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What to watch for as PWHL teams open training camps on Wednesday

CBC Sports looks at key storylines and roster battles for all six PWHL teams ahead of training camps, and as teams prepare to begin play in January.

CBC Sports takes a look at key storylines and roster battles for all six PWHL teams

A female hockey player in a black and yellow Boston Pride jersey moves the puck, while a player in a red Toronto Six jersey skates after her.

When the Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) opens training camps on Wednesday, it will be the first time players on the six teams will be on the ice together.

The nearly month-long camp will be the first opportunity for new teammates to start to build chemistry, and for coaches to test out lines, as teams work toward beginning league play in January.

More than 40 players will be coming to camp fresh off the intense Canada-USA Rivalry Series or playing in Europe. Others haven't played a game of competitive hockey since the spring.

"Everyone's going to be in a different situation," Jayna Hefford, PWHL's senior vice-president of hockey operations, told CBC Sports in October. "But I think that's what professional hockey is all about, is that the day you step on the ice, on day one, you're being evaluated."

With only six teams in the league, compared to the eleven teams that played last season on the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) circuit and in the now-defunct Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), many players will be taking on different roles.

Other players will leave camp without a job.

How it will work:

More than 180 players were invited to training camps, according to a list of camp rosters released by the PWHL in October.

By Nov. 29, teams will be required to trim their rosters down to no more than 27 players. After that, the league's first waiver window will open. Teams will have from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 to offer contracts to free agents who have been released by other teams.

Final rosters, which include 23 players on contract and two reserve players, must be set by Dec. 11. A second waiver window will open just before then, offering teams another chance to sign free agents released by other teams.

Players who turn down a contract by the team that invited them to camp won't be eligible for waivers.

Here's a look at what to watch for each team heading into camp:

Boston

Boston has one of the strongest teams on paper heading into the PWHL's first season. The team has a top-two defensive pairing set with Megan Keller and Sophie Jaques, a heart-and-soul player in veteran Hilary Knight, and solid goaltending in Team USA starter Aerin Frankel and Swede Emma Söderberg, who was a finalist for IIHF female player of the year.

In addition to Jaques, the team has another rising star in Swiss centre Alina Müller, who's already one of the best players in the world at only 25.

"She is a natural goal scorer, has a hockey IQ that is off the charts, and more importantly is a great teammate and person," Boston GM Danielle Marmer said in a statement after Müller was signed to a three-year contract.

The question is how all the ingredients mix together.

As of Friday, Boston had 19 players under contract, including all of its draft picks except for Tatum Skaggs, who doesn't appear to be going to training camp. Notably, the team has already locked up seven defenders and two goalies.

Most of the remaining open jobs are at forward. Among the candidates are Amanda Pelkey, who won an Olympic gold medal with the Americans in 2018, and three former members of the Boston Pride team that won the PHF's Isobel Cup in 2022: Taylor Wenczkowski, McKenna Brand and Sammy Davis.

Montreal

Montreal enters the season with the no-debate best player in the world in Marie-Philip Poulin, and arguably the best goaltender in Ann-Renée Desbiens, both of whom signed three-year deals with the team in the league's first free agency window.

The question is whether Desbiens will be ready for camp. Desbiens was invited to participate in last week's Rivalry Series games, but Hockey Canada confirmed she wasn't able to do so because of an injury. The nature and extent of that injury isn't clear.

Montreal has some insurance in goal. The team invited five goaltenders to camp, more than any other team, according to camp rosters released last month. Beyond Desbiens, there's draft pick Elaine Chuli, the goalie who backstopped the PHF's Toronto Six to an Isobel Cup last season.

Montreal also invited Marlène Boissonnault, who played behind Desbiens on the first-place Team Harvey's in the PWHPA, and Marie-Soleil Deschênes, a backup goalie with the PHF's Montreal Force last season. There's also Blanka Škodová, who won back-to-back bronze medals at worlds with Czechia.

Montreal drafted only five defenders, so there will be jobs available at that position. Strong contenders to fill those roles are Brigitte Laganière and Catherine Daoust, who were D partners atop La Force's lineup last season.

Ottawa

Ottawa may have the most interesting list of free agent camp invites, headlined by former PHF MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis, who many were surprised to see go undrafted in September.

Grant-Mentis was poised to make six figures this season with the Buffalo Beauts of the PHF. But her world was turned upside down in the summer when the PHF was sold and shut down to create the PWHL. Now, she finds herself competing for a job.

Ottawa has only signed eight forwards going into camp, so Grant-Mentis' odds look good. Joining her in competing for those roster spots include Akane Shiga, a rising star on Japan's national team, and Natalie Snodgrass, a nominee for PHF rookie of the year with the Minnesota Whitecaps last season.

