Among the 28 players on the first of two days of Buffalo Beauts Free Agent Camp were some familiar names to NWHL fans: goaltenders Cassandra Goyette (last played with Connecticut), Kelsey Neumann (Buffalo), and Tiffany Hsu (Buffalo), defenders Meg Delay (Buffalo) and Samantha Fieseler (Metropolitan), and forwards Hayley Williams (Buffalo), Maddie Norton (Buffalo), Nicole Guagliardo (Connecticut), and Iveta Klimášová (Buffalo). Also on the ice were forwards Erin Gehen and Cassidy MacPherson who have already signed their contracts for the upcoming season with Buffalo.
Assistant Coach Mark Zorbo and Special Assignments Coach Julia DiTondo ran the drills on the ice during day one with GM Nate Oliver and Head Coach Rhea Coad keeping a close eye on all the action from the stands. Day two involved a scrimmage but we were unable to attend.
See the tweet below for a full list of attendees.
So realistically, how many roster spots were the 26 unsigned players competing for during the two-day session, and how are the players being evaluated by the Beauts staff?
“Probably just a handful (of spots). We have other players that we’re looking at who are not here. Ultimately, we would love to sign someone out of here,” said Coad, who will enter her first season as the franchise’s bench boss after two as an Assistant/Associate Coach. “Before the players hit the ice today, we talked about what we would all be watching and have implemented a system for rating the players. They all know what tendencies I like to look for, we’re all on the same page,” Coad said describing Buffalo’s plan of attack.
“So we go through and rate them on a scale of 1-3, with one being the best. We’ll write down things that stood out (today) next to their name/rating. From there we’ll set up lines for Sunday’s scrimmage. Having two players who are signed (for next season) already on the ice kind of helps us to measure where the other players are a little bit.”
Young, Veteran Leaders
Gehen and MacPherson will be playing in their third seasons as NWHL players/with the Beauts and if their confidence/swagger was noticeable from the stands by this reporter, then you know that it was also noticed by the watchful eyes of Coad and Oliver at the other end of the Olympic-sized rink at Northtown Center.
“Nate and I were talking earlier during the drills – those two were probably the quietest players during their first year (2019-20) here and didn’t talk at all,” revealed Coad. “Today I don’t think I heard Erin stop talking once out there, and honesty, I didn’t have to tell them to do anything.”
“Ultimately, it’s a big smile moment when you see two of your returners out there doing that. They stepped up to the plate just as I imagined they would,” added the Beauts’ bench boss who also explained that taking feedback from MacPherson and Gehen was on the table.
“It’s important. The biggest thing is that my players don’t run the asylum, but they do have a big say because it is their experience. I’ll talk to them after and see what they have to say. My players will always have a say in everything.”
With the Number One Pick…
In addition to adding players through free agency, the Beauts will likely also be adding some talent via the 2021 NWHL Draft (June 29) – where they hold the first overall pick and the first pick in each of the subsequent four rounds. Oliver had his work cut out for him this off-season, navigating through which players might stay in college for another year of eligibility and which ones are interested in turning pro. He’s been scouting and watching players from all over the globe before he was a GM, now the stakes are a bit higher and it’s just a matter of pairing down his list while seeing which players fit into the Beauts’ program.
“Normally we would draft players in March or April and go into a free agent camp with a better idea of what your roster is going to look like. This is more of a balancing act of scouting players who showed up for this camp, while also being mindful that there are some good collegiate players that we have to pinpoint and how they could benefit our program,” explained Oliver. “A lot of the big names are expected to go back (to school) and use that extra year of eligibility, and I don’t blame them. I think it’s a great opportunity.”
One position the Beauts don’t have to worry too much about is in goal. Last season as a rookie, Carly Jackson showed that she is the real deal and could be the backbone of the team for years to come. Now the challenge is putting the right mix of players around her to challenge for the Isobel Cup. We asked Oliver who Buffalo will be selecting first overall (have to at least try, right?!) and he wasn’t ready to reveal the choice but did concede that it likely wouldn’t be a goalie.
“The last off-season we really wanted to build our team from the crease on out, I’m fortunate enough that my predecessor Mandy Cronin drafted Carly Jackson with our first pick in the 2020 NWHL Draft. That makes my job easier, knowing that we have a top-notch goalie,” said Oliver. “We focused on defense last season with the players we brought in. We’re bringing back blueliner Marie-Jo Pelletier and I’m sure that we’ll lock up a few others that were with us this past season in Lake Placid.”
“Now we’ll focus more on the front end (of our roster). That was a challenge for us in Lake Placid – offense. We have the defense and goaltending covered, and now we’ll focus on building our offense,” added Oliver who enters his second season as the team’s GM. “You’ve seen that with the (Cassidy) Vinkle signing – she’s proven herself with the PWPHA and her two championships with Clarkson University. We’re trying to bring in more players like that who will bolster our offense.”
If the Beauts are to keep up with the Bostons and Minnesotas in the league they will need to be able to score more than they have the past two seasons.
The free-agent camp may or may not have provided an option or two in that department. Only time will tell. “Our culture is not just adding the best hockey players that we could find, but it’s also adding to the recipe that we already have here,” said Coad. “We’re looking for that separation speed from potential players.”
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.