Until this past April, Nicole Hensley wasn't the most well-known name in women's hockey -- more of a supporting character than a protagonist.
That changed this year thanks to the 2017 IIHF World Championships.
Hensley was one of three goaltenders chosen for the Worlds team along with Alex Rigsby and Maddie Rooney. Rigsby, who had been Team USA's starter for at least the last year and played lights-out at last year's Worlds en route to a gold medal, faltered against Finland in a 5-3 contest while Hensley was in net for a 2-0 shutout win against Canada.
That was all head coach Robb Stauber needed to see — Hensley was the starter for both the quarterfinal against Germany and the overtime thriller against Canada for the gold. Stauber still wouldn't say outright that Hensley was the team's No. 1 goaltender, but her breakout at Worlds catapulted her up USA's depth chart and is one of the main reasons she ranks No. 12 on our countdown.
Before she was a star at the World Championships, Hensley had limited experience with USA Hockey. She'd played twice on U-22 development teams -- once in 2014, once in 2015 -- but between those two series, she played just three games total. In 2016, she was named to both the Four Nations Cup and Worlds roster, but played only one game in each tournament.
It wasn't until the 2017 World Championships that she really burst onto the scene, playing three games and earning two shutouts.
But Hensley was just as big of a star in college; she played all four years at Lindenwood, where she was essentially the team's starter from Day 1 of her freshman year. In her four years there, she played in 123 games and improved her goals against average every season. She finished her senior year with a 2.52 goals against average and won innumerable awards in the CHA. Just a few: She was the CHA Rookie of the Year and also made the USCHO All-Rookie Team, was named to the CHA First Team her junior and senior year, and has won the CHA Goalie of the Week award more than a dozen times in her college career. She finished her four seasons with a career 4,094 saves and a .921 save percentage.
In other words, she was invaluable for Lindenwood, despite the fact that the team wasn't the most successful in the CHA during her tenure there.
Based on her Worlds performance, Hensley may be USA's goalie for the future. Rigsby is still in her prime, but she's the team's oldest goalie (the third is Maddie Rooney, who is still only 20 years old) and it looks like both her and Hensley will be competing for the starting job for the foreseeable future.
She also may decide to go pro next year too, though it's not clear where she'd go. She hasn't been drafted by an NWHL team nor has she entered the CWHL draft, though she may also join a team like the Minnesota Whitecaps or choose to go abroad in the SDHL or another league.
Is this ranking too high or two low?
Hensley's ranking is a bit tricky because of how quickly she shot up USA's depth chart. Though she's always been a great goalie for Lindenwood, it was only recently that she showcased her talent at the elite level. She could continue to climb the rankings (and probably surpass some of the goaltenders ranked ahead of her) if she performs well at the Olympics, or even just retains the starting spot.