Can you believe it? We’re finally about to start the inaugural PWHL season. After the helter-skelter of the last ~six months, and watching a league be formed in an incredibly short window, we’re finally going to just be able to watch some hockey. Normalcy has returned to women’s hockey (for now), and with that comes the tradition of every league, team previews. You’re impatient, I’m impatient, let’s just get into the meat (if you don’t eat meat then insert the food of your choice here) of this preview.
It’s hard not to go down this list and see there are players that any fan of women’s hockey, no matter where you’re looking, will recognize. These names are recognizable for a reason. This roster contains so many players who have excelled everywhere they have been that if you tried to fit all their trophies and awards into a room you’d have to build a new wing for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Where do you even begin with a roster as loaded as this? You have Canadian national team stars in Marie-Philip Poulin, Ann-Renée Desbiens, and Erin Ambrose. Then of course there’s Czech national team stars Tereza Vanišová and Dominika Lásková. But wait, there’s more! Someone ask for PHF (Premier Hockey Federation) stars? Montréal has you covered with Elaine Chuli, Kati Tabin, Kennedy Marchment, and Jillian Dempsey. Here's a graph I made to help you visualize it:
Still not done yet, as we haven’t even gotten to former CWHL stars Ann-Sophie Bettez and Laura Stacey. Do we have time to mention NCAA/USports standouts Maureen Murphy, Sarah Bujold, and Brigitte Laganière? Alright that’s it … except for PWHPA stars Laura Stacey and Kristin O’Neill. The cherry on top is that Mélodie Daoust is on the reserve list, which is just silly. It’s a bit unfair that after all the players we just named we’re still getting an Isobel Cup champion (Leah Lum), NCAA champion (Madison Bizal), and PWHPA champion (Marlène Boissonnault).
It's unsurprising that this is the roster when you consider the people who were primarily in charge of putting it together. At the PWHL Inaugural Draft there were three people seen huddled together around a laptop deep in conversation: Kori Cheverie, Mikael Nahabedian, and Danièle Sauvageau. It’s an intimidating trio that has put together a roster that’s considered by The Ice Garden writers to be one of the top two teams in the league. In Cheverie you have a rising star in the world of coaching. Last season was an absolute whirlwind of success for her as she won the PWHPA championship and was named PWHPA Coach of the Year. At the 2023 Canada Games she coached Team Nova Scotia to a massive upset over Team Ontario in the semifinal. Team Ontario was essentially a large part of the U18 Canadian team that just won the U18 World Championships in Sweden.
Overseeing it all is Sauvageau, who is a builder. She built an Olympic training camp/centralization that earned Canada its first gold medal in women’s hockey in 2002. She built the University of Montréal women’s hockey program that delivered two USports Championships almost immediately. Her most recent creation was the Centre 21.02, which gives the elite women’s hockey players of Québec a place to hone their skills. Obviously she didn’t do any of that alone, but what it shows is Sauvageau knows how to put together a core group that’ll execute a plan resulting in long-term success.
Last but definitely not least is Nahabedian. If you don’t know who he is, congratulations — you’re not a complete hockey nerd. I can say that because I know who he is and I know a lot of analytics nerds who know him. Nahabedian is highly regarded in the hockey analytics community and helped put together a competitive expansion team that was the Montréal Force last year in the PHF. The rest of his resume is just as impressive as he’s worked with a top-end USports hockey program in McGill University, and in the QCHL with the Saint-Laurent Patriotes — who won the championship last year with a goalie you may have heard of: Ève Gascon. I’ll probably get a message later for this as unfortunately I just don’t know that much about Assistant Coach Éric Houde. One thing you’ll notice looking at his resume is just how quickly he’s been moving up the coaching ladder, which means we should probably be paying attention to the effect he’ll be having on the team.
Here and Gone; Where Did the PWHL Montréal Cuts End Up?
