(Photo: Melissa Burgess)
The National Women's Hockey League opened its restricted free agent period on May 1, with an undoubtedly interesting summer ahead. All players are free agents, having signed one-year contracts prior to the 2016-2017 season. In addition, teams are looking to fill their rosters in the absence of many Olympians, who will spend the next year preparing for the 2018 tournament in Pyeongchang.
With that being said, the focus at the moment lies on restricted free agency, which is open through May 31. Which players should the four NWHL teams focus on re-signing as soon as possible? Let's take a look at the top three for each club.
The Pride are in an especially difficult situation this summer, with the majority of their rosters from the past two seasons composed of Olympic players: Knight, Duggan, Carpenter, Decker, and Pelkey, among others.
Three players they should re-sign:
Blake Bolden - Although she continues to be left off of USA Hockey's radar, Bolden is an excellent player and a critical piece for the Pride. Next season, she'll be arguably the backbone of the Boston blueline -- provided that they re-sign her.
Brittany Ott - For the last two seasons, Ott has a been a large factor in the Pride's success. Sure, they've got the goalscorers -- but without a key piece in net like Ott, it'd certainly be more difficult to win. She is certainly among the best American post-collegiate goalies who are not on the national team.
Jordan Smelker - Smelker's play may not be the flashiest, but she contributes well on the ice, putting up eight points and 25 shots on goal last season. Boston will need to re-sign forwards like her to build their offense for next season, and Smelker would certainly see an elevated role.
The Beauts are already losing a few key players to retirement (see: Brianne McLaughlin, Harrison Browne, Devon Skeats) and will likely be missing a few others thanks to the Olympics (Pfalzer, Bozek, Darkangelo).
Three players they need to re-sign:
Amanda Leveille - With McLaughlin hanging up her skates, goaltending is more important than ever for the Beauts. Leveille proved herself last season and, if re-signed, she should be Buffalo's top netminder in the coming year.
Corinne Buie - Buie, along with teammate Darkangelo, led the Beauts in scoring last season, with 12 points on the year in her first season in Buffalo. She's already said that she hopes to re-sign with the Beauts; be sure to check out my profile of her here.
Emily Janiga - Janiga found much success last season in her rookie NWHL year, potting 11 points (6G, 5A) in 17 regular season games. Her talents hit the big stage, however, in the Isobel Cup Playoffs, where she played a critical role in Buffalo's championship win.
Like the other NWHL teams, the Whale will be missing a few big pieces next season thanks to the Olympics, including Dana Trivigno, Haley Skarupa, and Kelli Stack -- three of their most dangerous forwards.
Three others they should re-sign include:
Kelly Babstock - Aside from the aforementioned trio, Babstock is the Whale's best offensive threat. She was also the first player to re-sign with Connecticut last season, and they'd be smart to do it again.
Nicole Stock - As I've said before, goaltending is key, and it's a position where the Whale have had some troubles finding consistency. Stock saw a decent amount of ice time last season for Connecticut, and could be an important piece moving forward. (This also brings up the question of Jaimie Leonoff, who missed the entire last season after having surgery to repair a hip injury. Will she return to the league? And if so, where?)
Nicole Kosta - Kosta was one of the Whale's top scorers last season, with 17 points (6G, 11A) in 18 games. Three of her points came on special teams, and if re-signed, she'll help bring more offense to Connecticut in the coming season.
New York Riveters
The Riveters, like their counterparts, will lose a few players to the Olympics -- probably including Amanda Kessel, one of their top forwards. But they've already begun building their roster for next season, as they re-signed Katie Fitzgerald on the first day of restricted free agency.
Fitzgerald was a huge piece for the Riveters last season -- arguably their most important player -- and, had she not already re-signed, would've been at the top of my list. Three more to re-sign include:
Janine Weber - For the past two seasons, Weber has been a solid offensive piece for the Riveters. After putting up nine points in the inaugural season, she nearly tripled her output with a 23-point season (11G, 12A) in 2016-17. Overall, she's a huge offensive player for New York.
Rebecca Russo - Russo averaged nearly a point per game this past season, including four power-play assists. She also provides a defensive spin to her game, which included 11 blocked shots in the regular season, her first in the NWHL.
Tatiana Rafter - Rafter is heading into her third NWHL season and has played with both New York-area teams (first Buffalo, then the Riveters). She provided seven points (6G, 1A) in 18 games this past season, which was an improvement over her three points in the prior year. If re-signed, Rafter will continue to bolster the Rivs' offensive depth.
The NWHL's restricted free agent period runs through May 31. Unrestricted agency opens on June 1, with the NWHL draft being held on August 17.