Minnesota is somewhat of an anomaly in the PWHL. The only team not in the Eastern time zone, Minnesota has the chance to cause some chaos in the league in 2024. The roster is full of high-quality scoring, a solid defense, and one of the deepest goaltending groups in the professional league. Before the season gets underway, let's take a look at what the state of hockey’s team brings to the table in their first season.
Coaching & Managerial Staff:
- Head Coach: Charlie Burggraf
- Assistant Coach: Jake Bobrowski
- Assistant Coach: Mira Jalosuo
- Goaltending Coach: Brennan Poderzay
- General Manager: Natalie Darwitz
- Bryant, Brooke (1 year)
- Butorac, Claire (1 year)
- Cava, Michela (1 year)
- Coyne Schofield, Kendall (3 years)
- DeGeorge, Clair (1 year)
- Fleming, Brittyn (1 year)
- Heise, Taylor (3 years)
- Křížová, Denisa (2 years)
- Kunin, Sophia (1 year)
- Pannek, Kelly (3 years)
- Schepers, Liz (1 year)
- Tapani, Susanna (2 years)
- Zumwinkle, Grace (3 years)
- Buchbinder, Natalie (2 years)
- Channell, Mellissa (1 year)
- Cook, Abby (1 year)
- Flaherty, Maggie (2 years)
- Greco, Emma (1 year)
- Kremer, Dominique (1 year)
- Stecklein, Lee (3 years)
- Hensley, Nicole (3 years)
- Leveille, Amanda (1 year)
- Rooney, Maddie (2 year)
- Bench, Lauren – G
- Boreen, Abigail – F
- Nightengale, Nikki – D
Who isn’t here?
Sidney Morin (D), drafted 9-49
The highest draft pick that did not sign with the team, Morin played last season in Minnesota with the Whitecaps, and was expected to stay in the state with the PWHL franchise. The defender has since signed a one-year deal with Boston, a switch that was first reported on Dec. 11 after she was placed on waivers by Minnesota.
Minttu Tuominen (D), drafted 14-84
After being drafted in the 14th round, Tuominen opted not to report to camp in November, and has since signed with Shenzhen KRS in the WCIHL. The Finnish national team member played last season with the Metropolitan Riveters, where she put up 25 points in 14 games. Her rights are still retained by Minnesota if she opts for a return to North America after her time with Shenzhen is complete.
Sydney Brodt (F), drafted 15-85
Unfortunately for Brodt, the forward suffered a lower-body injury during the preseason according to General Manager Natalie Darwitz, and will be unavailable to the team for the majority if not all of the 2024 season. While not on the final roster, Brodt will remain on injury reserve for Minnesota, who retain her contract rights going into the season.
Catie Skaja (F), camp invite
Another University of Minnesota product, Skaja was one of the first cuts back in November. Even as a camp invite however, she was ineligible for waivers, and her contract rights remain with Minnesota.
Patti Marshall (D), camp invite
Much like Skaja, Marshall was a part of the first cuts from training camp back in November. Her contract rights still remain with Minnesota after she was also ineligible for waivers.
The depth that Minnesota has when it comes to goaltending is one of, if not their biggest strengths. They’re the only PWHL team who has a netminder as one of their three reserves, and all four goalies they have either signed or on reserve are incredibly talented in their own right.
Nicole Hensley (drafted 2-12), is coming off a 13-game season in the PWHPA last year where she posted a .921 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.57. Over her entire career, both at a collegiate level and professionally, Hensley has been rock solid in net, and her continuing to do so in Minnesota is almost a given at this point.
Amanda Leveille is a two-time Isobel Cup champion, three-time NCAA championship winner, and two-time NWHL goaltender of the year recipient. In her seven professional seasons to this point, she has a career average .923 SV%, and her playoff statistics are even better. She joins Minnesota on a one-year deal, after being drafted in the 11th round, 61st overall.
Then there's Maddie Rooney, who Minnesota signed to a two-year deal (announced Dec. 19) after she received a camp invitation. In nine games. Rooney posted a .911 SV%, and has consistently been a 2.50 GAA netminder throughout her career. Her career accolades, from backstopping the U.S. to the Olympic gold medal in 2018, to multiple World Championship appearances, will also be a great addition for Minnesota.
Any of the three goaltenders is a solid option to turn to in net, and it’ll be interesting to see how exactly the workload is split between all of them. Plus on reserve Minnesota has Lauren Bench, another Gopher who joins the roster after spending last season in the SDHL with MoDo hockey. In 26 games, Bench had a .919 SV%, and put up a 14-12 record. Even though she does not currently have a contract as a roster player, knowing she’s in Minnesota’s back pocket and can step in is a huge bonus.
The other great thing about Minnesota is the homegrown talent they are bursting with. In this context, “homegrown” ranges from former members of professional teams within the state, to graduates from various universities within Minnesota, to players who grew up in the state.
