By David F. Pendrys
The National Women’s Hockey League held their 2016 Draft Saturday. The result was a variety of top college players being selected by the four teams in the NWHL.
The four teams were each allotted 5 picks of the current senior class of college players. The New York Riveters picked first, the Buffalo Beauts second, Connecticut Whale third, and the Isobel Cup Champion Boston Pride picked fourth.
It should be noted the NWHL drafts the players, but does not do anything to jeopardize their eligibility communicating through athletic departments and adhering to NCAA regulations. Also of note, while the team that drafted a player gets first crack at signing a player during restricted free agency, after that passes, other teams can sign the player away if they pay a “draft tax” surrendering some of their salary cap to the team which they are getting the pick from. The salary cap for this coming season is $270,000 per team, though it could change next season.
The Riveters surprised when they picked Princeton defender Kelsey Koelzer instead of presumably products of some of the western NCAA programs. Koelzer a forward converted to defense, had 17 goals and 16 assists for a Tigers squad who made the NCAA Tourney this year and tied for first on the team in goals scored. Koelzer would seem to fit in well with GM & Coach Chad Wiseman’s transition to a team that is faster and explosive. In addition to the current team which features more defenders who can move swiftly and feed the puck to the forwards, Koelzer if signed next season, adds to that capability. Also, the ability to play both positions could come in handy if rosters are reduced due to injury.
“Everyone’s on a one year contract, so for me to get the best skilled puck moving defenseman in the draft in the end of the day was a no-brainer,” Riveters General Manager and Coach Chad Wiseman said of Koelzer. “You’re not going to pass on the most offensive defenseman in the draft…at the end of the day you’re just going to make room for a player like that no matter how good your D-corps is…I like the way she plays, she’s offensive, she moves the puck well, she can score from the blue line…she has natural ability.”
The Rivs were not the only ones interested either as General Manager and Coach of the Buffalo Beauts Ric Seiling admitted that Koelzer was also among his top choices.
With Koelzer drafted the Beauts picked U.S. National Team member and Golden Gopher Lee Stecklein, a defender with 8 goals, 22 assists, and also a +/- of 50 last season.
“My first choices were Stecklein and Koelzer, so just a matter which one New York was going to take ahead of me,” Seiling explained. “Top defenders are tough to get a hold off…Chad and I both saw these are top notch. You don’t see a lot of them coming through as dominating as they are. If you look at Stecklein who is captain of her team, she’s a +50 and that’s pretty impressive, to be a +50 to get the dominant player on the ice. You can’t miss her when she’s out there…they’re the one’s who are going to help you solidify your own and get your puck out of the zone.” He also noted both can shoot the puck and be a threat on the power play.
“The reality is you won’t see probably won’t see Stecklein in a Beauts uniform because of centralization next year for the U.S. National Team,” he added. “If that’s the case we’re going to have her rights for two years When she does come out she’s going to be that much of a better player, with more international flavor under her experience, and we’ll look at that point what’s going to happen.”
The Whale used their first pick to grab the rights to Stecklein’s teammate Dani Cameranesi, a forward with 33 goals, 35 assists, and a +/- of 43 for Minnesota in 15-16.
The first goaltender went to the Boston Pride when Ann-Renee Desbiens was drafted out of Wisconsin. She was a critical part of the team’s NCAA Tournament success, and put up a .76 Goals Against Average and .960 save percentage for the Badgers last season.
“She is somebody who can be a program changer,” Pride General Manager Hayley Moore said of Desbiens also describing her and also saying she continues to push boundaries and strive for excellence, which is something her program looks for.
In the second round, the Riveters surprised again picking an underrated forward out of Harvard in Sydney Daniels. She put up 21 goals, and 10 assists last season for the Crimson.
“She just a big aggressive player, and she can score…she was probably the most underrated player in the entire draft,” Wiseman outlined. “She may be someone who I could have picked up a round later, I don’t know, but I really liked her and I wasn’t willing to risk that.”
