Who Should Join The USWNT Player Pool After Pyeongchang?
With all eyes on the 2018 Olympics, who are some young players who might crack the USWNT down the road?
The opportunity exists for Canadian national team players to take the ice at the Olympics and World Championships well into their 30s. Although they seem to be going younger for Pyeongchang, they did still cut the youngest players they took to the pre-Olympic tour, and it’s hard not to see Meghan Agosta and Jenn Wakefield sticking with the team for another Olympic cycle.
USA Hockey sees things differently. Once you hit 30, your national career is pretty close to over on this side of the border. They have never brought a player over the age of 31 to the Olympics, and the last cycle turned out to be a showcase for the new core of the team. 2018 Olympians Sidney Morin, Dani Cameranesi, Kali Flanagan, Kelly Pannek, Megan Keller, Maddie Rooney, and Cayla Barnes are all 22 or younger, while Sochi mainstays Jessie Vetter, Kelli Stack, Anne Schleper, and Megan Bozek have seen their Team USA tenures end in the last couple years.
Whether Team USA wins gold in Pyeongchang or not, expect the core of the team to stay young for the 2022 Olympic cycle. While Hilary Knight, who will be 32 in Beijing, remains perhaps the most dominant player in women’s hockey and should stick with the team through then, Pyeongchang probably spells the end of the line for Gigi Marvin, Kacey Bellamy, Meghan Duggan, and the Lamoureux twins (though you may see a couple of them at the 2019 or 2020 Worlds). It may be tough to imagine future Team USAs without those players, but there will always be new blood to capture the nation’s attention.
But who should that new blood be? There’s a lot to choose from, and the young players in the US pipeline have some serious skill, evidenced by their four consecutive U18 gold medals.
I have 15 suggestions––all born in 1995 or later. Obviously, not every one of them should (or will) make the team, but I’d recommend that you, the fan, keep an eye on them.
Makenna Newkirk, Boston College: One-third of the most dangerous line in college hockey this year, the Arizona native has 44 points in just 24 games on the year, after being a point-per-game player in both her freshman and sophomore seasons. Newkirk was invited to the Olympic Selection Camp last May, and although she did not make the team, you have to assume USA Hockey has been keeping their eyes on her this entire time.
Melissa Samoskevich, Quinnipiac: I thought about choosing her Quinnipiac teammate T.T. Cianfarano, who is injured at the moment, but I opted for Samoskevich, who has been one of my favorite players to watch over the past four years. A two-time U18 Worlds participant and two-time U22 series participant, she currently leads the Bobcats with 10 goals and should be a high draft pick in the NWHL this coming June. I’d expect her numbers to pick up next year playing with a healthy Cianfarano.
Caitrin Lonergan, Boston College: Only three players have more points this year than Newkirk, and one of them is Lonergan, her teammate. Just a sophomore, she already has 24 goals and 57 points, and there’s at least a third of the season to go. The Olympic Selection Camp attendee is a natural center, has elite skating ability, and is one of the best passers in college hockey. I’m not going to have an ETA for every player on this list, but the 2018 Four Nations or 2019 Worlds seem like a good place to start Lonergan’s senior career.
Abby Roque, Wisconsin: Even with a number of eligible players missing due to the Olympics, the Badgers remain far and away the best team in the country, and Roque is the best player on that team. A native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Roque is a solid two-way center with a very high hockey IQ. The two-time U18 Worlds participant has 29 points in 24 games, and as a sophomore, has plenty of time to further impress the coaching and scouting staff.
Presley Norby, Wisconsin: She and Roque do not play on the same line most of the time, but Norby has proven to be just as dangerous of an offensive threat. A right-shot capable of playing either wing position, the two-time U18 gold medalist has already made her senior national team debut when she was called in as a late injury replacement to the Four Nations Cup at the age of 17. Norby has 22 points in 24 games thus far for Wisconsin as a sophomore, and should receive a lot of national team consideration in the future.
Becca Gilmore, Harvard: For those who haven’t heard of Gilmore, what you need to know is this: all Gilmore has done at every level is put up points. She played six varsity seasons at the prep school level in her home state of Massachusetts, and was one of the rare Americans to skate at three U18 World Championships, tying for the tournament scoring lead in 2015. She hasn’t had any challenges adapting to the college game, and currently paces the Crimson with 17 points in 16 games.
