"Maybe next year" has been a mantra for pretty much every team in the Western New York area for a while now. Unfortunately for the Buffalo Beauts, "next year" has been a few years in the making yet, as the team has gone from perennial Isobel Cup finalist to cellar dwellers several times over.
It's tough to pinpoint just when the decline started, and by that, I mean I don't want to align my return to covering women's hockey with the first year the Beauts missed the playoffs (losing a play-in game to the Connecticut Whale in 2019-20). Nevertheless, here we are, several years removed from the 2016-17 championship season and waiting for the turnaround... kind of like that guy on the crew bridge in Titanic, waiting to dodge the iceberg.
Buffalo Beauts By The Numbers
Regular Season Stats:
Record: 5-16-3, 18 points, missed playoffs
2.1 GF/game, -45 goal differential
Mikyla Grant-Mentis, 21 pts (9-12)
Claudia Kepler (10)
Lovisa Berndtsson, 13 GP, 2-8-0-3, .893%
Samantha Ridgewell, 6 GP, 2-3-0, .922%
Let's get the transactions out of the way...
And by that, I mean the multiple-player contract divorces and late-season signings general manager Nate Oliver and company are responsible for (be it for better or worse). The Beauts started with 21 signings before training camp and ended with 27 total contracts of varying lengths. Two of those players requested their contracts to be voided halfway through the season, and two more players spent the entire season as practice players just to be sidelined for later additions, to negligible success.
I've said this multiple times since each of them departed, but I do wish all the best to Autumn MacDougall and Michaela Boyle, two players I think could have had a much bigger impact in the lineup had they been given the chance and direction they needed. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and as a result, neither found their footing with the Beauts this season. MacDougall was first off the ship in December, landing in Montreal, while Boyle is still looking for a new team since parting ways in January.
I mentioned practice players a little earlier, and I mentioned Amy Budde in particular when recapping the Beauts' season for The Ice Garden earlier in the month. She and Iveta Klimasova, despite working their tails off and displaying vast improvement in each of their games, got very little attention once they actually got contracts, mainly because head coach Rhea Coad never seemed to want to give either of them the time of day. Klimasova's skating is night and day from when she first started in the PHF, and she's a solid bottom-six player with a defensive upside. Budde, meanwhile, has great hands and could really have galvanized the offense with her speed and vision. Instead, they got sidelined, something that still confuses me today.
That said, they weren't the only ones failed by the coaching staff this past season, and that fact resulted in Coad parting ways with the Beauts organization shortly after the end of the regular season. As of this writing, we still don't know who will take over behind the bench, but here's hoping it's the start of a climb back up to at least over the .500 mark.
Scrutiny of Mikyla Grant-Mentis, and Why it's Unfounded
I'm not naive enough to think the player with, at that time, the highest-paid contract in the Premier Hockey Federation wouldn't be under a microscope this year. When you introduce more money to the conversation, you inevitably introduce more criticism when a player fails, in one's own estimation, to live up to that contract. Again, though, we have to look at the overall picture.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this past season has reduced the perceived value and potential of nearly everyone on the roster. As the league expands and the revenues along with it, it becomes more difficult to gauge this particular roster because so many of the players on it have underperformed, and that's a symptom of the system, not the individual.
Indeed, Grant-Mentis wasn't immune to this lack of production. In the context of the Beauts' roster, she certainly earned her team MVP honors with a 21-point performance; however, that tally pales in comparison to seasons past when she was part of a Toronto team with plenty of offensive support. The Beauts had some pieces in place but lacked any real cohesion or consistency, resulting in more time in the defensive zone and an increased workload on the back end for most of the forwards.
I feel like that is much the case for #59, who at one point led the team in blocked shots and had a hefty workload on the PK. All of that, combined with her improved backchecking and face-off prowess, should be taken into consideration before even discussing whether or not she earned her paycheck.
What can this org really afford in the long run?
Looking ahead to Year Nine and beyond, I think the best thing the Beauts organization can do is forget about playing it conservatively when it comes to hiring a head coach. This team has been in the basement for long enough and needs to figure out so many things, including its identity. A solid coach is a good start -- and by that, I mean a coach who knows their own strengths and weaknesses, can process the game at its highest level quickly and make logical adjustments, and, above all, listens to and communicates with players and assistants while maintaining professionalism.
You can't necessarily put a price tag on all of that, and yet it seems like that's what ownership is most focused on. As a result, we're seeing players who initially wanted to stay in Buffalo begin to look elsewhere as free agency draws on into the heat of summer. Other teams, like Montreal, for example, have over half their roster set.
If the owners continue to operate on the assumption that they can afford to cut corners, we will not see the Beauts leave the PHF basement anytime soon. That goes for the coaching staff and players alike, and the mismanagement and mistakes of the past few seasons can't go overlooked. One of the traits that have always set Buffalo apart from other teams is the way the org treated those in it, and unfortunately, this current iteration is moving further away from that rep by the day. The players and fans alike deserve much better than that, and Oliver still has time to play it smart, but only if those over his head let him do so.
So what do the Beauts need?
Strength up the middle -- not just in terms of speed, but in puck protection and face-off wins -- is key. It's looking unlikely that longtime Beaut Cassidy MacPherson comes back based on the whispers I've heard, and she's been one of the stalwarts on that front. Someone like her, but with a bit more of a scoring touch, would be great, as well as someone who can open up lanes for wingers like Kepler to capitalize on. Speaking of wingers, some more wings with speed and power would be a great complement to a sniper like Kepler, as would more physicality and strength on the boards and in front of the net.Defensively, I think there was a really good balance last year of size and strength with puck movement and skating ability; if they can get a coach who knows their systems, I think a similar defensive corps would do really well. Allison Attea is almost a lock to return as she's local, and I did like her improved awareness in her own zone as well as how much more confident she looked stepping up into the play.
I'd love to see both Whitney Dove and Toni Matzka back -- Matzka is a gorgeous skater, while Dove is speedy and tenacious on both ends of the ice. Both have excellent shots and good capacity on the power play as well, and if Dove comes back I think bringing back the pairing of her with Dominique Kremer would be awesome.
Lastly, the net might be looking very different come opening puck drop, with the status of both Lovisa Berndtsson and Kassidy Sauvé uncertain. Both have expressed desire to come back to Buffalo, but the aforementioned delays with coaching hires could push either or both to other horizons. A strong, durable goalie with excellent lateral movement and the ability to steal games is always a plus, and two, even more so. Funny how the Beauts had a couple of those a season or two back... never mind.
This team has the capacity to be much, much better than they've been for a while now, and I want badly for that to come to fruition, especially for those players who have and do decide to stick around. We'll see how the next few weeks shake out, but... it's honestly way too hazy to tell right now.