Yes, it's a centralization year and a lot of the CWHL's top stars are training for the 2018 Olympics. But there are still plenty of players that are going to dazzle this season. In no particular order, here are our top 10 picks for players to watch this season (wow, it was hard to only pick 10).
Noora Räty, Kunlun Red Star
It is not hyperbole when we say that Räty may be the biggest off-season signing for the CWHL.
There are a lot of new faces with two new expansion teams, but Räty is one of, if not the, best goaltender in the world right now. She's backstopped Finland for several seasons now and has finally brought her talents to the CWHL. She will be instrumental in any success that Kunlun has.
Kelli Stack, Kunlun Red Star
After a stunning snub from Team USA that saw her left off the centralization roster, Stack made her own shocking move. Though she spent the last two years playing for the Connecticut Whale of the NWHL, Stack was one of the big names to jump to the CWHL, signing with Kunlun Red Star.
Stack is a star on the ice, and she will likely be at the very top of the league's leaderboard when it comes to scoring goals. No Olympics? No problem.
Jamie-Lee Rattray, Markham Thunder
Markham has a new look this season, and it isn't just the logo. The Thunder lost a significant number of players to a combination of centralization and offseason moves to different leagues.
One of the lone remaining players is Rattray, who was the third-best scorer for Markham last year (behind Jess Jones, who signed with the Buffalo Beauts of the NWHL during the offseason, and Laura Stacey, who's centralizing with Hockey Canada).
Emerance Maschmeyer, Les Canadiennes de Montreal
All eyes will be on Maschmeyer as she starts her new chapter in Montreal this season after playing for Calgary last year.
Maschmeyer didn't get any kind of consistent playing time last season, finishing the year with eight games in the regular season but will stellar numbers ( ) in that limited playing time. She should be more than capable of taking the reins in Montreal following Charline Labonte's departure.
Kate Leary, Boston Blades
The Boston Blades forward was one of the rookie standouts for her team. She lit the lamp 10 times last season and was the top goal-scorer on her team, also ranking seventh overall in the league (second overall for league rookies). She also led her team in power play goals, with four. She had three multi-goal games. Look for Leary to step into a bigger role with the team in her second year, especially with 16 rookies coming into the Blades.
Carlee Campbell, Toronto Furies
Toronto, like many other CWHL teams, was hit hard by centralization, retirements, and offseason moves, which means that Campbell is one of the few players remaining on the Furies' blue line (although some players like Renata Fast and Erin Ambrose may return after the Olympics, or sooner)
Campbell tied Fast in scoring last year with nine points, and though she was a CWHL All-Star captain, is still one of the more underrated players in the league. Look for her to have a bigger role this season.
Sonja van der Bliek, Toronto Furies
With the retirement of Christina Kessler, the time for vander Bliek to shine is finally here.
Van der Bliek has had a bit of a tough time breaking into the CWHL; she played for Brampton behind both Liz Knox and Erica Howe for a while before getting traded to Toronto, where she was stuck behind Kessler. But now she'll have the chance to take back the crease and get regular playing time for the first time in a few years. What she makes of it may determine how Toronto finishes this season.
Iya Gavrilova, Calgary Inferno
Calgary lost a lot of players to centralization, and while Gavrilova is almost certainly a lock for Team Russia, she'll remain with the Inferno and should provide some much-needed scoring.
Last season, Gavrilova finished fourth on the team in scoring with 21 points; the three players who finished above her (Brianne Jenner, Bailey Bram, and Rebecca Johnston) are centralizing with Team Canada.
Ann-Sophie Bettez, Les Canadiennes de Montreal
How she is not on Team Canada is astounding (looking at you, Hockey Canada). She’s the best Canadienne not named Marie-Philip Poulin or Caroline Ouellette. With 18 goals and 18 assists, Bettez was second on the team in points behind Poulin. With Poulin and Ouellette gone for at least the beginning of the season, Bettez could very likely clinch the scoring title. It will be fun to see her with Kayla Tutino, a new face for Montreal after playing for the Blades last season.
Cayley Mercer, Vanke Rays
Mercer was one of the very best college players last season, which earned her a Top-3 Patty Kazmaier nomination; while captaining Clarkson to a national title last season, Mercer also racked up 62 points. It's not surprise that she was one of the players selected to play for the Vanke Rays, and while there's much we don't know yet about both Kunlun and Vanke, it seems certain that Mercer will be an offensive force for the Rays.