It was inevitable that we would see a couple of teams get close, but not quite get over the hump in the first make-or-break playoff format in PHF history.
The Metropolitan Riveters were that team this year: a Founding Four franchise that hadn't seen sustained success since their Cup run in 2017-18, the Rivs boasted a new coach and an all-new mentality that one could argue focused more on skill than on strength, though there was still a healthy dose of that (Madison Packer and Kelly Babstock were on the roster for 2022-23, after all).
Although Venla Hovi didn't quite get the Rivs back to glory this year, it really looks like they're headed in the right direction, not in the least part due to their recent roster moves.
This off-season so far has had a good mix of returners and new faces, including the return of veteran defender and PHF journeyer Kaleigh Fratkin, who originally played for the Rivs in 2016-17 before spending the next six seasons with the Boston Pride. Fratkin's bringing teammates McKenna Brand and Olivia Zafuto as well, giving the Rivs a top-tier scorer and a depth player with a physical edge to back up her skill. That trio joins returning forwards Kennedy Ganser, Sarah Bujold, and Fanni Gasparics, all of whom showed flashes of excellence last year.
The Riveters have also added a few rookies right out of the college circuit, including Team Czechia two-way forward Noemi Neubauerova and Yale standout defender Emma Seitz, who hails from New York City, amongst others. All of this points to the Riveters being a major threat come Season 9.
Metropolitan Riveters: Regular Season at a Glance
11-13-0, 30 points, missed playoffs
-15 goal differential, 2.7 GF per game
PP -16% (tied for 4th w/BOS), PK - 77% (7th)
Madison Packer and Kelly Babstock - tied at 21 pts apiece
(Packer led in goals scored with 11)
Katie Burt: 11 GP, 5-5-0, .903%
New Year, New Rivs... kind of.
Head Coach Venla Hovi had some pretty ambitious goals for her squad ahead of the season, evident in the way she moved practices to mornings and preached commitment and work ethic to the players constantly. While I'm sure Ivo Mocek – last year's bench boss, who stepped into an assistant coaching role this year – also held his athletes to high standards, the atmosphere of a team always changes when a new coach takes the reins, and in my opinion, this team changed for the better.
They didn't have a great start to their year, having to face off against then-reigning Isobel Cup champs the Boston Pride during opening weekend and then the eventual Cup-winning Toronto Six the following week, but the Riveters made a great case for being a potential sleeper team. They ended up with split series against Toronto and Connecticut, stunned the Pride in a 6-2 win late in the season, and won five of their last six to end the year.
In fact, the only team they weren't quite able to solve (funnily enough) was eventual Cup runners-up, the Minnesota Whitecaps. All of that caps off a season that was fairly inconsistent but got the Rivs a decent step forward in a league full of teams making leaps and bounds. Now that Hovi has a full season under her with this squad, I think she'll have a better idea of how to get the most out of her squad, not to mention the fact that a lot of the recent signings seem
Madison Leading the Pack For Another Two Seasons
One thing that's remained a constant since the Riveters' inception is the presence and leadership of Packer. The 31-year-old center made a splash when she was reported to have voided her current contract with the Riveters for the back half of the two-year deal. As it later turned out, that worry was for naught, as she later renegotiated and signed a new two-year contract with the club she's been with from Day One.
Packer is one of those players who has proven her worth year in and year out, not just as a leader, but as one of the Riveters' top producers. As she hits what is presumed to be the twilight of her playing career, and as Hovi and general manager Tori Charron bring in newer faces in attempts to get back to the Cup, we can expect that Packer's role will also change (and in fact we saw the start of that this year, as she spent a good portion of games in more of a secondary role despite still ending the season with a team-high 21 points).
Räty's Comeback: The Pros, Cons, and Big Picture
I can confidently say that Noora Räty and Kacey Bellamy are two of the biggest signings so far in PHF free agency -- not just because of their talent or the price tags attached, but because of the optics. Bellamy's signing by the Whale was emblematic of how established legends in their own right were starting to view the PHF as a viable league; Räty joining the Rivs, meanwhile, could be the start of an exodus.
Räty, as it turns out, was on the PWHPA's board in an advisory role. Her departure to join the PHF's ranks was, by her own admission, motivated by her feeling that the money was better and, in turn, so would be the chance at stability when it comes to playing pro hockey. That is a huge statement to make when it comes to how more and more players are feeling about their chances for a full-time career in the PHF.
Räty is one of multiple legendary names in women's hockey that are making their way to the PHF (or in Bellamy's case, back to the PHF); that in and of itself is a great vote of confidence, showing that even if the PWHPA can get its league off the ground come fall, there's a contingent of players and personnel that still have faith in what the PHF has been able to build. The more players of her caliber who feel comfortable making the jump, the more growth and eyes will be on the PHF going forward.
However, there is an individual learning curve to consider. Unlike Alina Müller, for example, Räty is coming out of retirement, raising a question of how quickly she can get back up to speed, especially with a new-look Rivs squad. We saw Meeri Räisänen struggle with the Whale last year in a similar fashion, so my hope for Noora is that she can land on her feet and really give it a good go in New Jersey.