Pleasant Surprises For Each PWHL Team

In the first half of the PWHL season, many of our expectations for player performance came true, and some fell short, but there have been a number of players who showed up in ways we couldn't have predicted.

Pleasant Surprises For Each PWHL Team
Minnesota's Taylor Heise (Photo by Cassie Froio)

Everything was up in the air at the beginning of the inaugural PWHL season. It has been years since North American women's hockey has seen league play that could be considered best-on-best, and with that, it was impossible to make solid predictions about which skaters, goaltenders, and rosters would show up and win games. In the first half of the PWHL season, many of our expectations for player performance came true, and some fell short, but there have been a number of players who showed up in ways we couldn't have predicted.


Transition from collegiate play to playing against professionals is not a small step. Players joining the ranks of the PHF or the Canadian and American national teams in past years talked about the increased speed and physicality of those situations, and the PWHL is no different. Thus, while most of us predicted that Minnesota's first and third draft picks would transition well to the pro game, it's still a pleasant surprise that Taylor Heise and Grace Zumwinkle have looked like early MVP candidates in their first few half-season as pro players. Currently, Zumwinkle is second in the PWHL with seven goals in 12 games, while Heise has six points and the fourth-most faceoff wins in the league in only nine games played. The co-captains of the University of Minnesota made the transition from dominating the WCHA to lighting up the PWHL without missing a step.

Heise and Zumwinkle's fellow former UMinn co-captain Abby Boreen has also been a bright spot for the league's leading team so far this season. Unable to play full-time as she is pursuing a pharmaceutical degree, Boreen has signed two 10-day contracts with Minnesota to ease the burden of injuries and trades. She has registered two goals and an assist in five games. While Boreen's successful translation to the pros is no more of a surprise than that of Heise or Zumwinkle, it definitely comes as a relief to fans that the team has someone in the wings who can be relied upon in the event of injury.


Just as we may have assumed that the Golden Gophers trio would do just fine at the pro level, the 2023 third overall pick Alina Müller's transition was similarly taken for granted. The only five-time Patty Kazmaier nominee in NCAA history and the youngest player to ever earn an Olympic medal in ice hockey, Müller has been a star at both the collegiate and international levels. The only surprise, perhaps, is that she is tied for third in the league in points per game (nine points in ten games) while playing for the team with the league's worst goal deficit (-6 through ten games). Müller is presenting a strong early case for PWHL MVP.

Although Boston has been struggling to win games, a pleasant surprise can nonetheless be found in the play of undrafted 36-year-old forward Gigi Marvin. Marvin is a three-time Olympian and has been a consistent scorer throughout her career, but she played sparingly in the PWHPA the last few years and did not play high-level hockey in 2022-23. She was signed to the team after the league's preseason evaluation camp in Utica, New York. So far, Marvin has three assists in ten games and has shown poise and vision on the ice. She has also played a game as a defender, which was certainly a surprise!

New York

PWHL New York is the only team in the league whose goaltending tandem cannot claim a single game played for their country in international competition. While most teams loaded up with American and Canadian national team netminders in free agency prior to the draft, or in the draft's early rounds, New York waited until the sixth round to select their first goaltender. Reigning PHF Goaltender of the Year Corinne Schroeder went 33rd overall, and Boston College standout Abbey Levy was taken in the 11th round. It's a gamble which seems to have paid off: Schroeder is making her case to go back-to-back as Goaltender of the Year, with five wins, one shutout, a 1.88 goals against average, and a .947 save percentage. Meanwhile, Levy holds a .923 save percentage in her three starts, which is currently exactly the league average. That makes her one of only two 'backup' goalies in the league to have a save percentage equal to or above the league average. New York may not have the record they want to have at this point in the season, but their goaltenders are giving them a chance to win.


The only other backup goaltender in the league to posting a save percentage over league average is also the only goaltender to be beating Schroeder in the goalie stats. Montréal's Elaine Chuli has started four of their 11 games and has allowed only five goals. She owns a sterling .961 save percentage and is the only undefeated goaltender in the PWHL. Chuli was the PHF's Goaltender of the Year in 2022 and a finalist for the award in 2021 and 2023. Last season she backstopped the Toronto Six to win the Isobel Cup. But just as we weren't taking collegiate success for granted in the transition to the PWHL, there was no way to predict that Chuli would play lights-out in the new league. The other big change was going from a starting role for the Six to a backup role with Montréal, which can lead to a drop in performance for netminders who are used to shouldering a lot of playing time.

Another pleasant surprise for Montréal has been the success of their eclectic starting lineup. If you'd been told at the beginning of the season that Marie-Philip Poulin, Erin Ambrose, and Laura Stacey would be in Montréal's top five for scoring, it likely wouldn't come as a shock. Two of the team's original free agent signings and their first round pick, all from Team Canada? Feels obvious. But the other players in that top five coming from Hockey East and Europe? That might come as a shock.

Montréal took Northeastern University's Maureen Murphy with their third round pick, even though players like Loren Gabel, Susanna Tapani, and Jesse Compher were still on the board. Their confidence in the 2023 Patty Kazmaier nominee seems to have paid off, as the first year pro is currently tied for seventh in the league with eight points in 11 games.

Tereza Vanišová sits slightly back with seven points in 10 games. Taken at the end of the seventh round of the draft, the two-time World Championship bronze medalist with Czechia and the three-time Isobel Cup champion was another selection by Montréal that looks like a steal in retrospect. And while Murphy and Vanišová are playing on a line with Poulin, their production is not a product of her's; Poulin has been involved in only two of Vanišová's points and three of Murphy's.


Perhaps no player's success has been a greater 'pleasant surprise' than that of Lexie Adzija for Ottawa. Taken in the 11th round after her fifth year at Quinnipiac University, the 5'10 forward is currently tied for second in team scoring. Starting the season on the fourth line, Adzija found herself playing on the wing of team captain Brianne Jenner after a four-game point streak. Adzija is great in puck battles and in front of the net, and is impossible to push off the puck. Her versatility and strength have made her a bright spot in Ottawa's somewhat lackluster start to the season.


Another late draft pick who has been shining in the PWHL is Hannah Miller. A 2018 graduate of St. Lawrence University, she has spent the last several seasons primarily playing for the CWHL/ZHL team in China and for the Chinese national team. This year, she has the second-most goals for PWHL Toronto and is tied for third in points for the team. Aside from her contributions on the scoresheet, Miller has good positioning and looks crafty on the ice, standing out especially in the first few weeks of the season when nothing seemed to be going right for Toronto.

It's debatable whether one can call Natalie Spooner's performance to this point in the season a pleasant surprise. She has been an elite performer on Team Canada for over a decade and a perennial scorer at the club level. Still, leading the league with ten goals in 11 games is no small accomplishment, particularly when that means accounting for nearly half of her team's total goals. Her performance thus far puts her among the front-runners for league MVP.