Will the NWHL turn to D-III talent to fill its rosters?

A story about opportunity and expectation

It’s now been over a month since NWHL free agency began. Historically, news of signings has come at a slow trickle — with the noteworthy exception of the Buffalo Beauts signing 10 players in the first 16 days of free agency last year. Thus far, 23 players have signed and reports indicate that we should expect more before the month is over.

Yesterday, Jane Morrisette became the first D-III player to sign an NHWL contract this offseason. Chances are, the UMass-Boston alumna is just the tip of the iceberg.

NWHL rosters have featured talent from D-III schools since the league’s inaugural season. In the 2017-18 season, members of the United States women’s national team were centralized for the Pyeongchang Olympics. Their collective absence created a talent vacuum in the NWHL that needed to be filled. As a result, there were over 30 new faces in the league, many of which graduated from D-III programs.

Once again, the NWHL is faced with a vacuum of talent. Just like last time, Olympians are involved. But, this time around, other big name players are also out of the picture because of the #ForTheGame movement.

The question that resurfaces with each new signing is whether or not the NWHL will be able to fill its rosters in time for the 2018-19 season. The overlap between the U.S. women’s national team and the members of the PWHPA is significant. For those who don’t remember, the #ForTheGame movement was the precursor to the PWHPA.

We are starting to see players — like Mallory Souliotis — change their mind and sign with NWHL clubs after coming out as #ForTheGame. However, it’s unlikely that there will be enough dissenters to fill all five of the league’s rosters. That’s why attracting new players, including NCAA D-III alumna, is of paramount importance to the NWHL and its general managers this summer.

It’s only natural to expect a noticeable decline in the product on the ice if D-III players step into roster spots previously held by alumnae NCAA D-I programs and national team players. However, players like Emily Fluke, Kristin Lewicki, and Kaylyn Schroka have challenged our perceptions about players who come from programs like Williams College, Aidan College, Middlebury College, and Norwich University. The same is true of Shannon Stewart who played two seasons in Europe and two more in the CWHL with the Toronto Furies after her collegiate career at SUNY-Plattsburgh.

The landscape of the NWHL without national team skaters

We have seen D-III players take the #ForTheGame pledge, but two-time All-Star Emily Fluke is not one of them.

Fluke’s impact on the Connecticut Whale franchise and the NWHL itself can’t be understated. The unheralded forward led the Whale in scoring during her rookie season and  played with the “C” stitched to her chest in her second year. There are only eight players who have scored more points than Fluke over the last two seasons. More than any other player, Fluke has raised the bar for what we come to expect from players from D-III programs who go pro.

With that being said, finding the next Fluke is a lot easier said than done.

Last season, nine rookies from D-III schools signed PTOs or contracts with NWHL teams. Sarah Hughson and Melissa Sheeran were two of those rookies. Hughson scored 28 goals in her senior season at Elmira and Sheeran had 19 goals and 30 assists in her final year at SUNY-Plattsburgh. However, both forwards failed to produce with the Whale. In fact, Kayla Meneghin, who also played for the Whale, was the only D-III player new to the NWHL last year who scored a goal.

The 2017-18 season proved that NWHL hockey was still engaging and entertaining without members of Team USA in the league and players like Fluke and Lewicki were a big part of that. Which is why Morrisette and other new pros from D-III schools could prove to be what makes the 2019-20 NWHL season a reality.

All data courtesy of NWHL.zone, Even-Strength.com, eliteprospects.com, and the author’s own tracking.