NWHL Offseason Primer: Free agency being prioritized over draft

Getty Images

The NWHL offseason is about to be eventful.

The draft, perhaps, may be underwhelming. Most elite collegiate players are staying at their respective schools with the extra eligibility option. Free agency, though, could make things interesting

In addition to league free agents who may switch teams, the NWHL could see an increase in external talent, too. The increase in the league salary cap by double is an opportunity for PWHPA players to make the leap if they choose. Team representatives have mentioned more of an interest from US-based PWHPA players that could result in signings after their event in St Louis, but that remains to be seen.

Whether the league sees an increase in external talent or not, as teams head back to playing in their home arenas and outside of bubbles, there could be quite a bit of movement this off-season. Almost every general manager and coach has put heavy priority on signings, not the draft.

As a note, no one really knows who will be in the draft this season, so any draft notables are just looking at players who haven’t committed to returning or are known to be in the transfer portal as of now.

Boston Pride

Needs: Defensive depth

Draft targets: Veronika Pettey, F (Northeastern)

Player to keep: Taylor Turnquist: There were reports earlier this week Turnquist might go to Minnesota where her boyfriend, Nico Sturm, plays for the Wild in the NHL. Boston love Turnquist; every conversation with them has been around keeping her. They drafted her last season with high expectations.

Player to add: Sarah Steele: Steele went to BU and the Pride love their Terriers. If they need to make up for lost depth with Turnquist, she might be the best blue liner to turn their sights towards.

The Pride are the deepest team in the NWHL and are going to have the fewest roster spots to fill. Even if they lose a handful of players like they did before last season — Lexi Bender, Emily Fluke, Alyssa Wohfeiler — they have more depth than anyone else.

It might actually be tough for them to add, especially if few players from the Isobel Cup championship season stick around. It’s going to take elite players who aren’t in the league yet, perhaps some PWHPA players, who have the ability to usurp championship talent.

Even then, the Pride have a good thing going. Since their culture shift after the 2017-18 season, they’ve been building and that’s an inseparable group if they can help it.

Minnesota Whitecaps

Needs: Forward depth

Draft targets: Hannah Bates, D (St. Cloud State), Emma Bigham, F (St. Cloud State), Janna Haeg, F (St. Cloud State), Taylor Wente, F (Minnesota)

Player to keep: Sydney Baldwin: There’s a case to be made for Baldwin being more valuable to her team than a single other player in the NWHL. She was just behind defender of the year Kaleigh Fratkin and finalist Lindsay Eastwood in most categories. For whatever reason she’s gone overlooked, and the Whitecaps defense without her isn’t the same at all.

Player to add: Taylor Turnquist: As mentioned, Turnquist might have an interest in going home to Minnesota, and she would be a tremendous addition to the Whitecaps blue line.

The Whitecaps are one of the deepest teams in the league. They came close to toppling Boston to win the Isobel Cup but feel just short in a tight game. There’s not really much they can do, but they can always get better and keep up with other improving teams.

Corrinne Buie didn’t play at all last season, so it’ll be interesting to see what she’ll be up to. Retaining Baldwin seems real important after her impact this season, and the Whitecaps could use another defender, too.

Minnesota is by far the oldest team in the league and one has to wonder how much time their more experienced players have left on the ice. It might be an important year for them to restock; luckily for them, if any PWHPA players do convert, Minnesota is one of the most attractive options.

Toronto Six

Needs: Defense

Draft targets: Shelby Wood, D (Colgate), Lisa Bruno, D (Ohio State)

Player to keep: Any defender: Toronto didn’t have the most defensive depth heading into their first season in the NWHL as it was and ended up taking fewer to Boston for their playoff game. Losing anyone else is going to be tough for them.

Player to add: Whitney Dove: If Toronto is going to target anyone to bring in currently in the league, Dove may be a bit. She showed some serious flashes during Buffalo’s Lake Placid run and they need any defense. She’s Canadian, too.

