Yesterday, the CWHL announced that there will be six teams in the league next season because the Vanke Rays have been folded. To say that the news came as a surprise might be an understatement. But, when we take a look at some of the player movement we saw prior to yesterday’s bombshell, it looks like the writing was already on the wall.
Vanke’s International Players
A month ago, the Kunlun Red Stars site announced five signings. Included in those five were Cayley Mercer, Hanna Bunton, and Emma Woods, who were all on Vanke last season. That trio accounted for half of the international players on their 2017-18 roster.
Another two international players from last year’s Vanke roster also announced their departure from China prior to yesterday’s news. Earlier in the week, forward Brooke Webster signed with the Markham Thunder as a free agent. Prior to that, standout defender Ashleigh Brykaliuk joined the coaching staff of Minnesota-Duluth earlier in the offseason.
The departure of final international player from last year’s Rays roster came just after the CWHL announced that Vanke had folded. Emily Janiga chose to return to the NWHL and sign with the Buffalo Beauts, where she won an Isobel Cup in 2017.
Kunlun’s Roster Spots
When KRS announced Mercer, Bunton, and Woods, they also announced the re-signing of Alex Carpenter and Stephanie Anderson. That brings the total of international players on KRS to five. Assuming the CWHL’s import player limit stays the same of six players, that leaves one spot open.
So who will fill that last roster spot?
Zoe Hickel already left; she’s playing in Calgary with the Inferno next season.
That leaves four non-heritage skaters from last season left without a confirmed team — CWHL MVP Kelli Stack, Shiann Darkangelo, Taylor Marchin, and Annina Rajahuhta. All four played on KRS last season. Since players sign one year contracts as sports ambassadors, they are free agents who can now sign anywhere.
Rajahuhta is a slightly complicated case. The Finnish Olympian was unceremoniously dropped off Kunlun mid-season to make room for Carpenter after Carpenter was cut from the U.S. team. The CWHL Player’s Association stepped in on Rajahuhta’s behalf to give her time after the Olympics. She opted to return to Finland, though was still acting as a sports-ambassador in China as well.
Of course, there are also the goaltenders, who don’t count towards the import player limit. Vanke’s two goaltenders were Tianyi Zhang and Elaine Chuli. KRS’s were Noora Räty, Yuqing Wang, and Siye He. Of those five, Chuli and Räty were the only international players.
Thus far, Kunlun has signed two goaltenders for the upcoming season: Räty and pre-draft signee Kimberly Newell, a heritage player.
Chinese National Players
Not to be lost in all of this is what happens to the Chinese National players. The Team China roster at the 2018 IIHF World Championships in Division I - Group B featured 11 players from Red Star and seven Vanke players. But, China had a poor showing at Worlds. Shortly thereafter, head coach Digit Murphy parted ways with Kunlun.
KRS and Vanke were supposed to be the training grounds for China’s National Team players ahead of the Beijing Olympics. However, they typically saw little ice time, taking a backseat to the international and heritage players. As we all know, that philosophy inspired a lot of criticism. Combine that issue with the loss of Vanke and the Chinese National players will probably be the ones continuing to get the short end of the stick here.
The dissolution of the Vanke Rays means fewer roster spots for Chinese National players in the CWHL. How that fits into China’s plan to build its roster prior to the Beijing Games is something of a mystery.