Of the 26 players under Minnesota control, only seven don’t have some ties to Minnesota hockey before playing in the PWHL. The connection to the state will be a great addition to the growth of the team off the ice, not to mention many of these players have history on the ice as former teammates that are now suiting up in the professional leagues together. The chemistry and comfort level cannot be ignored, and could become extremely beneficial as the season gets underway.
Two big questions:
What is the depth of scoring going to look like?
The potential top line of Taylor Heise, Sophia Kunin, and Grace Zumwinkle is a force to be reckoned with. Plus after the showing in Utica, there's no doubt that this team can score from everywhere on the ice. However, in the exhibition game against Toronto, multiple key forwards had to leave the contest with injuries, so how exactly are the forward lines going to shake out – and how successful are they going to be?
Losing Sydney Brodt is a sizable blow to the bottom six. Even after a somewhat down season last year with the Whitecaps after putting up 56 points for Linköping in 36 games in 2021-22, she was expected to be a contributor for Minnesota this season. She was also able to score a goal in the pre-season contest she dressed for (and was subsequently injured in) against Ottawa. Her lower-body injury is expected to keep her out for the entirety of the year, a factor that has huge implications on the team's depth moving forward.
Susanna Tapani is a hidden gem, and has been producing offensively on the international level for years. Having her on the roster is a huge plus for Minnesota, as she’s been a point-per-game player on both the international stage and in the WCIHL over the last year. Not to mention her veteran presence and incredibly potent shot which is a huge addition to the roster. Tapani, however, also suffered an injury in Utica and could be out to start the season. The hope is that she’ll be cleared for opening night, but if she’s not at 100% to start the season, it will definitely create some issues for Minnesota’s offensive production.
Of course, adding Kendall Coyne-Schofield will be a massive addition in all facets of Minnesota’s game. She has not been practicing with the team, but she is expected to start the season on time. With her experience, and the incredible talent she’s shown for well over a decade, adding her is a bonus on a team that already is incredibly powerful on their top lines.
Overall though, on paper, the team just doesn’t look as deep as some other rosters offensively. Up front, it’s just as skilled as the rest, further down the lineup though there are potentially some question marks when it comes to matchups against other teams offensive weapons. Can the bottom lines produce at the same level as an offense as deep as one such as Montréal's? Only time will tell.
Does the defense hold up?
Of course, having one of the best defensive defenders on the team in Lee Stecklein is a massive positive. Outside of Stecklein and defender Maggie Flaherty however, the defense just hasn’t been tested on the same level as other defenses in the league coming into the start of the season.
That inexperience showed in Utica, as the team went down by multiple goals early in the first period (3-1 early against Ottawa, and 3-0 in the first 12 minutes in their contest against Toronto). Yes, they were able to come back from those deficits, but they still got into those deficits in the first place after not starting the game on time in the way that’s necessary to win consistently against teams of this caliber.
Not to mention the changes on the blueline that have come since pre-season action wrapped up. Putting Sidney Morin on waivers is a head scratcher, especially after her success last season with the Whitecaps and her proven talent over the last few seasons. Her skill and 200-foot game is a massive addition to any team, which makes Minnesota’s decision to let her go that much more puzzling.
On the flip side, waiver pickup Mellissa Channell (who Morin was dropped in favor of) is expected to come in and be incredibly beneficial both in the locker room and on the ice. Her versatility on the ice, the veteran presence she brings to the team, and her fun-loving attitude were enough for multiple veterans to reach out to Darwitz to recommend Channell for the roster. While the point scoring might not be incredibly high, her other contributions on the ice will hopefully slot in well on the blue line for Minnesota.
The early struggles though in keeping the puck out of the back of their own net and especially starting games on time could pose massive challenges for Minnesota if they’re unable to adapt before the start of the season. While young names like Natalie Buchbinder will be a great addition moving forward, in this season, the defense might just be that untested to cause some issues in Minnesota’s path to success.
“Real Rookie” to Watch:
The obvious answer is Taylor Heise. The first overall pick in the draft, Heise is coming off an outstanding fifth season at the University of Minnesota (where she put up 30 goals and 67 points in 39 games), not to mention multiple stints on the U.S. national team where her production and skill has only gotten better with every game played.
However, there is a sleeper pick – Grace Zumwinkle. The forward spent five seasons at Minnesota, serving as captain for both her senior and fifth-year seasons (she red-shirted during the Olympic year in 2021-22). During her time as a Gopher, Zumwinkle scored 209 points in 172 games, good for eighth all-time in program history. And after returning to the school for her fifth season, her game was taken to an even higher level.
Zumwinkle can do it all, from driving to the net to create chances in the crease, to digging pucks along the boards in order to regain possession for her team. Not to mention that her shot is lethal. She can (and has) scored from everywhere, something that will be a great addition to Minnesota’s forward group.