If you’ve been paying attention to Montréal’s PWHL team from the moment of its inception, you’ll have seen many players drafted and brought to training camp. If you go to the roster now there are some names missing. Here’s the list of players who were on the team's roster in one way or another but did not make the final roster:
Hanna Bunton (camp invite)
Lina Ljungblom (drafted 15-90)
Brooke Stacey (camp invite)
Marie-Soleil Deschênes (camp invite)
Maude Poulin–Labelle (drafted 10-55)
Blanka Škodová (camp invite)
After a very good two seasons in the CWHL with the Vanke Rays (52 points in 56 games), Bunton has unfortunately never hit that level again; in the last two seasons in the PWHPA she had five points in 26 games. EliteProspects currently does not have her on a team. Ljungblom was not eligible to play this year, which is why she’s not on the roster. Instead she’s developing further in the SDHL on a top-three SDHL team (MoDo) with 28 points in 22 games and 17 being goals. If she decides to come over next season, Montréal has an instant top-six forward. Former Buffalo Beaut and Montréal Force forward Stacey is also unfortunately without a place to play after she was waived by Montréal. If Poulin–Labelle wants to show she should never have been cut she'll get her chance, as she was picked up and signed by Toronto. Poulin-Labelle has been a rather productive defender in her time at Northeastern University, and Toronto should be glad Montréal couldn't find a fit for her.
Deschênes has been a Montréal mainstay, as she played for the Montréal Canadiennes, Montréal Force, and PWHPA Montréal. Hopefully she’s still in the area just in case Montréal needs a goalie due to injury, as Deschênes has proven to be a reliable depth option. Been an interesting 2023 for Škodová, who stepped into the no. 1 goalie role for Czechia at the World Championships and was rewarded with a bronze medal. She only registered three games in the NCAA the 2022–23 season; signed in the Naisten Liiga, going 5-0-0 with a 0.926 SV%;, signed in the SDHL with AIK going 0-6-0 with a 0.862 SV%; and came to Montréal’s camp, which ended with her being cut. Škodová has garnered interest due to her World Championship play from fans, and we’ll see where she ends up next — whether it’s back to AIK or elsewhere.
They Should Be Named the Montréal Winged Hussars
Some of the most cinematic moments in history are when calvary charge into battle. Whether is the Huns in Disney’s Mulan charging down the mountain, the Ride of the Rohirrim from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, or the cavalry crashing against each other during Game of Thrones's "Battle of the Bastards" episode, few things better simulate that feeling of anticipation into the climax of the moment and deliver a high dose of adrenaline. In real life, one of the best examples of that is the winged Hussars of 17th century Poland, and it appears we’re about to get the hockey version of that in the lineup of Montréal forwards.
Attach some feathers to the backs of their jerseys and the ghosts of the Ottoman Empire will be experiencing nightmares. This forward lineup is built with overwhelming skill up and down, along with tenacious two-way play. It’s nearly impossible to put together a forward lineup that doesn’t have two players on each line whose two-way play is an asset and who are also players you don’t want to be in front of when they’ve built up steam. Whether you’re a defender dealing with the Montréal forecheck or trying to defend against the Montréal rush, you’re going to feel like an Ottoman spearman seeing your life flash before your eyes.
Is There Anything to Be Concerned About?
Due to the talent pool that the PWHL teams had access to, it’s honestly really hard to come up with questions regarding concerns about any of these teams. Any questions you could come up with are going to be the obvious ones, such as what happens if the team gets hit by the injury bug or the chemistry just doesn’t work out. Or they’ll be small nitpicks that will probably earn me a comment or two wondering why I’m being so nitpicky. I’m choosing the latter, so bring it on! If you’re an opposing coach looking at this roster trying to pinpoint a weakness you might be able to exploit, it’s the defence. You can hope something funky happens to the Montréal forwards that causes them to have an expected down year — but you might as well buy a lottery ticket instead.
First question is: this is obviously a defensive corps that was built with the idea that these defenders are undervalued by the market, both in terms of skill and cost; will that prove to be the case? Defensive depth and skill was at a premium in the PWHL talent pool, so teams had to get a bit creative in how they built their defensive lineup. Some teams, such as Boston, Ottawa, and New York, grabbed very clear top-four defenders. Montréal has gone the route of picking defenders who might be top-four defenders but have not proven it. At the end of the season we might be saying they rolled the dice and hit a nat 20 on the defensive corps. We might also be saying these are good defenders who ended up in roles they couldn’t handle, hurting the team. Long story short — can this defensive corps reach its potential, which it’ll have to if they want to compete with the best teams?