The Beauts with their second pick acquired the chance to sign Cayley Mercer, a forward of great reputation from Clarkson, who posted 25 goals, 25 assists, and a +/ of 35 as part of a Golden Knights team that made the NCAA Semifinals last year.
The Whale drafted Andie Anastos out of BC with their next pick. The forward who was part of a team that made the NCAA Championship put up 14 goals and 23 assists, as well as a +/- of 50 on a team that did not lack for offense.
Sarah Nurse out of Wisconsin was selected by the Boston Pride with their second round pick. In only 24 games last season she had 20 goals, and 9 assists.
Wiseman had lamented he wasn’t able to draft her. “She’s a fantastic player and I think she’ll do really really well,” he said in praise.
Another Wisconsin product was picked by the Riveters in Jenny Ryan who had 5 goals, and 22 assists on defense last season but posted a +/- of 38 while part of a Badgers contingent who made the NCAA Semifinals. “Every time she was on the ice, she did something special,” Wiseman said describing Ryan’s performance in the tournament. “I was kinda scared to wait to the third round to try to grab her”
The Beauts picked Hayley Scammura out of Northeastern with their third round pick. Scammura had 14 goals and 29 assists as well as +43 from the forward position.
Seiling had noted he knew Scammura through previous family connections which seemed to help inform his decision to pick her.
The Whale gave Wisconsin another pick when defender Mellissa Channell was chosen. Her stat line did not stand out like the others suggesting her talents observed may not translate to the stat line. She is a member of the Canadian National Development Team.
The Pride’s next pick went to Ashleigh Brykaliuk, a forward out of Minnesota-Duluth. She scored 18 goals and picked up 29 assists this past season.
The Riveters fourth rounder went to another Wisconsin Badger as Sydney McKibbon, a forward was selected. She posted 3 goals and 23 assists last season. She had scored 10 goals the year prior.
Buffalo used their draft pick on Quinnipiac forward Emma Woods. Woods was fourth on the team in goals with 11 on a team that does not lack offense. She had 23 assists and 34 points overall on a team which often switched up lines among their scoring forwards to experiment with production. Four of Woods teammates who were skaters either signed with the NWHL this season or are trying for the CWHL. Woods also had a +/- of 40 in the past season. The Beauts are a very fast team by nature with a ton of puck movement. Woods who played on a line often with speedsters like T.T. Cianfarano and Melissa Samoskevich in a high powered offense looks to fit in very well.
“I drafted her on her talents,” Seiling said in brief to explain his decision to bring her aboard if he can.
The second Northeastern product was picked when the Whale selected Paige Savage, a forward with 11 goals and 17 assists.
The Pride’s fourth rounder went towards Halli Krzyzaniak out of North Dakota. On defense last season she had 5 goals and 12 assists, but a relatively low +/-. Nonetheless the Pride, which don’t lack for defensive talent clearly saw something in her.
“I was definitely surprised to have her available when I picked her….I think she is an incredible player and she is only getting better,” Moore explained justifying her decision.
Krzyzaniak’s teammate, the highly rated Amy Menke, was the Riveters last pick. She posted 19 goals and 21 assists as a forward last season for NoDak.
The Beauts turned their attention to BU and likely not due to the similar enunciation as Maddie Elia was picked. She put up 15 goals and 14 assists for the Terriers last season.
The Whale chose the second goaltender of the draft in Quinnipiac’s Sydney Rossman. Rossman who owns QU’s record for most shutout minutes, had a Goals Against Average of .76 and a .960 save percentage. She also holds the team record for wins in a season with 33. 21 of these were shut outs. She has now been drafted by the team that signed her predecessor Chelsea Laden.
Rossman once described in an interview how she breaks the game up into five minute intervals and tries to win each five minute period to keep focused, even if not facing a lot of shots. As a goalkeeper in the ECAC she had to face some strong opposition in the form of Princeton, Harvard, and Clarkson and was on the ice as QU defeated Harvard for the first time in five years this past season.
