Last week, the NWHL announced that free agency will begin on June 1, 2018. The four (?) teams will have a few weeks to get their rosters in order before they begin to plan for the 2018 entry draft.
The team has a lot to consider heading into free agency. For the first time in team history, no players have announced retirement. This comes as little surprise; Buffalo was quite a young time heading into the 2017-18 season, and it stands to reason that a lot of those younger players would return to aid the team in a fourth consecutive trip to the Isobel Cup final matchup.
Historically, the Beauts experience one of the league’s highest rates of turnover. Only one player - Kourtney Kunichika - has played all three seasons for the Beauts, with Corinne Buie being the only other player to have played three years in the league. Despite losing the championship game to the Metropolitan Riveters, the Beauts had their most successful regular season, winning 10 straight games to close the campaign. It would be logical for general manager and head coach Ric Seiling to want to keep the core of this group together.
On the other hand, Seiling is quick to point out how much the skill set of each group of senior Women’s hockey players improves year to year, and this year is no different. Buffalo drafted five NCAA players last season, which include Savannah Harmon, who captained the two-time national champion Clarkson Golden Knights and the captain of last year’s runners-up, Annika Zalewski. A defender and forward, respectively, both were incredibly productive - something that Seiling focuses on when building his teams.
In a league where geography frequently drives decisions about signing to teams, Buffalo is central to both players; however, Harmon could get a hard look from the Minnesota Whitecaps, who are speculated to be joining the NWHL as an expansion team. Should Minnesota franchise their club, Buffalo might also lose Buie, who is famously from the Gopher state.
UPDATE: The NWHL has scheduled a media event to make a major announcement on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m.— NWHL (@NWHL) May 11, 2018
In Minnesota. pic.twitter.com/6Phqfhb8PD
Last season’s big signings included three former CWHL standouts; Jess Jones, Rebecca Vint, and Sarah Edney. It will be interesting to see if the three players will remain in Buffalo. Each were key players in the Beauts’ best regular season, and Edney was especially important to a defensive unit that lost Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer.
Seiling needs to prioritize the courtship of Kourtney Kunichika. She has been a somewhat silent leader for Buffalo since her first season in the league and last year, she shifted positions to join elite rookies Maddie Elia and Hayley Scamurra. The trio combined for 42 points on the season, each scoring 14. They were by far the most productive line on the team, and inarguably the most physically dominating. Success follows Kunichika quite closely, and she should be a Beaut until she physically can’t skate any longer.
Of course, offense and defense are key, but this team’s three straight trips to the championship have been largely on the backs of the goaltenders. Last year was no different; Amanda Leveille played more minutes, faced more shots, and made more saves than any other goalie. Leveille’s cool, calm demeanor is contagious, which is paramount for a team that has a tendency to scramble in the defensive zone.
With the national team players returning from Olympic duties, the faces of many of the teams could be vastly different this year, however, the Beauts will not likely undergo much of a transition in this regard. Should Emily Pfalzer sign, she would certainly add speed and strong transition to the squad, but she would simply fit in with players like Edney and Lisa Chesson, who have a similar offensive style of play.
Seiling has a few more weeks to put together his free-agency strategy, but these key players should top his list. As the calendar flips to June and the signing period starts, fans can scratch a few more days off of the countdown to October.