The Olympic Rink at Northtown Center was once again filled with the sounds of skates and rubber against composite sticks, as it played host to the Buffalo Beauts’ Free Agent Camp over the weekend. Twenty-four hopefuls showcased their skills to general manager Nate Oliver and newly-appointed head coach Rhea Coad for a chance to wear Beauts blue for the upcoming 2021-22 season.
While the roster contained mostly new names and faces, there were several familiar ones as well. Overall it looks like Oliver and Coad are in for some tough decisions over the next few weeks leading up to the drafts, as only “a handful” (in Coad’s words) will be offered contracts over the coming weeks. Ultimately, Oliver stated, the focus is on filling all but a couple of the 25 roster spots allowed maximum per team between these signings, returning players, and the upcoming drafts.
Here’s a (not-so) quick rundown:
- Oliver stated there have already been some signings the organization has been waiting to announce, and one of them was announced Monday. Autumn MacDougall will be back for a sophomore season with Buffalo, and that means we get to see more of her speed, more of her scoring finesse, and hopefully more from an offense that was downright anemic last year. No word on just how many more signings are already finalized, but keep an eye out.
- Iveta Klimasova and Maddie Norton were amongst some of the formerly rostered Beauts vying for a spot this weekend, along with Kelsey Neumann. Norton was there for Day One, while Klimasova and Neumann took part in both days. Klimasova did well in the scrimmages, displaying her usual rough-and-tumble style while also making some good plays to the net, while Neumann was very strong in net with her communication and her puck awareness.
- Recent re-signs Erin Gehen and Cass MacPherson also skated with the prospects. Coad mentioned after Day One that she was looking for them to take more of an on-ice leadership role, adding that both of them were “super quiet” when they first joined, but “[Gehen] was probably the most talkative one out there” during drills. Culture is an important part of what the front office is looking for when it comes to building an up-and-coming team; expect the free agent signings to reflect this.
- One name that surprised more than a few people on last weekend’s roster was Hayley Williams, who played for the Beauts in their inaugural season before moving to the CWHL where she played for the Toronto Furies, then heading overseas to the ZhHL. She was easily one of the fastest and most dynamic players on the ice; however, with prior commitments to Team Hungary and the 2022 Olympics looming, her focus is likely back that way for at least one more season. It’s safe to say, though, that she is welcome back to the NW anytime.
- Naturally, my question for Nate Oliver when looking over the roster and seeing only one of the Slovakians listed was: Where is Lenka Curmova? According to him, she is exploring her options. The blueliner finished out her season in Finland with HPK of the Naisten Liiga, where she tallied one assist in two games played. It makes sense, particularly with centralization for the 2022 Olympics looming, that she would want to stay closer to home; of course, the same could be said for Klimasova, who’s been working out here in Buffalo but also has a big decision to make for this season.
- The drafts coming up later this month and next are also throwing a bit of a wrench into everyone’s plans, it seems. Normally an NWHL team knows what it has to work with when it comes to prospects and newcomers at this point, but of course, the pandemic has flipped things on their heads and this year’s draft is scheduled for June 29 instead. Moreover, the NCAA allowing an extra year of eligibility for players who would have been graduating seniors already has required more scouting than usual, according to Oliver.
“A lot of the big names are anticipated to go back and do that extra season, and I don’t blame them… [this year’s] kind of a bit more like a balancing act to scout some players that showed up, seeing where they fit in with that,” he said. “And also being mindful that there’s some really good collegiate players that are available and pinpointing them and how they’re going to best benefit the program.”
- Which brings us to… The International Draft. The first of its kind in league history, it debuts on Twitch July 25, which is a ways away yet. This means even more that each team has to consider with regard to who gets each spot, and with Oliver describing himself as someone with “an affinity” for international players, that will be an interesting decision.
Who to watch for
Amongst some of the prospective newcomers who stood out is Bri Colucci, a defender from UMass-Boston with roots in Western NY (she grew up in Lancaster). While it may seem as though the Beauts are all set on the blueline, Colucci is very good on both sides of the puck and may just be what they need to help galvanize possession and puck movement.
Valeriia Manchak is another name to watch. The smooth-skating Ukrainian forward is a bit of an outlier, having completed grad school and played at Liberty University, but had an impressive 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in 9 games played, with two of her goals being the game-deciding tallies. She could be a great addition as a depth scorer to help balance out the lines.
As for the net… well, there were six goalies who showed up, and one of them (as mentioned before) was Neumann, who has some stiff competition in Lauren Dahm (hopping over from the PWHPA) and former Whale third-stringer Cassandra Goyette. Neumann and Dahm were teammates at Clarkson for Neumann’s freshman season, which could make that battle for the third spot interesting.
Oliver did mention after Day Two that the focus is likely going to be on balancing the two young goalies the Beauts are bringing back (Carly Jackson and Caty Flagg) with a veteran who has the savvy to help shape them into future leaders. That could mean bringing back Neumann for one more season, or it could mean going in a different direction. Either way, it’ll be a tough call.
Stay tuned for more Beauts news as the summer progresses. Just because it’s hot out doesn’t mean the wire goes cold!