Both the Connecticut Whale (June 12) and Metropolitan Riveters (June 13) held Free Agent Camps this past weekend at the former (and possibly future) home of the Rivs in Newark, New Jersey. A total of 33 players were there, and ten of them were on the ice both days. Two of them (Hanna Beattie, Alyssa Wohlfeiler) were already signed (with the Whale) for Season 7, and one (Madison Packer) is expected to be back as captain of the Riveters. Five of the 33 were also on the ice a week earlier in Buffalo at the Beauts’ Free Agent Camp.
For NWHL fans, there were definitely some familiar names on the ice for both days – some more surprising than others: goaltenders Tera Hofmann (last played with Riveters), Sonjia Shelly (Riveters), Cassandra Goyette (Whale), defenders Meg Delay (Beauts), Rebecca Morse (Riveters), Taylor Marchin (Whale), and forwards Kaycie Anderson (Whale), Maeve Reilly (Whale), Elena Gualtieri (Whale), Stephanie Mock (Whale), Iveta Klimasova (Beauts), Hayley Williams (Beauts), Alexa Aramburu (Riveters), Brooke Avery (Riveters), Allie Olnowich (Riveters), Haley Frade (Riveters), and Kayla Meneghin (Beauts).
“I was looking for added depth in our lineup, as I find it very important to have four competitive lines. That’s definitely something we had last season and we want to continue that trend,” said Riveters Head Coach Ivo Mocek in a team email. “The camp today definitely served its purpose and I was pleasantly surprised by some of the players. I can see some of them fitting into our Season 7 Rivs lineup. Especially the player with short, bleached blonde hair. She definitely has some potential.”
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Packer was playing her usual rough and tumble (emphasis on the tumble) style, even though she currently has a broken finger. But her presence, just like the presence of Beattie and Wohlfeiler a day earlier, was important to set the tone and standard for other players to compete against or alongside.
“It is nice to have players that you do know on the ice to gauge the talents up against one another,” said Whale Assistant Coach Laura Brennan who is currently also serving as the team’s de facto GM. “It was great to have Wolfy and Beattie out there today – and you can hear them from the stands being vocal, being leaders – it was good to see.”
Anya Packer, who is entering her first season as Riveters GM, echoed that sentiment a day later. “It’s very valuable having experienced players here. You totally have to have a measuring stick. When we look at how our pro camps will continue to evolve, and I hope it does because it’s at like beta right now and we should be at version 5.0.”
“I think it’s really important to have those returning players so you know where someone fits,” added the former head of the NWHLPA and former Whale player. “You let them play and see where they fit, see how (potential) new players stack up against them and if there are natural synergies. The use of those returners or perennial Riveters is very important.”
At Connecticut’s camp, there were a total of 24 players on the ice for the 90-minute session. The full list can be seen here. The participants all did well throughout the day, and the players with pro experience definitely looked the part. If we’re being honest, it was a bit shocking to pick up the roster sheet at the rink and finding names like Marchin, Morse, and Hofmann on there.
In Marchin’s case, we’d be stunned if she wasn’t on the Whale’s roster for Season 7, as she seems like the natural fit to slide into Shannon Doyle’s role as one of the team’s top defensive defenders. So maybe this was more of just judging how much more she has to give and setting the bar high for potential players.
“There are no other options for me, I would love to sign again with the Whale. So I’m doing everything I can to get signed again,” Marchin told THW after coming off the ice. “I felt good today. It was high-tempo, definitely a lot of skating. I’ve been skating a few times a week in the morning before work, trying to get ready for this and our camp on June 27.”
“You can’t match game-like situations if you don’t have players around to scrimmage,” said the veteran of 41 regular-season games and four playoff games with the Pod. “Nothing beats coming out here for these situations. I definitely did all that I could do (today), and I know that being on the ice more things will only get better from here.”
For Brennan and the Whale, they were able to get a really good look at players that could fill important roles in Connecticut this upcoming season. As Marchin mentioned, the team will be holding another camp in two weeks that will take place at their home rink in Danbury.
“We did have some players here today that were either practice players for us or played for us in the past. So you have an idea of what they’re going to bring to the table. It’s nice to get a look at some players that you don’t know on that level,” Brennan said.
“There are definitely things you are looking for – how they are skating if they’re confident playing the puck, if they’re easily bumped off the puck – but really it’s just if they are creative and doing all the little things that we like to see as a team. The main thing is just being able to skate and be confident with the puck, and the ability to make plays. A lot of the players out there today definitely possessed all of the things we are looking for,” added the former netminder turned Assistant Coach/Interim GM.