One player who may surprise in camp is 27-year-old blue liner Aneta Tejralová, who recently took the reins as captain of Czechia's national team, a squad she's been playing on since she was 15.

"She is not as well known here in North America, but we strongly believe she is one of the best defenders in the world," Ottawa GM Mike Hirshfeld said when Tejralová's signing was announced.

Ottawa head coach Carla MacLeod, who is also the coach of the Czechia women's national team, will no doubt know how to get the best from the blue liner.

Toronto

Toronto GM Gina Kingsbury seemed to answer one of the team's most pressing roster questions on Friday when she signed goalie Erica Howe to a one-year contract. Howe, who was a free agent camp invitee, joins Kristen Campbell as the two goalies under contract for this season.

Two other netminders will be at camp competing for a job: Amanda Mäkelä, who played in the PWHPA last season, and Carly Jackson, who won an Isobel Cup as Chuli's backup with the Toronto Six.

It looks to be Campbell's first shot to take the reins as starting goaltender on a professional team, but she'll be able to lean on Howe, a veteran who won a championship in 2018 with the Markham Thunder.

At camp, coach Troy Ryan probably won't have to think hard about his first defensive pairing. He's got arguably the best one-two punch in the league in Jocelyne Larocque and Renata Fast, Team Canada D partners who are both not fun to play against.

"Jocelyne is one of the best defenders in the world and is a fierce competitor that leads by example on and off the ice," Kingsbury said in a statement when Larocque signed a three-year contract last week.

Up front, one player to watch is Blayre Turnbull. She's played more of a depth role for Team Canada over the years, but Turnbull took on a starring role with the PWHPA's Team Scotiabank last year and shined, scoring a point per game.

Toronto used one of its first three free agent slots to lock up the Nova Scotian, and it's not hard to imagine her as the centre of a first line with Sarah Nurse and Emma Maltais or Jesse Compher.

New York

One of the biggest decisions facing longtime University of Alberta-turned-PWHL New York head coach Howie Draper at camp will be who starts in net when the team plays its first game.

Abbey Levy and Corinne Schroeder have only one season of professional hockey between them. The edge will likely go to Schroeder, who lost only one game with a strong Boston Pride team in the PHF last season, posting a 1.67 GAA along the way. She was named the league's rookie and goaltender of the year.

Competing for a third goaltender job in New York's camp are Kassidy Sauvé and Lindsey Post. Draper has familiarity with Post, a former goaltender of the year in the Swedish women's league, after coaching her for five seasons in Alberta.

Elsewhere, New York will have a few slots to fill on the back end. One familiar name is Claire Thompson, who set an Olympic record for points by a defender in Beijing.

If Thompson was playing hockey full time, she would have been a high draft pick in September. But Thompson is in her second year of medical school, which will limit her availability. New York has invited her to camp but she may end up being a reserve player the team can turn to in case of injury.

Speaking of injuries, one concern for New York heading into camp will be the availability of defender Micah Zandee-Hart, who was one of the team's first three signings. Zandee-Hart was invited to Team Canada's September camp but was unable to participate, and she wasn't on the roster for the first two stops of the Rivalry Series. The nature and extent of Zandee-Hart's injury isn't clear.

One last name to keep an eye on in camp is Madison Packer, a New York area fan favourite who was captain of the Metropolitan Riveters of the PHF. She received a training camp invite and could add more leadership to a young New York team.

Minnesota

All eyes will be on first overall pick Taylor Heise in her first professional camp. Assuming Heise plays down the middle on Minnesota's top line, the question is who joins her. One contender is the speedy Kendall Coyne Schofield, who will make her return to play after giving birth to her son this past summer.

But don't rule out free-agent invitees Abigail Boreen and Catie Skaja, who had something special on a line with Heise at the University of Minnesota.

Another question going into camp for Minnesota GM Natalie Darwitz is how many netminders will be on the 23-player roster. The team has a few options: Team USA stalwart Nicole Hensley and former Minnesota Whitecaps goalie Amanda Leveille were both drafted by Minnesota. The team also invited USA gold medallist Maddie Rooney and Lauren Bench, who played in the Swedish women's league last season, to camp.

Hensley, who is signed to a three-year deal with the team, will likely be Minnesota's starting goaltender. Head coach Charlie Burggraf singled out Hensley's aggressiveness and puck tracking when the team announced her signing.

"Nicole's high compete level has resulted in her excelling at every level she has played and becoming a premier goaltender and we are excited to have her as part of our team," Burggraf said.

The team will also have at least three jobs open on defence. One contender is Dominique Kremer, the former Buffalo Beauts captain who was the PHF's defender of the year in 2021-22.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. You can reach her at karissa.donkin@cbc.ca.

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