Top 10 players to watch in the NWHL

The Olympians are gone this year, but the NWHL still has a ton of star power.

Normally, a top 10 players to watch article would be filled with national team members like Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan, Megan Bozek and Co.

But this year is an Olympic year, which means the US players who normally would be suiting up for their respective NWHL teams are centralizing in Florida. That's not a bad thing for the NWHL - it just means there's more room for players who might not normally get a chance to shine to step up.

Here's who think are worth keeping an eye on this season.

Rebecca Russo, Metropolitan Riveters

Russo was the most dynamic and exciting undrafted rookie in the 2016-17 NWHL season. The former Boston University star claimed honors as the fastest player in the league during the NWHL’s 2017 All-Star Weekend in Pittsburgh and finished third on the Riveters in points.

The fleet-footed winger is one of the best playmakers in professional women’s hockey as evidenced by her 16 point rookie season. Before Amanda Kessel returned to the lineup from injury Russo carried the Riveters offense for much of last season. With Kessel and Janine Weber now out of the picture, look for Russo to be the spearhead of the Riveters offense.

Russo is a serious contender to lead the league in points this season. Yes, she’s that good.

Courtney Burke, Metropolitan Riveters

Burke is an All-Star defender who was a key cog on the best blue line in the NWHL last season. She’s also one of the best puck-moving defenders in the league. In her rookie year in 2016-17 she posted 11 points, six of which came on the power play and seven of which were primary.

This season Burke will be joined on the Riveters blue line by her college teammate Jenny Ryan. The two Badgers chemistry was evident in the preseason despite the fact that they rarely played together at Wisconsin. Watch for Burke to be a big weapon for the Riveters on the power play and to make a bigger impact at even strength this season.

On paper the Riveters defense in 2017-18 is as good as it gets and Burke is a big reason why.

Paige Harrington, Boston Pride

Isobel Cup Champion Paige Harrington signed with the Boston Pride to play closer to home this season. She’s been to the Isobel Cup Final twice and is still just 24-years-old. The former Beauts defender brings some much-needed size and strength to Boston’s blue line. Her reach and sound positioning make her a strong candidate for being on a shutdown pair with Lexi Bender or Kaliya Johnson.

The Pride had a lot of holes to fill on the blue line because of Blake Bolden’s departure and Olympic centralization. Harrington has modest offensive numbers, but any Beauts fan will tell you how valuable she’s been to Buffalo since 2015-16. Now that she’s with the Pride we may get to see more of Harrington’s puck skills in the offensive zone.

Amanda Leveille, Buffalo Beauts

Now that Brianne McLaughlin has hung her skates the Beauts starting goaltending position belongs to Leveille. The former Golden Gopher star stunned the Riveters in the 2017 Isobel Cup Playoffs with a 34 save performance. Leveille has shown flashes of brilliance in both her NCAA and NWHL career. This season is an opportunity for her to prove she can stay on top of her game consistently.

Whether or not the Beauts make it to a third consecutive Isobel Cup Final might come down to how Leveille plays this year. The undersized goaltender has a new-look defense featuring Sarah Edney in front of her. The good news for Leveille is that the Beauts coaching staff remains the same this season, which should mean a goalie-friendly defense-first system being played in front of Buffalo’s goaltenders.

Kelly Babstock, Connecticut Whale

Kelli Stack, Zoe Hickel, Haley Skarupa, Nicole Kosta and Nicole Connery are no longer with the Connecticut Whale. But Kelly Babstock, the highest-scoring Canadian in NWHL history, is back for a third-season with the pod after scoring 19 points in 17 games last season.

The Whale’s 2017-18 roster is overflowing with rookies and first-year players. Babstock is one a select few players with significant experience playing pro hockey. She enters this season tied for third all-time in NWHL scoring. If Babstock eclipses 20 points this year, she’ll be the league’s all-time leading scorer. But catching up to Brianna Decker will be no small task for her with so little star power around her.

Jess Jones, Buffalo Beauts

This is one star you're certainly going to want to keep an eye on.

Jones was a surprise signing for the Buffalo Beauts, jumping to the NWHL after playing for the CWHL's Brampton (now Markham) Thunder for several seasons.

Last year, Jones tied Marie-Philip Poulin for the league lead in points, notching 37 (17 G, 20 A) for the Thunder in 24 games. It was by far the best year she'd had in the CWHL; her points have steadily climbed each of the four years she's played for the Thunder.

Jones joins a Buffalo team that is looking to repeat as Isobel Cup Champions. With fellow former Thunder teammates Sarah Edney and Rebecca Vint also joining the Beauts, they might have a shot at back-to-back championships. Chemistry is a beautiful thing.

Meghan Huertas, Connecticut Whale

The Connecticut Whale were gutted this offseason - they lost Kelli Stack to the CWHL/China and Dana Trivigno, Kaliya Johnson and Haley Skarupa all fled for a chance to play in Boston. That’s a lot of young talent coming out of the lineup.

Enter Huertas, who now has the opportunity to step into a leading role for the Whale. Though she put up just four points (1 G, 3 A) in nine games for Connecticut, she was a productive player at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (60 points in four years) and is going to be getting more ice time because of her experience. How she responds to the pressure to produce remains to be seen.

Erika Lawler, Metropolitan Riveters

Though she is small, she is fierce.

Fans should be watching Erika Lawler not just for what she's going to bring to ice, but also for what's sure to be a great storyline. Lawler returns to the game after four years off the ice, and she looks absolutely thrilled to be back.

It's been so long since Lawler has been on the ice it's hard to know exactly how long it will take for her to adjust, but she's going to be a huge boost. A former Olympian (2010) and regular Team USA standby, the last time she put on the red, white and blue was in 2012 at the IIHF World Championships.

In the one full season she played in the CWHL, she racked up 33 points (11 G, 22 A). Expect the smallest player in the NWHL to be a big factor for the Riveters especially after she gets her legs back.

Haley Skarupa, Boston Pride

Poor Connecticut.

Skarupa led the Whale in scoring last season, putting up 22 points (11 G, 11 A) in 16 games. Most expected her to continue right where she left off...and then the Pride swiped her.

It's probably the best thing that could have happened for Boston, who lost a significant portion of its talent to Olympic centralization. Skarupa will be a star in Boston, which is still a legitimate contender despite the roster turnover. The fact that she wasn't named to the Olympic roster (she's played in the last three World Championships) is a surprise, but Pride fans probably won't complain too much.

Janine Weber, Boston Pride

Weber is probably one of the more underrated players in the NWHL, though that's slowly started changing after her breakout 2016-17 season.

The Austrian has been making a name for herself in women's hockey - it was her overtime goal that captured the Clarkson Cup for the Boston Blades in 2015 and she was the first player to sign an NWHL contract when the league was brand new. She currently leads the Riveters franchise in career points, but she is no longer playing with Rosie on the front of her jersey.

Like Skarupa, Weber jumped ship and joined the revitalized Pride this season after spending the last two years with New York. She's going to be an essential part of the Pride offense, and depending on what role she plays, could match or even best her career-high of 22 points in a season.