The past year was weird for everyone on the planet but in the hockey world, specifically the NWHL, the season was filled with stops and starts. For Marchin and her Whale teammates, it meant playing four games in nine days and then showing up for a playoff game two months later. So how can you even begin to evaluate players and their performances?
“It’s tough because obviously no matter what’s going on, you want to give your best effort whenever you can. But stuff happens,” Marchin said with a shrug and laugh. “We had a few games – at least one of them – who knows how many people were sick at that point? So we obviously weren’t playing our best hockey. But we had so many practices, we were around the rink so much leading up to the games, that there has to be a way to evaluate whoever shows up and gives their all.”
Again we fully expect Marchin to return for her fourth season as a pro/with the Whale. But how many spots were players competing for during Connecticut’s camp? “It’s hard to say how many spots are available,” said Brennan, “but there is a handful that are up for grabs and will potentially be filled by players that were on the ice here today.”
If they can add players of Morse and Hofmann’s caliber not only would they improve their team’s depth, they’d also be weakening one of the other five teams with who they are competing.
At the Riveters’ camp, there was a total of 19 players on the ice for the 90-minute session. The full list can be seen here. With a smaller group, the pace wasn’t quite the same tempo as the previous day, but it was still spirited and again – the players who had pro experience set the bar for the others and it was a good group of talent. In attendance but not on the ice were forwards Kendall Cornine (in a walking boot) and Emily Janiga.
In her first in-person interview as GM, Anya Packer spoke about what the team was looking for at the camp, a possible return to Newark, and navigating two drafts this summer. She led off by thanking the New Jersey Devils organization for not only the workspace but also the medical guidance for rink protocols to ensure that everyone attending was as safe as possible as the world begins to reopen.
She also addressed the fact that former Riveters captain Shelly Picard was on the ice helping run drills and the scrimmage. Packer revealed she has attempted to get the defender to play or coach for the Rivs this season – to no avail. “She does a great amount of work for youth hockey in New Jersey, and continues to work with the NJ Colonials,” said the new Riveters GM. “She’s an incredible defender, and was outstanding as a Riveter and will forever be a Riveter.”
So how many spots were the 18 players not named Madison Packer realistically competing for? “I would say maybe a solid two lines is what we’re looking to fill, and I think we always should asses in that way,” the Rivs GM said. “We should never be at 75% capacity in June. I would say we’re more like 10% capacity (now), so there is certainly room to grow.”
The Riveters have signed a handful of players already but have yet to announce any of them. Packer has hinted at some type of rebrand that is in the works, so any player signing announcements will not be coming until after that occurs.
“Who wouldn’t?!,” replied Packer when asked if the Riveters want to make a return to Newark, return to the rink where they captured their only Isobel Cup championship and called home for three seasons. “It’s going in a really good direction,” she said of the talks. “We’re powerful because we have continued to stay in the New Jersey area, do our time, grown, and I’m thankful for the work that the Riveters have done to span the state of New Jersey.”
“I think it’s important to continue to do so. Staying in one community, you only touch one community. The more we go from Brooklyn to the Metropolitan to that wider net that we cast at Pro Skate and Monmouth Junction. It becomes important for us to deepen the roots of the Riveters across New Jersey. I would love to bring us back to the Newark area.”
Navigating a player draft as a GM can be tricky. In women’s pro hockey that is traditionally more challenging. Following a pandemic that created an extra year of eligibility for collegiate players, even more challenging. Add in a separate draft for European players without any prior NWHL experience for another level of difficulty. Also, consider that in a normal season the draft wouldn’t be smack dab in the middle of free agency. So there are a lot of things to balance and consider for Packer and Mocek as the NWHL moves into its next stage of the off-season.
“What a great year to become a GM! If I deal with the most challenging year ever in my first year, the rest should seem like smooth sailing,” Packer said with a laugh. “Every time we look at a player – whether they are opting in or out, you want to understand why. There are so many layers to that decision-making right now, especially with the international draft which I’m excited about. We have to embrace our international players because they are tremendous and hockey is truly a global sport. You have to think: if this player drafted, where do they fit within the roster, do they fit within the roster – maybe they don’t but they are draft-able and how do you get through that?”
“And then you have to get players to prove themselves.”
As is the case with Marchin, we’d be floored if Morse and Hofmann weren’t back with the Riveters this upcoming season. But healthy competition is never a bad thing, and it certainly will keep players from possibly becoming complacent. Nevertheless, it is something to keep an eye on as the NWHL off-season evolves.