This is part two of a Q&A with Buffalo Beauts general manager Nate Oliver. Read Part One here.
Over the course of our hour-long chat with the second longest-tenured GM in the NWHL, Oliver’s passion for his job was on full display as we spoke about expectations for the Beauts in Season 7, his unique draft strategy, the business aspect of becoming a GM, and much more.
TIG: While we are recording this (July 12) you have 16 players currently signed and everything is now happening in real-time (no more signings have been withheld). What can Beauts fans look forward to with the few signings that will fill out your roster for Season 7?
NO: We’re definitely going to sign a third goaltender and who that is, remains to be seen. Another thing I’d like to do is nail down another top-6 forward. We have a few under contract already with Accursi, MacDougall, and (Cassidy) Vinkle, and I’d like to add another one to that mix. Someone who will naturally provide offense. That player is out there and I’ve certainly been in talks with different players that fit that description. With these last few signings, something that our fans can count on is that we’ll be very choosy with them.
You know what you’re getting with the players you are re-signing, right? You already have had the privilege of working with them. If we’re adding a new, top-6 forward, you just want to make sure you are dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s. Yes, they can put the puck in the net, but do they fit in with our culture, and is she good with living in Buffalo, relocating if that’s a thing, etc?
Our other draft picks that are unsigned, they’re all really good players, and it’s my goal to get more of them signed and under contract as well. I’ve seen some people have said that they think the later rounds of the draft were just a show and that no one would be signing those players. For us, that’s not the case. We were very deliberate with the players we selected.
My goal was to sign 23-24 players (you have to sign at least 20, no more than 25), and historically, the past two seasons we’ve been at about 23. The salary cap increased to $300K, doubling from the previous season, but do the math. If you divide $300K by 24 players - that’s only $12.5K per player, and that’s if you pay everyone the same. Obviously, you can’t do it like that.
Players have played in the NWHL for five-six seasons, some are All-Stars, have scoring records, etc. They deserve a bit more. A young player fresh out of college or a lower-tier free agent signing isn’t going to make as much as your top players. There’s a natural pecking order, and a balance, that you have to achieve. And sometimes, the financial aspect of it shapes your roster too.
No capologist here, (laughs) you’re talking to him. In all seriousness though, that’s a real reality. There is some negotiating involved too. Every situation is different and you have to read the room. Sometimes you’ll take a hard stance, other times you have more of a back and forth on terms.
TIG: When you sit and talk with your staff as you try to piece this team together are you looking at duos or pairings as far as forwards go, or are you trying to construct lines of three? Do you work through who will complement who - like a Ganser/MacDougall (even though no one has been on the ice for training camp and practice thus far)?
NO: We really look at all of that, and in my mind, that’s the advantage of my coaching staff - it’s a collective decision. I’m very proud of them all, and we complement each other well. My approach with the players is that I’m the morale booster, make sure they’re happy, pump them up as players, give them the social experience of being a player for the Beauts. Fostering and people-building is really my strength.
Our assistant coach Mark Zarbo is one of the most skillful people I’ve ever met as far as evaluating a player’s technique, skillsets, and how to utilize them best. He’s a hockey lifer and also has a degree in physical therapy, so he knows the human body very well. His strengths are more in the technical aspect of the game.
Rhea is the perfect blend of Mark and myself. She really understands the game so well but is all about building people up and really cares for them. She is a big proponent of the family aspect of the Beauts. Julia DiTondo was a backup with the Beauts for two seasons behind (Shannon) Szabados and (Nicole) Hensley - learning from some of the best in the game. She’s young and can relate well to the players. Our video and analytics coach, Chris Baudo, knows that aspect of the game very well. He’s a Head Coach at Nazareth and ran the program at The Gunnery for a number of years.
I’m very fortunate that we have a wide array of talent within our coaching staff. So when we get together, look at video, discuss players, or how to build the roster - we look at it from all avenues and angles. I don’t know how common it is in our sport, in our league. We really listen to everyone’s thoughts when we pursue a player - especially heading into the draft that just passed.
To circle back to your original question, we do look at combos, we get feedback from coaches (in the Ganser/MacDougall situation) and they gave us good intel on both players. We certainly have a ghost roster that we chart out, trying to determine how our roster will shake out for the upcoming season. Plotting how our pairs on defense will play out as well as forward combinations.
What team wouldn’t want to add a top-6 talent, right? That’s what hockey teams look for. But it’s also determining are they truly a top-6 forward, how are they going to benefit you. Maybe there is a player who, yes can rattle off 20 goals but she needs somebody to set her up. Do we have someone to feed her the puck? We look at all of that, and it can be challenging, and convoluted. But it can be a lot of fun, and it’s what you’re paid to do.
TIG: What type of team do you envision the Beauts being this season and should the rest of the league be on notice?
NO: It’s something that Rhea and I have talked about very bluntly with one another. We’re done with this notion of being an underdog team. That was something that the two previous seasons, the mindset was: we’re the underdogs and we like that because we maybe we can prove teams wrong, or they underestimate us. I don’t like that anymore and neither does Rhea.
The reason why is, if you look at the players we’ve signed thus far - the caliber of CJ, Accursi, Cheese, and MJ. Look at the players we drafted and brought in like Harley and Diffendal. We’re not an underdog team anymore. Just look at us on paper. We are not an underdog. I would hope that other teams around the NWHL are looking at us thinking this is a strong team. We’re done with being the underdog, or a middle-of-the-pack team. We very much believe that we’re a contender.
Covid and Lake Placid taught us a lot, and without making excuses because it was what it was. But we didn’t have our captain Taylor Accursi with us there. We didn’t have probably the fastest player on our team, Emma Ruggerio, there. It’s hard to replace players like that. You can’t help but wonder what might have been. This season we mean business, we’re not an underdog, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Looking at someone like MJP, who I’ve known since she was a sophomore at UNH. With the whole team, I did this - I waited two weeks after Lake Placid before I talked with our players and staff to do exit interviews. That was enough time to digest what we went through together, but it wasn’t far away enough that it was still fresh in their minds. We had open and honest conversations. I talked to MJ then, and again when restricted free agency opened, and both of us are tired of losing. She’s back with us for her third season, one of the best leaders I know, and she wants to win. She wants an Isobel Cup on her resume.
Taylor Accursi needs one more point to become our franchise’s all-time scoring leader. This will be her fifth season with the Beauts, and in a way is kinda like a ‘Kaleigh Fratkin story’ where she’s been battling so hard (for that Cup). She’s been to the Isobel Cup Final twice and comes away empty. She doesn’t want to end her career without ever having raised the Cup. She’d trade that point record in a heartbeat to raise that Cup. She definitely has a chip on her shoulder about that points record and wants to get it done. We talked about it leading up to Season 6 - how will we celebrate it? I had graphics made and prepared for it! That is one of the first things we want to check off our To-Do List this upcoming season. She’s had to wait so long now to get that record, and it means a ton to her.
One thing is for sure after talking with Oliver: he and the Beauts have grown tired of the talk that the NWHL is a league where there is Boston and Minnesota and then everyone else. Buffalo is coming to reclaim their crown, and become the second team to capture two Isobel Cups. They have a fantastic goaltender, who is even a better person, as their backbone. They have a defense corps that is shaping up to be one of the most formidable in the league. They have a group of forwards who are hungry for success and frankly fed up with past failures. Why not them? The rest of the NWHL teams need to be on notice because the Beauts are on the rise.