Whitecaps should seek secondary scoring in free agency

Minnesota needs to replace Schammel’s offense and speed, but that is easier said than done.

We are now in our eighth month of NWHL free agency and the Minnesota Whitecaps are slowly but surely coming together as a team. Nine of the last 12 NWHL signings have been made by the Whitecaps, but Minnesota still has the smallest roster on paper.

Minnesota has inked 13 players for the upcoming season — 10 of which were on the team last year. The new faces are veteran forward Corinne Buie and 2020 NWHL Draft picks Haley Mack and Maddie Rowe. But the biggest story of the Whitecaps’ offseason thus far is that Nicole Schammel has joined the PWHPA.

Understandably, the Whitecaps’ forward that spent the most time in the spotlight last year was the record-smashing Allie Thunstrom, but Schammel had a big rookie season. She finished the 2019-20 campaign with 25 points in 22 games — 15 of which were primary points at even strength — and led the league with a 7.64 iKSt/GP (Steady per-game). So, she was a remarkably productive winger who also happened to be the highest volume shooter in the league. Those kind of forwards don’t grow on trees.

In addition to Schammel’s departure, depth forward Sam Donovan has also joined the PWHPA. Donovan, who broke into the league with the Connecticut Whale, played just six games in 2019-20 but has the talent to be a fixture on a few NWHL rosters. Unfortunately, we never got to see her truly shine with either the Whale or Whitecaps.

While it’s true that Buie could and should help replace some of the offense that the Whitecaps lost with the departure of Schammel, she is a drastically different kind of player. Buie is a strong net-front presence with a deceptively big shot, but she doesn’t have Schammel’s speed or ability to carry the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone. We’ve seen power forwards make an impact with the Whitecaps — one prime example is Audra Richards — but the team’s identity remains one of speed. No Schammel means less speed for an aging team that still has a lot of holes to fill in the lineup.

The bottom line here is that the Whitecaps need to add some scoring depth to compliment the duo of Jonna Curtis and Thunstrom. The good news for Minnesota fans is that Meghan Lorence, Richards, and Meghan Pezon — who fit right in on the top line with Curtis and Thunstrom — have all re-signed. Even though the title of the NWHL market with the largest player pool now belongs to Toronto, Minnesota has a ton of local talent to pursue to bolster its roster. But Alex Woken, the Whitecaps’ first round pick in the 2020 Draft, will not be the answer. She signed in Germany with Mannheim. It’s also worth noting that Minnesota’s second round pick, defender Patti Marshall, signed with Brynäs in the SDHL.

The quest to replace Schammel’s ability to create offense will become urgent if Sydney Baldwin also parts ways with the team. Baldwin was one of the most dynamic offensive defenders in the league last year. She finished fourth among blueliners in scoring with 18 points in 17 games and often played like a fourth forward when the Whitecaps attacked on the rush. She and Stephanie Anderson are at the top of the list of players Minnesota really needs to bring back.

On paper, the Whitecaps’ look pretty similar to the team that finished second in the regular season in 2019-20, but that might not be good enough. The Boston Pride are stacked (again), the Metropolitan Riveters and the Connecticut Whale both look much improved, and the Toronto Six have the talent to become the second NWHL expansion team to the win the Isobel Cup in their first year. Minnesota will need to add some more firepower and speed if they want to keep up.