The one potential issue is that Zumwinkle might not start the season on time, after being another forward who was injured in Utica. The hope is that she’ll be back by opening night, and whenever she is able to take the ice for Minnesota she’ll step right in and start producing.
While Heise has a bit more flash and hype surrounding her, Zumwinkle has proven what a solid addition she is to a team's top six. Playing on the same line as Heise, even with their different play styles, is a recipe for scoring. Zumwinkle clearly has all the makings to be right up there in the scoring race on Minnesota’s roster.
Another obvious answer – and it's once again Heise.
This team very well goes as Heise goes. Not only is she an incredibly potent goal scorer (she scored 97 over her collegiate career), over the last year her playmaking and passing have only gotten better as she's matured into her role as a top-six forward for Team USA.
She’s still less than 18 months removed from her MVP run at the World Championships, where she put up 18 points in just seven games. Not to mention that she followed that up with 12 points in seven contests, helping the U.S. to a gold medal in 2023. Whether she has the puck, is driving to the net to create a scoring chance, or is stealing the puck, just watching her on the ice her talent shines.
The forward knows how to play against the best of the best, and more importantly, knows how to succeed and produce in those contests. Additionally she’s also been dominating at the college level before the international stage, something that will carry over as she progresses to the professional sphere.
It’s not just her skill and her talent — her leadership can’t go unmentioned. At Minnesota last season, Heise served as one co-captain alongside Zumwinkle, and those experiences and her leadership quality will translate well in Minnesota even as one of the youngest members of the team.
Heise is no doubt the full package with talent and leadership, and then there’s the connection to the state itself. She’s one of the most recognizable names in the sports currently, and her involvement in the community within Minnesota has only grown since she was a Gopher.
The homegrown kid is a perfect piece on Minnesota’s roster, and if she can dominate from day one the way she’s expected to, she’ll find plenty of success in the state of hockey.
It’s pretty easy to see Minnesota finishing middle of the pack, if not bottom half of the league in 2024. Defensively there are just a few too many question marks for them to keep up with teams like New York, or to outlast high powered offenses like Montréal and Boston.
There’s not a doubt that this roster has talent, and teams who can score at the level Minnesota is expected to are usually high performing, The issue is mainly on starting games on time and the style of play they team has opted to go in – if you let your opponent get in front of you constantly, it’ll be incredibly difficult to claw back to victory over and over again no matter how skilled the offense on the ice is.
The constant for head coach Charlie Burggraf and his players is to “play Minnesota hockey,” (i.e. advancing the puck, capitalizing on rebounds, and playing a basic sort of basic) which he said was the message to the team after their pre-season game against Toronto concluded. Compared to some of the other teams in the league however, they just don’t seem to have the same level of depth to keep up on paper. A fourth to sixth place finish is incredibly likely, and a fifth place slot especially seems to be on target for how they’re expected to perform this season.
*Please note all times are in the Eastern Standard timezone unless otherwise specified*
Wed. Jan 3: at Boston, 7 PM – Tsongas Center
Sat. Jan 6: vs Montreal, 3:30 PM (2:30 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Wed. Jan 10: vs Toronto, 8 PM (7 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Sun. Jan 14: vs New York, 4 PM (3 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Wed. Jan 17: at Ottawa, 7 PM – TD Place
Wed. Jan 24: vs Montreal, 8 PM (7 PM local time) – Xcel Energy Center
Sat. Jan 27: at Boston, 4 PM – Tsongas Center
Sun, Jan 28: at New York, 1 PM – Total Mortgage Arena
Sat. Feb 3: at Toronto, 12 PM – Mattamy Athletic Centre
Wed. Feb 14: vs. Ottawa, 8 PM (7 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Sat. Feb 17: at Ottawa, 2 PM – TD Place
Sun. Feb 18: at Montreal, 1 PM – Place Bell
Sun. Feb 25: vs Boston, 4 PM (3 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Tue. Feb 27: vs Toronto, TBD – TBD
Tue. Mar 3: at New York, 12:30 PM – UBS Arena
Wed. Mar 5: vs Ottawa, 8 PM (7 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Wed Mar 13: vs Boston, 8 PM (7 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Sat. Mar 16: vs New York, 3:30 PM (2:30 PM local time) – Xcel Energy Center
Sun Mar 24: vs Montreal, 4 PM (3 PM local time)– Xcel Energy Center
Sat Apr 20: at Ottawa, TBD – TD Place
Wed Apr 24: at Montreal, 7 PM – Verdun Auditorium
Sat Apr 27: vs Boston, TBD – Xcel Energy Center
Wed May 1: at Toronto, 7 PM – Mattamy Athletic Centre
Sat May 4: at New York, TBD – TBD