NWHL Draft Pick Watch: Who will be available for the postseason?

Kelsey Koelzer, shown here in her days at Princeton, joined the Riveters the moment her NCAA season ended

An early exit for these players’ college teams could be a bonus for their teams in the NWHL

One of the fun parts of playoff season in the NWHL is wondering which draft picks will suddenly appear from their college career to give their pro team fresh blood. It was big news when Kelsey Koelzer, the first to do it, put on a Riveters jersey just in time for the Riveters / Beauts Isobel Cup semi-final in 2017. She was still pursuing her academics at Princeton, but the Tigers had been eliminated from the ECAC tournament - their season and her college career were both over. These new faces bring new energy and new narratives to the season just as it’s winding down.

This year, ties between NCAA players and the NWHL teams that drafted them seem tighter than ever. So, who’s likely to show up for the playoffs and give their team a boost?

A bit of history

In the NWHL, historically, there’s been a lot of uncertainty about who will actually come to the team that’s drafted them: the draft was the summer before the players have graduated, there seems to have been little communication between the league and the players, and Canadian players drafted have often preferred to go back to Canada to play, unless they happened to live close to Buffalo. The draft has also suffered in general from the problem that, until the NWHL can pay a living wage, players can only play for the team that drafted them if they’ve separately organized a way to live in that city. That’s led to a situation, documented by Michelle Jay in an exceptional post back in December, where historically only 22% of drafted players have gone on to play for the team that drafted them.

This season, however, the NWHL managed the draft very well. There was clearly close coordination with the players and their head coaches, and by my count 23 of the 25 drafted players either tweeted about their excitement or provided a quote to be tweeted by the NWHL or their college program. This included Canadian national program players like Clarkson’s Loren Gabel, currently the NCAA leader in goals scored this season.

In previous years, Canadian national program players had opted to play elsewhere. Shannon Szabados’s choice to join the Beauts seems to have changed things, though: at least, Canadian draftees now feel they can be gracious about being drafted. Whether they show up to play is a different question, but for purposes of this exercise, it’s not crazy to assume that almost all draftees will try to play for the team that drafted them.

Those draftees are:

  • Riveters: Annie Pankowski, Kendall Cornine, Courtney Wittig, Paige Voight, Cailey Hutchison
  • Whale: Melissa Samoskevich, Makenna Newkirk, Katelyn Rae, Dominique Kremer, Maggie LaGue
  • Beauts: Megan Keller, Loren Gabel, Jessie Eldridge, Olivia Zafuto, Nicole Schammel
  • Whitecaps: Kelly Pannek, Sophia Shaver, Lauren Boyle, Grace Bizal, Karlie Lund
  • Pride: Kali Flanagan, Bailey Larson, Emily Clark,Lovisa Selander, Jenna Rheault

We also have two “redshirt” seniors — players who missed a season of NCAA play in their first four years but who have played a final season this year — who were already drafted: T. T. Cianfarano (Clarkson / Riveters) and Lexie Laing (Harvard / Pride). Their rights are held by the team they were drafted by. Since they were drafted two summers ago and haven’t said anything in public about being drafted, it’s not clear that they intend to play for those teams, but for purposes of this article we’ll assume they do.

So, who’s going to be available for the playoffs? To work that out we need to look at the fact that the NWHL playoffs and the college hockey playoffs are intertwined and work out whose college season will end in time for them to join the pros.