The Six have the advantage in being, currently, the only Canadian club in the NWHL. Almost any new Canadian talent would head to Toronto, presumably. That could be worth watching if any Hockey Canada players who didn’t make the national team cut decide to give it a go, something that has long been avoided to date.

We’ll see if any of their off-season concern cause anyone to leave as well. General manager Mandy Cronin was suddenly dismissed back in February, and some players were alarmed. Toronto is still the only professional team in Canada paying players, though, so they’ll never be out of options.

They showed promise in year one, but they’re going to need a larger roster for the long haul, too.

Connecticut Whale

Needs: Defense, scoring depth

Draft targets: Jessica Adolfsson, D (Penn State)

Player to keep: Melissa Samoskevich: She’s only gotten one game in with the Whale since being the second overall selection in 2018, and that was the Whale’s most recent game in the semi-finals. She changes the entire dynamic of the offense, and if she returns will almost certainly be their leader.

Player to add: Briana Mastel: She likely won’t leave Boston, but if she were to feel a squeeze on defense, the Whale would take the Connecticut native. Especially if they do end up needing to replace Shannon Doyle, they might make a run for her.

After being the third NWHL club to have an independent owner, the Whale may suddenly be a lot more desirable to play for. Connecticut has been in the basement nearly its entire NWHL tenure before turning a clear corner last season. With a new ownership structure — and higher salary cap — the Whale might be more attractive to free agents than in years past.

Shannon Doyle, the Whale captain, seemed like she’d be retiring after last season, but recent social media videos show her on the ice in Whale gear. Perhaps she does return after all; Connecticut would certainly welcome it.

After the Whale were ready to leave the bubble in Lake Placid before being called back for the playoffs in Boston, that’s a close-knit group. It wouldn’t be surprising for most of the pod to stay intact.

Connecticut also always makes sneaky free agent signings. Wohlfieler was a terrific add last season. Who might they swipe this year?

Metropolitan Riveters

Needs: Scoring depth

Draft targets: Laura Kluge, F (St. Cloud State), Emma Polaski, F (Syracuse)

Player to keep: Paige Voight: Minnesota natives seem to flock to the Whitecaps at the end of the day. Voight is a Minnesota native. She didn’t produce in her first three games with the Rivs but after her Merrimack career certainly has the potential. Depending on what other moves they make this offseason, she’s worth convincing to keep around.

Player to add: Kristen Barbara: The Toronto defender and power play leader just recently took a job coaching in New Jersey, so if she wanted to be closer by, the Riveters could sure use her.

New general manager Anya Packer sure has an interesting case on her hands. The Riveters were the first team out last season after Covid cases made their way into the initial NWHL location in Lake Placid, but they were also one of the most dominant teams right out of the gate.

It’ll be interesting how many players they retain. There’s been a lot of talk of a culture change, and Packer has been at the forefront, at least publicly. Kate Whitman-Annis, the former general manager, is on the league side as well now, so the roster could take an entirely different shape.

Buffalo Beauts

Needs: Scoring

Draft targets: Coraline Larose, F (Colgate), Janine Alder, G (St. Cloud State), Brooke Schembri, F (Adrian)

Player to keep: Taylor Accursi: Accursi didn’t play during the Lake Placid season with other commitments, but make no mistake; she’s one of the key pieces of the Beauts lineup.

Player to add: Bridgette Prentiss: Prentiss is from Buffalo and was widely speculated to be drafted there last season but went to the Riveters. If they want to bulk up defensive depth, she could be worth a look.

Buffalo got a head start on everyone in retaining defender Marie-Jo Pelletier  The alternate captain has proven herself as one of the elite defenders in the league despite playing on a team that’s had other defensive flaws

The Beauts showed some flashes last season but also looked stagnant. Their offense couldn’t penetrate most of the elite defenses. Part of that was missing Accursi, but another part was simply needing more scoring. General manager Nate Oliver has done great work to create a strong culture in Buffalo. Goaltender Carly Jackson is one of the future stars of the league. They have a lot they can build around.

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

Scroll Down For: