The National Women’s Hockey League is still a work in progress. And new hockey leagues, especially those trying to get off the ground, go through growing pains. The fact that there is a third season on the horizon can be considered a success. But every roster has changed dramatically from last season because of Olympic centralization and salary cuts. While there will be a lot of new faces in the league next season, few of them were draft picks.
The upcoming 2017 NWHL draft will be the third in league history. Thus far the draft has proven to be largely unavailing. Just half of the picks from the 2015 draft played in the league last season and only three picks from last year’s draft have signed or already played in the NWHL.
Of course, comparing the NWHL draft to the NHL draft is foolish. There’s no farm system for the NWHL to develop prospects. And there are no professional scouts or combines. The NWHL draft’s aim in the league’s first two years has been straightforward; recognize and draft the top players from NCAA Division I women’s hockey after their junior year.
Unfortunately, this model has led to an underwhelming number of prospects playing for the teams that drafted them. The Boston Pride selected defender Lexi Bender in the third round of the 2015 draft. She was the earliest player drafted that year who played for the team that picked her. And only five of the 10 players who went ahead of her played in the NWHL last season.
The Connecticut Whale have struggled in the draft more than any NWHL team. In two years, Connecticut has signed only one original draft pick, goaltender Sydney Rossman, who was the second-to-last pick of the 2016 draft. Connecticut has also watched two prospects sign with other NWHL teams and didn’t get a player or pick as compensation. Last offseason, it was Milica McMillen, who was pilfered by the New York Riveters. This year it was Paige Savage, who signed with the Pride.
Confirmed by NWHL source: Whale will receive no compensation for Paige Savage signing with the Boston Pride. CTW's 15th pick of 2016 Draft.
— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) June 21, 2017
There’s still time for Connecticut and the other three teams to sign picks from the 2016 draft, but that hasn’t been the trend. Every NWHL team has signed at least two rookies this offseason. But the majority of these new faces weren’t NWHL draft picks. And many of them are NCAA Division III players.
So what can the NWHL do to improve the success rate and image of its draft? One solution could be changing priorities.
General managers should put an emphasis on drafting players who are more likely to sign. Riveters general manager Chad Wiseman took that strategy when he selected Princeton’s Kelsey Koelzer with the first overall pick in 2016. But it’s not an easy task when drafting players after their junior years.
Another solution to consider: Take a page out of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s draft model. The CWHL drafts players after their senior seasons. It also asks aspiring players to submit a list of teams they would be their preference. That gives general managers going into the draft a better idea of who wants to play in their cities.
As part of the registration process, each prospective player must indicate the CWHL city or cities in which they are willing to play (“Acceptable Locations”), selecting a minimum of one (1), up to a maximum of three (3). Given that the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] has 2 teams, a selection of the GTA counts as 2 selections. Players selecting GTA may select only one other team. Players are not permitted to designate a specific team within the GTA.
Both measures would go a long way toward helping NWHL teams agree to terms with more draft picks. But there are no easy solutions. Until the league can offer a living wage, every NWHL athlete must first figure out what they will do to make ends meet. As a result, determining the safest players to pick on draft day is next to impossible for NWHL general managers.
As it exists now, the draft is not completely futile, but is deeply flawed. However, it has still had modest success. Being an NWHL draft pick is prestigious; it has value. If the league continues to grow, it could mean much more in the near future.
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