How much D-III talent will we see in the NWHL next season?

Emily Fluke recently became the first D-III alumna to sign for next season. How many more will follow?

Emily Fluke led her team in scoring in her rookie season with the Whale last year. As impressive as those feats are, they are made all the more noteworthy because Fluke was two years removed from playing college hockey in NCAA D-III.

On July 6, Fluke became the first D-III alumna to sign a contract for the 2018-19 season. With members of the United States women’s national team likely returning to the fold, will we other D-III players sign?

D-III Players in the NWHL

Fluke was one of a handful of NCAA D-III standouts to make an impact in the NWHL last season. Last year, all four teams had D-III players appear in the lineup, and three of the four teams had a D-III goalie on the roster. Perhaps the most noteworthy names among that group were the three standouts from Adrian College who signed with the Buffalo Beauts.

Kristin Lewicki was one of the biggest surprises of the 2017-18 NWHL season. After piling up 66 points in 31 games in her senior season at Adrian College, Lewicki earned honors as an All-Star in her first NWHL season. The NWHL’s reigning Fastest Skater Competition winner finished her first NWHL season with seven points — all primary and at even strength — in 14 games.

Like Lewicki, Kaylyn Schroka was also a big part of the Buffalo Beauts’ success last year. Thanks in part to her exceptional two-way play Schroka established herself as a mainstay in Buffalo’s lineup. She picked up 10 points in 14 games; putting up the same stat line (four goals, six assists) as Beauts’ captain Corinne Buie.

Changing Perceptions

The success of Fluke, Lewicki, and Schroka last year demanded our attention. Previously, the majority of NWHL players with roots in D-III hockey were depth players who rarely appeared in the lineup beyond preseason games. But last year’s rookie class changed what we have come to expect out of D-III players in the NWHL.

“I was hoping to produce more, but I realize I had to make a big jump from D-III hockey,” Lewicki told the Wheeling News Register back in April. “I had to make adjustments. I had to bring my ‘A’ game every night. I had to change my role and I am OK with my role. The pro game is a lot more physical, but I did get used to it.”

The performance of a few exceptional D-III players in one season is admittedly a small sample size. But that doesn’t change the fact that players like Fluke, Lewicki, and Schroka proved they have what it takes to play professional women’s hockey, and those three skaters are just the tip of the iceberg.

Musical Chairs

Each NWHL team has 25 roster spots for the upcoming 2018-19 season. Many fans are wondering what will happen with last year’s wave of rookies if more members of the United States women’s national team sign with NWHL teams. We’ve already seen on D-III alumna, Kelsey Neumann, lose her roster spot in Buffalo because of free agent signings.

The landscape of the NWHL without national team skaters

However, the return of national team talent does not necessarily mean that we will see a sharp decline in the number of D-III players in the NWHL. Teams still need players who live and work in close proximity to their home rinks. And summer free agency camps provide unheralded players, including those from D-III programs, a chance to earn roster spots. The league’s expansion into Minnesota also created another 25 roster spots for prospective NWHL players, and we have already heard rumblings about NWHL players with ties to Minnesota wanting to take their talents out west.

The last three years of NWHL hockey have proven that talented players can come from some unexpected places. There’s no reason to expect that things will be different next season.