The Boston Pride were absolutely dominant in the NWHL’s inaugural season, going 14-3-0-1 before sweeping their way through the postseason.
Will defending their title be as tough as it is in other leagues or will new signings and draft picks fail to help the league’s other teams catch up to the Pride?
Restricted free agency is underway in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). It’s a one-month period where teams have the ability to re-sign their players prior to the opening of free agency May 1st, when players have the ability to sign with any team.
At this point, the Boston Pride have not re-signed any players, while the other three league franchises have all signed at least one player. Their ability to continue being the dominant force in the league may depend on their ability to re-sign their key players.
Here are the four players the Pride most need to re-sign.
1. Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight
This is obvious.
There is no replacing the league’s MVP and winner of the scoring title, respectively. The Pride were good up and down the lineup, and the presence of stars from the national team overshadowed the contributions of role players like Rachel Llanes or Zoe Hickel. But there’s no denying that the team was top-heavy and that they leaned on the Decker line all the time. Losing them would be devastating.
— NWHL (@NWHL) March 20, 2016
Knight finished 11 points ahead of the next player in the league not named Brianna Decker. Decker was seven up on third place. The only player in the league who comes even remotely close (and actually surpasses them) in shots per game and points per game is Kelley Steadman. Everyone else is a long way back.
The list of accomplishments goes on and on. Knight led the league in game-winnings goals. She ranked first in faceoff percentage while Decker ranked third. Decker led the league in shorthanded goals. They’re two of the three best players in the league by most any standard.
It’s possible another team could throw more money their way, especially when you see key players on other teams, like Ashley Johnston, taking a pay cut in a year where the average salary is going up. The likelihood of it happening would seem low, but the Pride can’t afford to lose either.
2. Gigi Marvin
Marvin, the NWHL’s Best Defenseman winner, is equally important to the team’s success. They’ve had some huge offensive success, and Marvin has been a part of that from the blue line. Her play in playoffs made a lot of people get familiar with her name if they weren’t already.
At the end of the season, she led all defenseman in goals and was tied for third in game-winners with two. Her 12.8% shooting percentage was on the high side for the league, but she’s put up goals at a good rate previously, scoring gobs for the University of Minnesota and putting up 11 one season for the CWHL’s Boston Blades.
— NWHL (@NWHL) March 20, 2016
Marvin had a great year and was getting $20,000. Only Decker, Knight, and Kacey Bellamy were making more than her last year, so there’s not much room to go up with the talent they have. Maybe another team would be willing to move the needle, but at that point, there are a lot of other factors involved. It may be unlikely that she moves to a new team, but losing her would nonetheless be significant.
3. Kacey Bellamy
Bellamy is the other top defender for the Pride. She hasn’t had the awards of her teammates here but is another player whose absence could redefine the team. If she moved on to another team, there could be a significant shift in the Pride’s dominance.
Her offensive numbers are similar to those of Marvin, though she put up points at a slightly higher rate. She was the only defenseman in the NWHL to score more than one point per game with a 1.08 rate.
Outside of this list, there are a few players who played a significant role in the team’s success and would leave a big hole if they moved on.
Ott, Zoe Hickel, Blake Bolden, Jillian Dempsey or Amanda Pelkey are among those players whose return would be big for the Pride. They all deserve some attention here, but it’s hard to ignore the team’s key skaters.
It will be an interesting offseason as this is all new for the burgeoning league. A player moving to another team, particularly a top player, may not be something we see much of. The NWHL is the first professional women’s league to pay players, but the salaries are still ostensibly part-time for almost all players.
That creates a situation where the league’s best talent control their destiny for the most part. The ability of a team to offer more than another is limited and the pay raise may not pay for the actual costs involved in moving to a new city. So, while it’s fun to speculate and movement in the league could help bring some parity, it would be surprising if there are too many major moves.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.