The Isobel Cup schedule and the NCAA playoffs

There are four conferences in the NCAA D1: College Hockey America (CHA), Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC), Hockey East (WHEA), and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). The calendar looks like this:

Friday March 1 - Sunday March 3:

- ECAC, WHEA, WCHA — Quarterfinals, best-of-three series

- WIAC Finals — Wisconsin’s D3 conference, which involves Riveters third round pick Courtney Wittig from University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire

Wednesday March 6:

- NCAA D3 tournament first round, single game elimination

Wednesday March 6 - Friday March 8:

- CHA Full tournament — Wednesday-Quarterfinals, Thursday-Semifinals, Friday-Finals, single game elimination

Friday March 8 - Sunday March 10:

- ECAC, WHEA, WCHA - Saturday Semifinals and Sunday Finals, single game elimination

- NCAA D3 Tournament — Saturday Quarterfinals, single game elimination

- Isobel Cup playoffs first weekend

Friday March 15 - Sunday March 17:

- NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals (typically Saturday and hosted by higher seed, but will depend on ice availability at higher seed)

- NCAA D3 Tournament — Friday Semifinals, Saturday Finals

- Isobel Cup playoffs final weekend

Friday March 22nd - Sunday March 24th:

- NCAA Frozen Four, National Semifinals and Finals, at Quinnipiac

The NWHL hasn’t made clear how the playoffs will be scheduled, but with the play-in game between fourth and fifth seeds, the most likely scenario is:

  • March 8th-10th: Play-in game at #1 seed rink; the next day or the day after, #1 v (#4 or #5) and #2 v #3
  • March 17th: Final

It is safe to assume that no player will join the NWHL unless her college team’s season is over, as it would most likely make her ineligible for NCAA play. The NCAA D1 tournament is made up of the four conference tournament winners, plus the remaining four highest placed teams in the Pairwise rankings. So your season is over if you lose in the conference tournament, unless you get one of those four at-large bids.

So we can say for all D1 players:

  • If your team goes out (i.e. loses and doesn’t get an at-large bid) in your conference quarterfinals, you’re available for the entire Isobel Cup playoffs.
  • If your team is in the CHA, and you go out in the conference semifinals, and you hurry, you’re available for the entire Isobel Cup playoffs.
  • If your team is in the ECAC, WHEA, or WCHA, and goes out in the conference semifinals, and the NWHL semifinals are on Sunday, and you hurry, you’re available from the NWHL semi-finals on.
  • If your team goes out in the conference final, you’ve available for the Isobel Cup final.
  • If your team goes out in the NCAA quarterfinal, and the Isobel Cup final is on Sunday March 17th, and you hurry, you’re available for the Isobel Cup final.

Where do the different schools stand?

The NWHL draftees come from 14 different D1 schools this year, plus Lexie Laing from Harvard last year and Courtney Wittig from D3 Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Those players’ chances of extending their NCAA career the postseason depend on their team’s record to date (for the Pairwise) and their chances of pulling out a win in the conference tournament (for an “autobid”). So let’s look at each of those teams and how deep into the postseason we can expect them to go.