The second question is in the same vein but a lot more direct: can Bizal be a top-pairing defender in the PWHL? If you look at her EliteProspects page, there’s nothing eye popping — until you dig a bit further and realize she was the partner to Sophie Jaques at Ohio State. Is there any better vote of confidence than Nadine Muzerall, one of the best coaches in the game today, putting you beside a Patty Kazmaier winner on a NCAA National Championship-winning team? Bizal needs to be a good fit, next to either Ambrose or Lásková at least, if Montréal wants to be the best team.
Montréal’s “Abby Hoffman Trophy” Candidate (Rookie of the Year)
That’s right, I’m already throwing out a name for the PWHL Rookie of the Year award. We’ll see if the name sticks, but for now let’s just go with it. While technically every player is a rookie to the league, we’re going to pretend that only players coming out of the NCAA/USports would be eligible. With that all in mind who is Montréal’s candidate for the Hoffman Trophy? There’s no player on Montréal with a better chance than Murphy. She was one-third of one of the best lines in the NCAA of the last two seasons, with Alina Müller and Chloe Aurard. While she primarily excels at being a finisher, there is a playmaking aspect to her game — which was important in turning that Northeastern trio into the scourge of Hockey East. You can’t help but wonder, after seeing the immense success Murphy had playing next to an elite talent like Müller, how Murphy would look next to say … Poulin? It'd force PWHL teams to figure out which of Poulin and Murphy should be covered the most, resulting in more room for both. Fun food for thought!
And the Winner of the Wickenheiser Trophy Is …
Don’t even try to fight me on this one. Hayley Wickenheiser absolutely deserves an award named after her, and it most certainly should be the PWHL MVP award. The naming of the PWHL MVP award isn’t what’s up for debate here, though, and to be honest the Montréal player who will most likely be the team's candidate isn’t much of a debate either: Poulin. The Canada–USA Rivalry Series is going horribly, production-wise, for Poulin and her linemates, but I’m pretty confident in dismissing that as being a concern. Poulin was named PWHPA Forward of the Year and proceeded to post eight points in seven games at the 2023 World Championships. This isn’t the year that Poulin slows down, and if Montréal is a top-three team in the league with Poulin fighting for the Albertine Lapensée Trophy (PWHL Scoring Leader; no debate here either on my proposed trophy name), Poulin is the obvious candidate. Don’t count out Desbiens, though, as if she reaches her elite form on a consistent basis and covers up a defensive corps that struggles to meet expectations, she’d be a great Wickenheiser Trophy candidate.
Here's Your Bulletin Board Material: Montréal Will Finish Second in the Regular Season
If I don’t get a bunch of angry messages over putting Montréal as my predicted team to finish second in the regular season, then what are we even doing here? If this motivates Montréal to win the PWHL championship (oddly enough, haven’t thought of a name for that yet) then I feel entitled to a certain percentage of the money winnings. Before you send that angry message, give me a second to explain myself. Look, there’s no denying this roster is the Baba Yaga of the PWHL. No team is going to be looking forward to dealing with those Montréal forwards all game long ... and then trying to score on Desbiens? Nightmare fuel.
I’ve already detailed just how impressive the combined trophy case of this roster is, and a cursory glance at each player's EliteProspects page should be enough to convince anyone this is a roster capable of scoring a lot of goals. They happen to be coached by one of the brightest rising stars in the coaching world, too. Montréal women’s hockey has a long history of being one of the most intimidating teams in whatever league they’re in, and this team looks ready to carry on the tradition. If I’m in love with that much of the roster, why only second and not first? It’s simply that defensive corps and my personal preference for New York’s defensive corps’ prowess. We’re splitting hairs at this point, so split hairs I shall. Obviously everything going right or wrong will impact where Montréal ends up. As a base of expectations, though, this is where Montréal should be ... plus or minus one spot as the margin for error.
Montréal welcomes its fans at home in the Verdun Auditorium Jan. 13, 2024 (schedule).