The Pride wrapped up the picks with Lara Stalder. A defender from Minnesota-Duluth and Switzerland. On defense she scored 17 goals and had 24 assists suggesting a potent offensive presence from the blue line, and she holds a 2014 Olympic Bronze Medal.
“I didn’t know right away who was going to be first overall pick,” Wiseman admitted. “I think that in this draft there’s probably 3 or 4 girls arguably who could have gone first overall.” He went on to add that he reached out to players to make sure they were interested in joining the league (following NCAA rules naturally) and that where they lived and were from figured into his planning.
This aligned with Wiseman’s philosophy he went over at free agent camp. “I just want to surround the team with good character people that want to be here, and that are dedicated to be a part of this. I know there is a lot of players around the U.S. that want to join the league but it’s tough to be committed, different obligations, so we want to find those players that want to play hockey.”
Moore’s approach to the draft was different because of Boston’s place in the draft. “Being the fourth pick, I knew that I had to come in over prepared, because there is a lot that can happen.” Moore said adding she didn’t have a set plan, but she had a list of players and selected the next best player that was available. “I knew, especially from last year to not necessarily feel like I had every thing figured out from the start of it, because things can change.”
Moore was less concerned with location. “The best strategy was to come in and take the best players available, and deal with the side effects later on.” she said response to the issue of who might sign or might not sign given that rosters are in flux every year.
Boston’s GM did point to her background in approaching the whole process. “I’ve had the opportunity to watch these players since they were high school athletes, so it’s been real fun for me to follow along…I’ve been able to see them in different roles, and really develop as players.”
Seiling had outlined his approach to the first pick, but as for “the rest I isolated and pinpointed the players that I thought would help suit us in the future….I only lost one of those picks. I think it worked out pretty much in our favor.” He would go on to talk game strategy in terms of personnel adjustments. “Last year we didn’t pick a team based on our system, we picked our system based on our team…I think that’s a major flaw in a lot of coach’s today. They have a certain style and they’re not flexible to change that style based on their players. Once we get everyone into camp and start, we may have a change in our system based o our style of play, and what we have. It’s how we get everyone together and what they bring to the table. The first thing you need to do is find yourself some talented players, and I think that’s what we accomplished here.”
Moore and Wiseman also spoke about how networking with college coaches, at the NCAA conference and elsewhere, helped fill the void left by lacking a scouting staff that can travel as much. “We’re relying on them to give one feedback, team notes, video, stuff like that,” Wiseman said. “Not too many people in the sports world are going to push someone they don’t believe in.”
The Canada Question
When queried about drafting Canadian National Team players, Wiseman expressed wariness as the players will soon be centralized as the Olympics approaches.
Seiling had a slightly different take, though his location made it more understandable. “I wasn’t worried about the Canadian National Situation. I think you’re going to start seeing players coming across from the Canadian National Team very soon. I think once or two flow across, the others will follow. I think once they realize that the fact that they’re playing at a high level at play and at the same time making a wage for it we’ll draw more over. I think after centralization and the Olympics happen you’ll start to see an influx of them in droves. It’ll be a situation where the nationality is not going to be an issue, it’s going to be who’s the best player to fill that spot…I already have one player who played for us on the Canadian national development team which is Shelby Bram. That alone, just shows they will come across. It may take a little coaxing.”
It is interesting that Seiling was not as concerned but also noted centralization was an obstacle that once past would lead to a greater flow. Though Buffalo is in a far better position to draw in Canadian players than New York.
Moore responded to a question about International players overall as the Pride picked several including Canadians. “I think that if we ultimately want to have a league with the best players in the world, one league with the best women’s hockey talent, that’s our responsibility to continue to grow this league, and continue to work to make this an attractive environment.”
[Editor’s note: Interview quotes came from a conference call held with journalists including Zoe Hayden (The Victory Press), Kate Cimini (Sports Illustrated/Today’s Slapshot/Excelle Sports), Hannah Bevis (Today’s Slapshot), Melissa Kania (The Victory Press), Jen Neale (Puck Daddy) & Kyle Wescott (MyWSports)]