Saturday saw the National Women’s Hockey League hold its second draft, selecting rising NCAA seniors who general managers thought stood out from the crowd .
The four teams picked in order of worst-to-best regular season record, starting with the New York Riveters, continuing on to the Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and ending with the Boston Pride, who won the Isobel Cup. The NWHL draft is akin to discovery rights more than anything else, affecting only whether certain teams in the NWHL can sign a player outright or pay a “draft tax“ to the team that initially drafted her.
This system was not terribly popular with draft picks, it seems; only three players have signed with the teams that drafted them in 2015 so far, with all four inaugural first-rounders opting to sign elsewhere. To get around that issue, Chad Wiseman, New York Riveters general manager and head coach, divulged to media in a post-draft conference call that he had reached out to players to confirm their interest in the league before drafting, with league officials working with sports information directors and NCAA compliance departments within individual colleges and universities to ensure said exchanges did not run afoul of NCAA compliance rules and regulations.
With players expressing interest in the league, it’s more likely fans will see them sign come the 2017 off-season, bringing an influx of fresh talent.
“Last year we didn’t pick our team based on our system, we picked our system based on our team,” Beauts GM and head coach Ric Seiling said.
“I think in this draft there’s arguably three or four girls who could have went first overall,” Wiseman said. “For me, there’s a lot of research that goes into it. Where they’re from, where they live, their plans to join the NWHL.”
The top picks by each GM revealed a lot about the direction their teams were heading in as well as what they saw as invaluable to their rosters.
New York Riveters
The Riveters used the top pick in 2015 on Patty Kazmaier award-winner and Team USA forward Alex Carpenter, eventually trading her rights to Boston.
With Wiseman taking over GM duties from NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, the team used the off-season to shore up the blue line, signing puck-moving defenders to the Riveters’s back end in an effort to reduce transitional havoc. With contracts a year-to-year issue, Wiseman found it hard not to look toward a future iteration of of his defensive corps, using the first pick on Kelsey Koezler, a defender out of Princeton
“You’re not going to pass up on the most offensive defenseman in the draft,” Wiseman said. “She’s kind of got a bit of a Brent Burns feel where she played forward at the beginning of her career and moved back to defense. 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.”
Koezler posted 18 goals and 33 points over 34 games her junior year, second-best on the Tigers’ roster and first in defensive scoring. She also earned the ECAC’s Best Defender of the Year, was an league finalist for Player of the Year and an Ivy League Player of the Year in 2015-16.
“She’s definitely someone we can build our team around in the future,” Wiseman said.
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Selling, in his first season leading the Beauts as GM and coach, made his intentions clear, telling media he wanted a puck-moving defender in either Koezler or University of Minnesota blueliner Lee Stecklein, planning on taking whichever one Wiseman didn’t.
“It was just a matter of which one New York was going to take ahead of me,” Seiling said. “If you look at the winners of the Isobel Cup, a big point of Boston was their offense. That was something we had to learn to deal with [on defense]. We had to address that.”
Stecklein was quite a get for Buffalo. She was named team co-captain with Brandt as a junior and posted a career-best 30 points (8g 22a) over the course of the Gophers’ season and ranked second on the team with a +50. Her on-ice work meant she was named to the Second Team All-American, All-USCHO Second Team and was an All-WCHA First Team honoree.
Although Stecklein will probably not draw on a Buffalo jersey for two more seasons, due to the centralization of Olympic players in September, 2017, her offensive ability from the back end is a complement to that of Megan Bozek or Emily Pfalzer, making Buffalo that much more dangerous on the scoreboard. Seiling spun that for a positive.
“When she does come to us she’ll be that much better of a player with more international experience,” Seiling said. “She’s a dominant player; you can’t miss her when she’s out there. Those are the type of players you want. Those are the ones that are going to help you solidify your own end and get the puck out of your zone and get your forwards on their horses going the other way. They just bring a wide dimension of talents to the game and you just don’t see them every day.”
The Whale drafted a trio of players from the University of Minnesota in 2015 and none ended up with the team. Lisa Giovanelli, in her first draft as GM of Connecticut, didn’t let this fact deter her strategy.
With the third pick, the Whale took Gophers forward Dani Cameranesi. In many ways, Cameranesi is not much of a departure from Hannah Brandt, the Whale’s first selection in 2015. Both highly lauded forwards led Minnesota in scoring as juniors and were finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award.
“Our strategy was find to the top players in each position and take them as they came,” said Connecticut coach Heather Linstad. “If it was the top forward, we would take the best forward at that time. We wanted to be balanced in our picks.”
It was clear, however, that Connecticut was interested in loading up on offense at the start of the draft, indicating that Giovanelli saw the Whale’s spotty scoring as an issue that could have contributed to its early exit from the playoffs.
Cameranesi, a lefthand shot, was also named a Second Team All-American in addition to All-WCHA First Team and All-USCHO Second Team honors, and earned the title of WCHA Scoring Champion. Her offensive skills would be welcomed that boasted only Kelley Babstock, Shiann Darkangelo and Kelli Stack among the league’s top scorers in 2015-16.
Should Cameranesi buck the recent trend and join the Whale, she will likely emerge as one of the team’s top scorers within a season.
“Dani not only is a talented around the net and the offense but she can play at both ends of the ice,” Linstad said. “She sees the ice really, really well. She is really a dynamic player that can do anything. The other thing is she so coachable. I’ve seen her development through her college career and she’s only getting better. I haven’t seen her take a step back yet.”
Boston despite winning the Isobel Cup and employing the league’s Goaltender of the Year in Brittany Ott, is still concerned about its situation in net. With 2015 second-round pick Emerance Maschmeyer, a Harvard grad, declaring for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League draft, GM Hayley Moore used the No. 4 pick on Ann-Renée Desbiens, a goaltender out of Quebec who has ruled the University of Wisconsin crease for the past two seasons.
At 5-9 Desbiens stands significantly taller in net than the 5-2 Ott and could prove a marked change from Ott’s situational style. The Badgers goalie set NCAA marks in save percentage (.960), goals-against average (0.76) and shutouts (21) during the 2015-16 season.
“Being the fourth pick, I was really not sure what to expect,” said Moore. “I thought the goaltending position was something you can always, as a program, [use]. If you have a high-end goaltender like Ann-Renee Desbiens, she is a program-changer and she’s not [one] you want to let slip away. Having her [available for] my fourth pick, I knew we had to snatch her up.”