Safety Quotient, or their rate of takeaways to giveaways per hour. Common sense dictates that you prefer players who are risk averse while generating a lot of takeaways. This is where Kelly really shines, as the Riveters’ Colleen Murphy is the only defender in the league to have created more takeaways per hour this season. Rheault, for her part, is sixth in the league for defenders. In addition to Kelly and Murphy, only Kiira Dosdall-Arena (MET), Amanda Boulier (MIN), and Shannon Doyle (CTW) generated more takeaways per hour than Rheault. Both Rheault and Kelly are very safe players, and do not turn the puck over with any regularity. And yes, that is Connecticut’s Doyle who is far and away the league’s most free-wheeling defender, who generates a ton of takeaways but PLENTY of giveaways.
Defensive defenders often get a reputation for being physical, and that typically leads to a significantly higher penalty count than their more offensively minded counterparts. However, of defenders who played at least 8 games this season, only Minnesota’s Rose Alleva and former collegiate teammate and Buffalo star MJ Pelletier took fewer penalties per hour than Jenna Rheault’s 0.69. She doesn’t draw a tremendous number either. However, given how good Kelly is at that, it’s a nice complement to Rheault’s quiet game. Kelly, for her part, DOES fit the penalty-prone defender mold a lot better, ranking in the top half of the league’s defenders in penalties taken per hour. But only Doyle and Minnesota’s Emma Stauber drew more penalties per hour this season from the blueline, and given that Kelly manages to draw more than she takes, it ends up as a significant net-positive for the league’s most lethal powerplay.
I have gone on many a tangent about my distaste for shot blocking being used as a means of defining defensive impact. In short, if you are blocking a lot of shots, it means you have the puck in your end a LOT. When you consider that both Kelly and Rheault play a considerable role on the penalty kill, the subsection if ice time I would expect the MOST shots to be blocked, neither one seems to spend a ton of time in their own end. Kelly had the 3rd highest eTOI/Game of Boston defenders, and blocked only the second most shots per hour, trailing only Mallory Souliotis. Rheault is once again in the lower event category, blocking the 4th most on the team (Kaleigh Fratkin was 3rd) in the 4th most ice time per game.
Both players are smooth skaters who excel in shot suppression. They have their individual strengths – Kelly is unabashedly uses her strength and physicality to consistently win puck battles and physical altercations at the netfront, whereas Rheault utilizes her skating and smarts to effectively defend the rush and lead the breakout. She is one of the better zone exit defenders in the league, possessing the ability to simply skate the puck from goal line to goal line if she so chooses. But both players are key to the establishment of a quiet defensive zone that allows the Pride to be as dominant as they are at the other end of the ice. No, they won’t win you a scoring title, and probably won’t make a ton of highlight reels. But Lauren Kelly and Jenna Rheault are two of the best defensive defenders in the entire NWHL, and it’s about time everybody found out.
However, when DOES Rheault contribute, she does so in style.
— Boston Pride (@TheBostonPride) March 26, 2020