  • Boston College (Hockey East)
    - Players Drafted: Grace Bizal (Minnesota Whitecaps), Kali Flanagan (Boston Pride), Makenna Newkirk (Connecticut Whale), Megan Keller (Buffalo Beauts)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 2
    - Current Pairwise Position: 7
    - Overall Assessment: BC should cruise past Connecticut in the Hockey East Quarterfinals. They’ll face stiffer opposition in the second weekend, but per BCI’s tournament predictor, they seem likely to make the tournament unless BOTH Boston University win WHEA AND Colgate or Princeton win the ECAC. BC has good odds of making the NCAA quarterfinals and a reasonable chance of being there on the final weekend. None of the NWHL teams can bank on having their BC players help out. Bizal is also injured and hasn’t played in 2019.
  • Clarkson (ECAC)
    - Players Drafted: Loren Gabel (Buffalo Beauts), T. T. Cianfarano (Metropolitan Riveters, 2017 draftee)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 3
    - Current Pairwise Position: 4
    - Overall Assessment: Three-time national champion Clarkson can only miss the NCAAs if all three major conferences have upset winners and are heavily favored to make the Frozen Four. The Beauts will have to do without Gabel’s help in the final weekend. The Riveters would have to do without Cianfarano even if they were likely to be playing.
  • Colgate (ECAC)
    - Players Drafted: Bailey Larson (Boston Pride), Jessie Eldridge (Buffalo Beauts), Olivia Zafuto (Buffalo Beauts)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 4
    - Current Pairwise Position: 9
    - Overall Assessment: Colgate basically needs to win the ECAC to make it to the NCAA tournament. They’ll probably make it to the second weekend of the conference tournament but no further. The Pride and the Beauts can both anticipate adding firepower for the Isobel Cup finals, if they get that far.
  • Harvard (ECAC)
    - Players Drafted: Lexie Laing (Boston Pride, 2017 draftee)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 7
    - Current Pairwise Position: 21
    - Overall Assessment: Harvard has been playing hard recently but not getting the results, despite having one of the best goalies in the country in Lindsay Reed. They’ll give Colgate a tough series but probably fall in the ECAC quarter finals. If Laing is still interested, she’ll have the option to help the Pride out in the Isobel semifinals.
  • Maine (Hockey East)
    - Players Drafted: Cailey Hutchison (Metropolitan Riveters)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 9
    - Current Pairwise Position: 15
    - Overall Assessment: Maine has missed out on the Hockey East tournament and their season is over. The Riveters can start putting Hutchison’s name up above her stall in the locker room. Note that Hutchison is one of the Maine players who was unfortunately suspended from the team for their last game as a result of an off-campus incident, which may affect her choice to join.
  • Merrimack (Hockey East)
    - Players Drafted: Dominique Kremer (Connecticut Whale), Katelyn Rae (Connecticut Whale), Paige Voight (Metropolitan Riveters)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 5
    - Current Pairwise Position: 13
    - Overall Assessment: Merrimack’s first ever senior class has backstopped the program’s best season to date. They’re locked in to play Providence, a program which has been inconsistent since the new year, in the tournament. They’re mild favorites to make it to the second weekend but not to the final. Rae is a potential game-changer, but the Whale will need to make it through the play-in game to take advantage of her services.
  • Minnesota (WCHA)
    - Players Drafted: Kelly Pannek (Minnesota Whitecaps), Nicole Schammel (Buffalo Beauts)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 2
    - Current Pairwise Position: 2
    - Overall Assessment: Minnesota may face strong opposition in the first round of the NCAA tournament unless they win the WCHA final, but they should make it through to the Frozen Four. Pannek and Schammel will have to wait till October to put on NWHL jerseys.
  • New Hampshire (Hockey East)
    - Players Drafted: Jenna Rheault (Boston Pride)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 7
    - Current Pairwise Position: 19
    - Overall Assessment: New Hampshire will almost certainly lose to BU in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Like Wittig and Hutchison, Rheault will be available for the Riveters in the play-in game if they need her.
  • Ohio State (WCHA)
    - Players Drafted: Lauren Boyle (Minnesota Whitecaps)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 3
    - Current Pairwise Position: 10
    - Overall Assessment: Ohio State is pretty much guaranteed to play St. Cloud in the first round of the WCHA tournament, pretty much guaranteed to make it through to the semifinals, and pretty much guaranteed to be on the outside looking in for the NCAA. Boyle will be able to help the Whitecaps out in the Isobel Cup final, if the Whitecaps survive their semifinal.
  • Princeton (ECAC)
