Womens Hockey

New NWHL roster size, salary cap will force changes

Blake Bolden, Kelley Steadman vie for the puck. NWHL Buffalo Beauts vs Boston Pride, Isobel Cup Finals, March 11-12, 2016, Newark, New Jersey. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Wednesday morning the NWHL announced new salary cap and roster sizes for the 2016-17 season, which, while relatively small, portend larger changes to come within the league.

Per the press release:

Each team will carry 17 rostered players: 15 skaters and two goalies. Each team will also sign a total of six practice players: five skaters and one goalie. The salary cap remains the same at $270,000, therefore the average player’s salary will increase from $15,000 to $15,882.

“We’re continuously striving to make appropriate changes to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our players and the league,” said Commissioner Dani Rylan. “We believe this change in roster size and number of practice players will raise the overall level of competition throughout the league.”

Practice players are paid based on the number of games in which they dress during the pre-season, regular season or playoffs.

“Practice players played a huge role in the success of all four teams last season,” said Commissioner Rylan. “We’re excited to offer that opportunity to more players in 2016-2017.”

In its inaugural season the league carried four teams, each of which had a $270,000 cap. The cap will remain the same in year two.

Each of those four teams had 18-player rosters, three spots of which were dedicated to goaltenders. Therefore it appears the league has reconsidered the salary dedicated to the third goaltender, who frequently sat out games, yet earned a minimum of $10,000 for the season.

Jenny Scrivens warms up at NWHL Connecticut Whale at New York Riveters Dec. 2015. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Jenny Scrivens warms up at NWHL Connecticut Whale at New York Riveters Dec. 2015. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Instead, they’ve turned to making one of their practice players into an EBUG (emergency back up goaltender) on a game-by-game basis like they did in a Dec. 8 New York Riveters contest when Jenny Scrivens was the only goaltender left standing after both Nana Fujimoto and Shenae Lundberg were on IR.

In addition to its 18-player roster last season, the league added four practice players per team (for a 22-player roster); practice players were initially conceived as skaters who would practice with the team, occasionally filling in for a roster player who was forced to sit out. As such, practice players did not earn a salary but instead were paid per game played.

The only team that followed this pattern was the Boston Pride, whose national team players and large amount of depth players made it difficult indeed for practice players to see much ice time. Instead, on many teams, practice players filled in for so many games that there was little difference between them and a roster player: only salary.

There are vast implications to these changes.

First, 2015 draft picks are graduating and reaching signing status. Of the two general managers Today’s Slapshot has spoken with over the past week, both have been in contact with all their draft picks (save one 2015 draft pick who was a redshirt the 2015-16 season with her school and will return for a fifth year) since the season ended.

Should the NWHL GMs manage to sign even two of their five 2015 draft picks, this will still leave two players from the 2015-16 season looking for roster positions with other clubs or facing a potential practice player spot – which is now open to goaltenders as well, meaning if each netminder is interested in returning, at least four of them will face relegation to the practice player slot.

How will GMs deal with that kind of movement? They are in a tough position, particularly Hayley Moore of the Boston Pride, who has no fewer than eight national team players rostered.

Moore can build an elite team with the addition of draft picks Kendall Coyne, Emerance Maschmeyer, Lexi Bender, Miye D’Oench and Shannon MacAulay, but it leaves her making tough decisions after last season’s run.

Does she supplant NWHL Goaltender of the Year Brittany Ott with Maschmeyer, who deservedly won Goaltender of the Tournament at the IIHF Women’s World Championships just this week? Does she stack Maschmeyer behind Ott and turn second and third goaltenders Lauren Slebodnick and Kelsie Fralick loose? While neither saw much time in net last season, both are superior goaltenders and worthy of a roster position.

Netminders aside, anywhere between one and five roster players on each team will find themselves fighting for the spot they were offered last year. Not only will they be competing for fewer roster spots but many, if not all, practice players who spent the year contributing to the team for very little will see the offseason as their chance to move up to a salaried position.

The addition of extra practice player spots allows the league both to retain players from last year who were strong depth players but not necessarily up to the skill level required of a roster spot while ensuring it is building depth on the cheap.

For a league without the deep pockets of an NHL or MLB or even WNBA, this is a good way to keep the lights on while strengthening competition, though it will certainly sting for the goaltenders who are asked to move from a salaried position to being paid by the game.

The other potential complication is the NWHL’s teased expansion.

NWHL Expansion Teaser from the Isobel Cup Series, Game 2, Boston vs Buffalo. March 12, 2016. Screenshot from NWHL YouTube stream.

NWHL Expansion Teaser from the Isobel Cup Series, Game 2, Boston vs Buffalo. March 12, 2016. Screenshot from NWHL YouTube stream.

If, as the graphic above suggests, the NWHL plans to expand to two more locations (both of which are in Canada), that opens up 46 new positions, both rostered and non-rostered.

The league has still not committed one way or another to expansion; when asked all Rylan would say was, “180 women graduated NCAA DI colleges this year and it only makes sense that there’s a place for them to play when they’re done and get paid for being the best at what they do,” while grinning at reporters.

However, should expansion be in the works, the league could see itself retain nearly all its players from the 2015-16 season if they commit to playing for one of the potential Canadian franchises. A number of NWHL players are Canadian and found it difficult to find a job outside of the NWHL as their visas would only allow them to work in hockey. Some practice players, like Tara Tomimoto, even turned down roster positions because of the potential threat to their visa status; these players might see it in themselves to move back to Canada to compete for pay.

The downside may be that this comes with the likely caveat of wages being earned in Canadian dollars, which is far weaker than the U.S. dollar.

Regardless, change is coming to the NWHL’s team structure. How this scenario plays out will have a profound effect on team depth and overall competition.

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