Heading into December, had anyone predicted that the Montreal Stars would be in fourth place, it would have been deemed impossible.
As the two-time defending Clarkson Cup champions, the Stars boast nine athletes who have competed in ice hockey at the Winter Games.
On paper, the 2012-13 Montreal Stars should be the greatest team ever assembled. Instead, a strong team limped out of the gate with an unlikely 1-3-0 start. To be fair, those first four games were against the Boston Blades, no easy task for any team in the CWHL.
Analyzing the numbers discovers the source of the problem: Although the Stars have scored 24 goals, they have allowed 25.
While Cathy Chartrand has been a remarkable addition to the Stars blue line, there have been key subtractions which have contributed to their defensive issues.
The problem can be connected to the team's adjustment to several offseason moves.
Notably, the retirement of three veterans (and key unsung heroes), Nathalie Dery, Stephanie Denino and Kelly Sudia greatly impacted the team. This titanic trio had close to 25 years combined experience in pro women’s hockey, along with over a half-dozen Clarkson Cups.
Regardless how talented a team might be, they cannot recover from losing three key leaders on their roster.
Denino was a solid stay at home defender who gave a solid yet stoic performance. Although Dery (another key member of the Stars defense) is contributing to the team as an assistant coach, and Sudia is as well in a management capacity, their on-ice presence is irreplaceable.
In many ways, Nathalie Dery’s impact on the Stars was like Paul O’Neill with baseball’s New York Yankees. When both arrived to their respective teams, they had been seasoned players who brought a lot of heart to their team. Both had great maturity and helped bring a presence to their teams that helped them get to the next level.
The only way the Stars' younger players can hope to be leaders like the aforementioned three is through time and experience.
Despite the disappointing start, there are many positives. From the outset, it is better to lose to Boston at the beginning of the season than at the end. The first four games will allow an accomplished coaching staff the opportunity to make key adjustments.
Montreal’s rookies have learned that the CWHL is a serious business, and the three losses to Boston are their “Welcome to the CWHL” moment. Add in the high expectations to win a third-consecutive Cup, and the Stars' rookies have undergone a baptism of fire.
Although the Stars have made it look easy the past two years, the lessons learned in the difficult months of October and November will harden the Stars' rookies.
Toronto and Brampton are ahead of Montreal in the standings, but both clubs have games in hand. In addition, Toronto is the most penalized team in the league, while Montreal is the least. That type of well-disciplined hockey will provide Montreal with more power play opportunities and an opportunity to rapidly ascend out of fourth place.