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What Can We Expect From Each PWHL Team? A Brief Overview

PWHL Toronto forward Sarah Nurse crashes the net during a scrimmage against PWHL Minnesota (Photo Credit PWHL)
PWHL Toronto forward Sarah Nurse crashes the net during a scrimmage against PWHL Minnesota (Photo Credit PWHL)

We are in the home stretch when it comes to the PWHL’s opening puck drop on January 1 in at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto, and the excitement is growing amongst fans and players alike.

The Professional Women's Hockey League hosted a Preseason Evaluation Camp in Utica, N.Y. December 3-7. We've gotten some great hockey in the first few days, but not all of it has been available to the fans, Tuesday evening’s Fan Fest scrimmage between PWHL New York and PWHL Ottawa being the only exception.

So what can we expect from this newest iteration of women’s professional hockey?

I took a road trip to Utica to find out for you, and here’s what I have to report for each team – think of it as “quick hits,” as of course this is based on the training camp rosters and what I’ve seen and heard from each team.

One more point to make: there hasn’t been a ton of time for these teams to work specific lines or systems, and each team is focusing on something a bit different; Ottawa, for example, has focused a bit more on the culture, while Montreal is working on their discipline. So with that said, let’s go!

PWHL Boston

So this is a team with an interesting mix of players. You have your obvious National Team names like Hilary Knight, Megan Keller, and Sophie Jaques, mixed with elite PHF talent in Taylor Girard and Loren Gabel.

You also have some balance with up and comers like Sophie Shirley mixed with veteran talent like Kaleigh Fratkin and Gigi Marvin. This team has some real potential, but it’s taken a while to see that click; as a result, Boston has lost two scrimmages in a row in team play, while they have done well in the shootout.

Boston camp invitee Taylor Wenczkowski tries to get past Montreal's Marie-Philip Poulin during a scrimmage Tuesday afternoon in Utica. (PWHL)
Boston camp invitee Taylor Wenczkowski tries to get past Montreal's Marie-Philip Poulin during a scrimmage Tuesday afternoon in Utica. (PWHL)

Head coach Courtney Kessel remains optimistic that things will come together just as they’re meant to, and players like Jess Healey have talked about how excited they are to play with and learn from some of the most experienced players in the sport. So we’ll definitely see what happens.

I didn’t get to see Gabel or Alina Müller (another major name from international play) in action Tuesday, so the jury is out on where they fit in, but it’s safe to say they’ll be a strong all-around team once the pieces come together.

PWHL Minnesota

This is another team with some strong Team USA presence in players like Kendall Coyne Schofield, Kelly Pannek, and Grace Zumwinkle amongst others. While they got off to a couple of slow starts in their first two scrimmages, they managed to stun both their opponents (Ottawa and Toronto) in comeback victories, showing they can capitalize on other teams’ mistakes and make them pay dearly for it.

Head coach Charlie Burggraf made it clear that he wants his team to focus on the basics prior to trying to implement anything in-depth in terms of systems (or, as he put it, “playing Minnesota hockey”), so we can expect a lot of line tinkering based on that. We can also expect some more individualized play, like we got on Tuesday from Grace Zumwinkle and Taylor Heise (both of whom scored goals off of huge efforts).

Another, more unfortunate fact is that injuries have started to plague Minnesota early. Forward Sydney Brodt went down with a bad lower body injury on Monday, and Susanna Tapani followed on Tuesday after being slashed and shoved into her opponent’s net. Simply put, it’s tough out there for Minnesota players right now, and I’m hoping that’s not a harbinger of things to come.

PWHL Montréal

This team is so, so fun. We have some incredible veteran talent together for perhaps the first time ever. I mean, Ann-Sophie Bettez, Jillian Dempsey, Marie-Philip Poulin, and Erin Ambrose all on the same team? Sign me up. Bettez and Dempsey each scored some great goals Tuesday against Boston – Bettez put away a great chip pass by Laura Stacey to open the scoring while Dempsey finished off a give-and-go with Bettez in the third to put it away for good.

Bettez is likely to be all over the scoresheet this upcoming season along with Poulin. That said, I would never count out an incredible player like Dempsey – and there are also players like Kennedy Marchment, Sarah Lefort, Tereza Vanišová, Sarah Bujold, and Dominika Laskova to consider. All lit up the PHF last season and provide some awesome depth.

While Vanišová hasn’t been signed yet, I think Kori Cheverie and Daniele Sauvageau would be mad to pass on the 2023 Isobel Cup-winning goal scorer, as she has a wicked shot and amazing speed.

The one hangup for Montréal that I can see is their tendency toward penalties, something Cheverie acknowledged post-game Tuesday.