Grace Zumwinkle, Minnesota: I also considered her Minnesota teammate Alex Woken here, but Zumwinkle has emerged as a player that I believe USA Hockey should incorporate into the player pool in the next 12-18 months. A two-time U18 gold medalist and last year’s USA Today High School Player of the Year, Zumwinkle has used her booming shot and elite offensive instincts to lead the Gophers in scoring as an 18-year-old freshman, with 11 goals and 16 points in 25 games.
Taylor Heise, Red Wing HS: I get that I’ve probably missed a handful of college players or young pros who have proven themselves at higher levels than she has, but when someone puts up the numbers Heise has over the last four years, you have to take notice. Heise was the captain and MVP of the U18 team that took home their fourth consecutive gold medal last week, and is averaging over two goals per game at the high school level this season. She is committed to Minnesota, where, like Zumwinkle, she’s expected to contribute right away.
Makenna Webster, Shattuck-St. Mary’s: Is it too early to say a 15-year-old will be a future part of the national team? I thought so, but changed my mind after watching Webster at the U18s. The diminutive right winger, who stands at only 5’2”, led the Americans in scoring with nine points, and in her first year playing varsity at Shattuck, leads the team with 50 points in 30 games. Eligible for the next two U18 World Championships, Webster isn’t the only player in that circuit I’m keeping my eye on––Dominique Petrie and Abbey Murphy also impressed me over the course of the tournament.
Jenny Ryan, Metropolitan Riveters: Team USA has a young defense as it is, but in a country that has not developed as many national team-quality blueliners as hoped in the past decade, it’s good to see that’s starting to change in a big way. I also considered Boston College’s Toni Ann Miano for this spot, but chose a different New Yorker who has professional experience. Ryan, though a little undersized at 5’4”, has been the NWHL’s best rookie in 2017–18, and with former Wisconsin teammate Courtney Burke, is one-half of the league’s most lethal defensive pairing. Ryan also was an easy choice to play in the two exhibition games between Team USA and the NWHL All-Stars.
Kelsey Koelzer, Metropolitan Riveters: Ryan isn’t the only Riveters defenseman USA Hockey has been watching. Koelzer, who would be the first African-American player in USWNT Olympic history should she crack the lineup in 2022, has also emerged as one of the best offensive blueliners in the NWHL after a standout career at Princeton. A No. 1 draft pick, Olympic Selection Camp attendee, and NWHL All-Star, Koelzer is a point-per-game player for the Rivs.
Sydney Baldwin, Minnesota: The Gophers have been a factory for national-team quality defenseman under Brad Frost, and I could have picked Sophie Skarzynski or Patti Marshall for this spot. But Baldwin, who just turned 22, has been one of the most consistent two-way threats in college hockey for her entire four-year career. Although not drafted into the NWHL, likely due to her being from Minnesota, Baldwin has still excelled at the college level this season, with 21 points in 25 games.
Jincy Dunne, Ohio State: Dunne was pretty close to making the Sochi Olympic team, and captained the U18 side twice, scoring the overtime goal in the 2015 gold medal game. Since then, though, injury issues have delayed the real start of her national team career. Luckily for her and the USWNT, she seems to be over those now, and at 20 has been a key contributor for a Buckeye team that has exceeded expectations thus far this year. I think she’s probably the safest bet of any of the defensemen I listed to become a national team regular, and, having followed her career since she was 15, I have to say I’m pretty invested in her accomplishing that goal.
Gracie Ostertag, Shattuck-St. Mary’s: I went back and forth between Ostertag and her fellow U18 star and Minnesota commit Madeline Wethington, but after going back through the highlights of the tournament, I elected to feature Ostertag in this article. Although not elite offensively, she’s steadily improving her game on that end of the ice, and has been dominant in her own zone every time I’ve watched her. She definitely earned the tournament’s Best Defenseman honors, and I’m excited to see her at the college level next year.
Katie Burt, Boston College: The oldest goalie on the Olympic roster is 26, but it’s still worth looking at who else could play their way into the fold. Burt seems like the most likely candidate to do so. Having been a starter at Boston College since she was 17, her 2017–18 save percentage of .923 is actually her low-water mark by a wide margin, and the Eagles losing their two best defensemen to the Olympics is a pretty significant factor. A No. 1 NWHL draft pick of the Boston Pride, the 20-year-old Burt should be playing pro hockey––and playing her way onto the national squad––sooner rather than later.