    - Players Drafted: Karlie Lund (Minnesota Whitecaps)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 1
    - Current Pairwise Position: 8
    - Overall Assessment: A series of stumbles over the last two weekends leave Princeton needing to win the ECAC tournament to be sure their season will continue, and there are hints that their young team is feeling the pressure. Lund may well be available the weekend of the NCAA quarterfinals / Isobel Cup final.
  • Quinnipiac (ECAC)
    - Players Drafted: Melissa Samoskevich (Connecticut Whale)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 8
    - Current Pairwise Position: 25
    - Overall Assessment: Quinnipiac was bad all season and is now a lot better. They just held Clarkson to a 1-1 tie but now play Clarkson again in a best-of-three series which it’s hard to see them getting through. National team player Samoskevich will be available for the play-in game.
  • RIT (CHA)
    - Players Drafted: Kendall Cornine (Metropolitan Riveters)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 4 lol
    - Current Pairwise Position: 30 lol
    - Overall Assessment: The CHA winner gets the autobid, and every CHA team is capable of beating every other CHA team. RIT has the best goaltending in the conference, so who knows? I suppose there’s a roughly five in six chance that RIT doesn’t win the six-team tournament and so that Cornine is available for the Isobel final, but there’s also a slightly less than none in a thousand chance that the Riveters make it. If RIT goes out on the Wednesday or Thursday of the CHA tournament, Cornine could dash through the night for the play-in game.
  • Robert Morris (CHA)
    - Players Drafted: Maggie LaGue (Connecticut Whale)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 1
    - Current Pairwise Position: 22
    - Overall Assessment: Robert Morris had the most dynamic offense in the CHA for the last few years, but their production has dropped off dramatically and their goaltending is spotty. Most likely they’ll make the CHA final, so LaGue will miss the play-in game. Robert Morris won’t make it through the NCAA quarterfinal, if they make it that far, but the Whale will probably be done by then too.
  • RPI (ECAC)
    - Players Drafted: Lovisa Selander (Boston Pride)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 5
    - Current Pairwise Position: 26
    - Overall Assessment: Goalie Selander is the heart of RPI, but it’s hard to see her squeezing her team past high-scoring Cornell in a best-of-three series. She’s likely to be available for the first Isobel Cup weekend, but the Pride may not need her services, given their elite tandem of Katie Burt and Brittany Ott.
  • Wisconsin (WCHA)
    - Players Drafted: Annie Pankowski (Metropolitan Riveters), Emily Clark (Boston Pride), Sophia Shaver (Minnesota Whitecaps)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 1
    - Current Pairwise Position: 1
    - Overall Assessment: Wisconsin will make the tournament, almost certainly play the CHA champion, and so make the Frozen Four. National team player Pankowski would be a difference maker for the Rivs, but if she’s going to make that difference, it’s going to have to be next season. Clark is a Canadian national program player and one of the few players not to say anything in public about having been drafted, so even if she was available the Pride shouldn’t count on her.
  • Wisconsin-Eau Claire (WIAC, D3)
    - Players Drafted: Courtney Wittig (Metropolitan Riveters)
    - Current Conference Seeding: 2, but n/a — the WIAC doesn’t have an autobid to the D3 tournament
    - Current Pairwise Position: 8 (D3)
    - Overall Assessment: Wisconsin-Eau Claire seems likely to make the D3 tournament. There, D3Hockey.com’s bracketology suggests that it’s likely that they will come up against current second seed St. Thomas in either the play-in round or the quarter-finals. I don’t follow D3 closely enough to know if an upset is likely, but it seems the odds are that Wittig will be done by the end of day Saturday of the first Isobel Cup weekend and can join the Rivs if they’re still there to join.

In summary

The table below gives, for each player, my estimate of the chance they’ll be available for the first weekend of the Isobel Cup playoffs and for the final. 0 means no chance, 5 means near certainty, everything else means in between. Of course, just because a player is available, that doesn’t mean she’ll actually show up, but a player who isn’t available certainly won’t be there.

My best summary is:

  • The Rivs get more players than the Whale for the play-in game, but the Whale’s Samoskevich is top-end talent while the Rivs are getting depth players.
  • In the final, the Colgate players (and — much less likely though possible — the BC players) are potential game changers for the Beauts and the Pride. If it’s a Pride/Whitecaps semifinal, which seems most likely at the moment, then a Pride team that gets through that game would arrive in the final stronger than the Beauts had yet experienced.

NWHL Draft Pick Watch: Who will be available for the postseason?