NWHL Hockey: Top 3 Defensemen Available in the Draft

The NWHL will have its inaugural Entry Draft on June 20, 2015. As announced last week, the NWHL’s New York Riveters will pick first, the Connecticut Whale second, followed by the Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts.

The GMs will be selecting from a group of fewer than 40 prospects who will enter the NWHL as rookies after completing their senior campaigns at an accredited four-year university. In order to be eligible for the Draft, these prospects must be rising seniors at said universities.

In this series, we will examine the top three defensive, offensive and goaltending prospects. We try to look at a complete picture of what a player can contribute, taking offensive production into account but also less easily-quantifiable attributes, such as playmaking abilities and leadership. Today we begin with the defense.


Milica McMillen

Defense | Shoots: Left | Games Played: 111 | Goals: 35 | Assists: 57 | Points: 92

Aside from having the greatest name among the 2015 Draft prospects, Milica McMillen is most likely the strongest defensive prospect within the Draft itself, able to work both the defensive and offensive side of the ice. McMillen (No. 13), a left-handed defender, is a points-producing prodigy, with a deadly slapshot you can catch a glimpse of in the video below.

In 2011 McMillen captured a gold medal at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships with Team USA before even entering college at the University of Minnesota. Once she did, she boosted her team defensively, posting a plus/minus ratio of +23 and earned 26 points from the blue line, even scoring the game-winning goal in the Gophers’ national championship game against Boston University. Her offensive production and defensive know-how earned her honors as a WCHA All-Rookie as well as a spot on the NCAA All-Tournament Team. All as a freshman.

Her sophomore year was more of the same as McMillen established herself as a top-three defender for the Golden Gophers. She scored 11 goals and totaled 39 points, ranking third in the nation among defenders. She continued to collect accolades and was named a Second Team All-America honoree. During her junior year at Minnesota McMillen ranked fifth in the nation in points for defenders with 27 points over the 2014-2015 season and was named an honoree to the All-WCHA Second Team.

McMillen’s height of 5’10’ gives her a distinct advantage over some of her smaller fellow defenders and in addition she is able to stay out on the ice for long shifts without visible signs of fatigue. Her workhorse abilities have given her more scoring opportunities that she capitalizes on; McMillen has the highest points per game percentage of all six known Draft prospects, scoring an astonishing 82 points per hundred games. McMillen doesn’t simply number among the strongest NWHL defensive prospects; she is the strongest NWHL defensive prospect.

With that in mind, the New York Riveters, who hold the first draft pick among the NWHL teams, may very well end up with McMillen for their 2016-2017 season.


Erin Ambrose

Defense | Shoots: Right | Games Played: 102 | Goals: 26 | Assists: 83 | Points: 109

Ambrose was already profiled by Today’s Slapshot as a top NWHL Entry Draft prospect. She currently plays for Clarkson University’s Golden Knights and has made up one half of their top defensive pairing since her freshman year. She is lauded for her complete game, but her offensive production, particularly her high number of assists, paints a picture of a defender who directs plays well and sees the game differently than most.

From Today’s Slapshot,

A right-handed defender, Ambrose is relatively small at 5’5″ but knows how to use her size to her advantage. She is light on her feet and has a quick release off her stick, as you can see in the video below or here at the link. She’s no stranger to the hat trick, somewhat unusual for a defender, but her aggressive positioning and ability to find a hole in the scrum in front of the net means her team is never without a scorer.


Her shot-blocking, mentioned by [Knights head coach Matt] Desrosiers, however, is another strong aspect of her game that one might overlook in favor of her points.

“That’s the best part, when you make a big block and your team gets up and is cheering for you, that’s what means the most and that’s why you do it,” [Ambrose] told USA Hockey.  … “Maybe it’s not the prettiest thing to the fans in the stands, but it’s what matters to us as a team, for sure.”

It is worth mentioning that Ambrose holds the second-highest points-per-game percentage among the NWHL’s defensive prospects, tallying 81 goals per hundred games. Her total comes to a full 19 points higher per 100 higher than her closest competition in the NWHL’s defensive prospect pool, and only one point behind Milica McMillen.

She will certainly go high in the draft, with her ability to quarterback her team from the back end making her an even more attractive prospect on top of her scoring abilities, and evidenced by her extraordinarily high number of assists while on the Golden Knights.


Courtney Burke

Defense | Shoots: Left | Games Played: 113 | Goals: 13 | Assists: 60 | Points: 73

University of Wisconsin blueliner Courtney Burke is not the offensive power that Ambrose or McMillen are, but she doesn’t need to be. Burke brings something different to the game: a quiet control. She skates neatly and efficiently, has light hands, but most of all, has a rock-solid work ethic that lends itself to a strong understanding of the game and respect from her teammates.

When the Badgers acquired Burke for the 2012-2013 season, she was expected to contribute to the back end, and she rose to the challenge. Burke scored 23 points in her rookie year at Wisconsin, leading all defenders in points and was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team, finishing the year seated fifth in freshmen scoring in the conference.

She continued to lead defenders in points during her sophomore year, but more importantly demonstrated her ability to organize her team from the blue line in her power play production, scoring fourteen points on the PP. Much of this is down to her determination to strive for improvements in her play.

Her work ethic has been touted since her high school days at Shattuck-St. Mary’s alongside fellow NWHL defensive prospect Lexi Bender.

Burke continued to lead the Wisconsin defense in scoring during her junior campaign, and has grown into the number-one defender role on the Badgers; her senior year will be worth keeping an eye on.

In addition to her time at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and Wisconsin, Burke has spent a good amount of time representing the U.S. in girls’ hockey around the world. She was named to the U.S. Women’s U-18 team that competed at the 2012 World Women’s U-18 Championship and earned silver medal for her efforts while previously taking home gold in 2011 and silver in 2010 with Team USA.

Burke is originally from upstate New York, so being selected by Buffalo might be just what she’s looking for.

Next, Hannah Bevis tackles the prospective goaltenders.

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