“I would prefer us not to take penalties, and we’re working on that as well, but also we want to play physical[ly] within the rules as much as possible,” she said. “As you’ve seen over the past few days, it’s been some physical hockey out there, so we’re trying to also figure out the refs a little bit, what goes and what doesn’t.”

Cheverie added that this camp is a great opportunity to focus on that and establish identity while getting that balance correct.

PWHL New York

This is another team with a ton of speed and a lot of all-around talent. They put up four on Montré al on Monday, then played Ottawa to a dead heat essentially on Tuesday (more on them in a moment), showing excellence on both sides of the ice.

Abbey Levy played an excellent game on Monday (24 saves), and Corinne Schroeder followed that up with an unreal 39-save effort reminiscent of her days with the PHF’s Boston Pride. As a goalie stan naturally, I truly hope (and expect) Schroeder gets a contract out of this camp, because that duo together is bound to wreak havoc on the offense-heavy lineups in this league. Levy and Schroeder would also be the youngest tandem, making this a drool-worthy situation in terms of building a goalie corps with some longevity.

Besides the terrifying goalie tandem brewing, New York’s got a ton of speed and strength up front with players like Jade Downie-Landry, Alex Carpenter, and Jessie Eldridge (the latter of whom had a great night Monday, with a goal and an assist).

You also have players like Abby Roque, Emma Woods, and Chloé Aurard, all of whom possess a ton of skill but have no problem playing with an edge as well. Add in some excellent defenders with offensive upside like Ella Shelton, Micah Zandee-Hart, and Olivia Zafuto, and I think we’ve got all the makings of a contender here.

PWHL Ottawa

Ottawa started out as a bit of an outlier with hockey fans, but they’re quickly gaining some soft spots with fans, particularly those of the former PHF. Players like Daryl Watts, Amanda Boulier, and Kateřina Mrázová have already been signed, and invitees like Mikyla Grant-Mentis have had excellent showings thus far (1 G, 1 A in Monday’s scrimmage against Minnesota).

One of my favorite players on the invitee list is Akane Shiga, a standout on Team Japan during March’s Worlds whose speed and precision can give some of the best skaters in this league a run for their money. In net, you have another high-caliber pair of goalies in Sandra Abstreiter and Emerance Maschmeyer, the latter of whom played nearly lights-out against Schroeder Tuesday night (23 saves).

Ottawa's Sandra Abstreiter looks for the puck beyond Minnesota's Michela Cava during Monday's scrimmage in Utica, N.Y. (PWHL)
Ottawa's Sandra Abstreiter looks for the puck beyond Minnesota's Michela Cava during Monday's scrimmage in Utica, N.Y. (PWHL)

The blueline is a bit jumbled, as there’s a bit of a dearth of right-handed defenders. Boulier and Ashton Bell are the only two righties of the eight defenders on the roster, with Saroya Tinker having retired. With the other four signees on the blueline already shooting left, it unfortunately leaves the other two D – Tori Howran and Taylor Davison – on the outs, and that’s a shame.

(Again calling for a development league to keep players like this in the fold, PWHL!)

Aside from that hiccup, though, I think Ottawa has a lot of appeal – they’re fast, they throw a ton of shots at their opponents, and while a potential roster could still be stacked, there’s a healthy mix of skill and grit that will set Ottawa apart from the pack.

PWHL Toronto

Finally, we have the team that for me is perhaps the most elusive of the six. Coached by Team Canada bench boss Troy Ryan, this camp squad has a large number of National Team and PWHPA members and even some names those who followed the CWHL back in the day would recognize (such as Erica Howe and Jess Jones). At any rate, these players are certainly familiar with each other, something Ryan acknowledged after Tuesday's scrimmage as a potential advantage.

Toronto has gotten out to some strong starts, including a quick 3-0 lead against Minnesota on Tuesday, but the fuse seems to run short -- literally. As is the case with a couple of these teams, penalties have seemed to shoot them in the foot, making sustaining a lead a tricky situation. Still, there is a lot of experience on this roster, and players like Sarah Nurse, Brittany Howard, Jocelyne Larocque, Kali Flanagan, and Blayre Turnbull are definitely able to set the tone and the standard for their squad.

The goaltending situation here is interesting. Howe and Kristen Campbell are the goalies signed, with camp invitees Carly Jackson and Amanda Mäkelä on the bubble. The decision to go with an older/younger tandem is nothing new, though I remember watching Howe during her days with the Brampton/Markham Thunder and thought she was solid; still, she hasn't played very consistently over the past few years, and her numbers with Team Sonnet weren't incredibly strong.

I would expect Campbell to get the lion's share of starts, but I think Toronto could do well with a third goalie on reserve, something no team has really done yet. Either of Jackson or Mäkelä could do for this spot (but of course, if you know me, you know whom my money would be on).


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