Montréal Makes Some Moves

PWHL Montréal's first signings of the 2024 off-season bring back strong performers from the inaugural season, while also highlighting some of the 'nerve-wracking' realities facing PWHL players.

Montréal Makes Some Moves
Elaine Chuli makes a save on PWHL Rookie of the Year Grace Zumwinkle. Photo by Kelly Hagenson/PWHL, via PWHL.

On Monday morning, PWHL Montréal announced extensions for three players from their inaugural season.

Goaltender Elaine Chuli, drafted in the thirteenth round of the 2023 draft by Montréal, has been extended for one year. She played in eight games during the 2023-24 season, producing six wins and leading the league in save percentage and goals against average. Prior to her time with PWHL Montréal, Chuli won an Isobel Cup and was named Goaltender of the Year in the PHF with the Toronto Six.

“I really enjoyed my time in Montréal last season– everything, staff, management, teammates, facilities, fans– so it was kind of a no-brainer to come back,” Chuli told reporters. “I wanted to come back.”

Chuli said that she did not look into free agency. Montréal’s general manager Danielle Sauvageau confirmed that all three players had agreed to their new contracts prior to the draft last week.

Defender Mariah Keopple has been extended for one year. She joined the team as a free agent in training camp and earned top-pair minutes alongside Erin Ambrose for much of the season.

“It was pretty incredible to be able to come back to someplace I already knew,” Keopple said of her decision to stay in Montréal. “Coming back to a place that I’m comfortable in and always feel joy every single day at the rink was a comforting thing to me.”

The 2023-24 season was Keopple’s first year as a pro after four years with the Princeton Tigers, and she made the jump with grace. Recognizing her success in the first half of the season and her popularity with the fans, I interviewed Keopple in March about her adjustment to the PWHL. She is one of only seven rookies to go undrafted and play in at least one game, and one of only two (Ottawa’s Akane Shiga being the other) to play in every one of her team’s games.

Sauvageau cited Keopple’s dedication and work ethic as why the team is happy to bring her back:

“When we looked at what we saw in [Keopple] and what she has become, we believe that her ceiling is not met and we want to continue to work together to raise her knowledge of the game, her speed, her strength, to the next level. This is the success of an identified player: they could progress and you don’t know until they are in your environment and they show what they’re capable of doing.”

Defender Amanda Boulier was extended for two years. A three-time Defender of the Year finalist in the PHF, Boulier was selected by PWHL Ottawa in the 13th round in the 2023 draft and played 17 games with Ottawa before she was traded to Montréal. She assisted on three goals in her six regular season games with Montréal and looked great on the ice. The team should be as glad to have her back as she is to be there.

Looking Ahead

It’s worth remembering that no contract in the PWHL, aside from the three contracts each team signed prior to the inaugural season, is guaranteed. Last year, a number of players were signed to one-year contracts prior to training camp and then became reserve players or were waived. This mechanism allowed the players to receive pay and housing stipends while they trained and tried out for their teams.

After Montréal took three defenders in the draft last week, I wrote about how the team had set themselves up for success on the blueline. They had several strong returning players, they had good options to bring back in Keopple and Boulier, and they made good draft picks. I even thought they may have drafted more defenders than they needed considering the talent they already had available.

I asked GM Sauvageau about the eight defenders they now have on contract or the rights to via this year’s draft. She gave some insight into the team’s approach to training camp and also acknowledged that the level of competition in the league requires players to face difficult realities.

“We’ve been telling the players… we cannot wait to see you at the camp, in good shape, physically and mentally, and then obviously we need to give a chance to the players that were with us last year to be able to come in for a second year and to fight for a spot, and that is just a question of numbers. We do have a lot of players available, and this is where it was one of the objectives of the league to be as good as possible, and year after year the level of hockey will increase… So it is nerve-wracking for players because the level of competition is very high to find a job in this league, and this is the beauty of it, but I do understand how hard it could be for players to say ‘Am I gonna have a job in November?’”

Her answer reflected the difficult choices that face both teams and players when there is such a strong talent pool and so few roster spots. How hard is it to make roster choices between a player you identified and developed internally or intentionally traded for, versus the established talent available through the draft?

Keopple pointed out that there are “nerves for everyone at all times.”

“There can be movement throughout the entire season, so you’re always being on your toes, you’re always coming to the rink prepared to do your best… there can always be movement and it’s super competitive and it’s going to continue to get more competitive,” she said.

Chuli agreed: “There’s not a lot of spots, that’s the reality. It’s definitely in the back of our heads, but I guess it’s motivating as well. You’re only as good as your last game, so I think you kind of use it to fuel you, and you gotta perform.”