From Friday, June 10 2016 to Sunday, June 12 2016 ran the first free agent training camp for the NWHL’s offseason. The camp was designed to give the general managers a chance to watch evaluate players in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough and offering a contract to players whose styles and skills meshed well with the plan for a particular team.
Approximately 20 women took the ice to be seen by the GMs of all four teams: the Connecticut Whale’s Lisa Giovanelli, Chad Wiseman of the New York Riveters, Ric Seiling for the Buffalo Beauts, and the Boston Pride’s Hayley Moore.
Overall, the majority of players looked unfinished. Although they were exhausted from a very hard skate the night before, when players are tired technique stands out the most. Some of players were not ready to play professionally.
Skating was an issue for some while stickhandling or on-ice vision lacked in others; the most egregious was the occasional defender who could not skate backwards with speed.
They came from a selection of DI and DIII NCAA schools, and only a few stood out from the crowd. Goaltender Heather Rossi, out of Robert Morris University, did a good job in net while Evgeniya Dyupina of the Russian women’s national team showcased a hard and accurate shot that nearly always found the back of the net.
Rebecca Russo, a forward out of Boston University, wore a helmet covered in paws stickers – representing blocked shots, hat tricks, defensive plays and shorthanded goals – showcased some mean defensive play as well as a strong on-ice vision.
The true standouts, however, were the hopeful returning players.
“Obviously the players that played in the league last year,” Giovanelli replied to a question about who had caught the eyes of the GMs.
“They obviously have a little more comfort level coming back,” Seiling added, “It not being their first camp.”
That included Gabie Figueroa, Danielle Ward, Hayley Williams, and Elena Orlando.
Ward’s speed and aggression were on display, evidenced particularly when she absolutely leveled a player who was hers to defend against during a three-on-two drill.
Orlando’s stickwork was deft and smooth, Williams’ speed and devil-may-care attitude led to a number of great chances on net.
What their performance says about the level of play and coaching in the NWHL, though, is impressive.
None of the mentioned returning free agents were considered top-tier skill players in the league, though they were universally respected and liked. They were, as a whole, depth players employed to round out a roster in the league’s inaugural season.
That they’ve reached a point where they stand out against players fresh out of DI programs indicates that their coaching, as well as the high quality of competition they took on over the past season has grown their game to a higher level.
Should they not be considered strong enough players to pick up by any one team – many of whom have supplemented their rosters with the newest top players out of college, such as Miye D’Oench, Amanda Kessel and Michelle Picard – they may be asked to take a reduced role as a practice player, or even cut entirely.
“The expectations of what they want to achieve out here has increased, having a year under their belt now,” said Wiseman. “Obviously the level of competition has gotten better. That’s part of improving the team and improving the league. We’re just going to see them get better –– these camps are going to get tougher and tougher as the talent pool gets deeper.”
In the inaugural season the majority of players who tried out at free agent camps were signed by one of the four teams. Now, with some rosters more than half-filled and others waiting on Olympic talent to vet contracts before signing once more, far fewer players will be selected to the final roster.
Gabie Figueroa gave this a nod, saying, “If I don’t end up with a contract spot I’ll definitely be a practice player in a non-paid position and still be involved with the league, just because I believe in it so much.”
Despite players’ belief in the league, whether it will make it to the fall is still up in the air with investor difficulties and the Michael Moran lawsuit hanging over its head.