PWHL Free Agency Primer: Where Poulin, Knight, Nurse could go and why

PWHL's Jayna Hefford, Annie Camins and Chris Burkett discuss the league's process for selecting the franchises' general managers, outlining how they hired the executives from a pool of well over 60 candidates.

The Professional Women’s Hockey League officially entered the pro sports landscape this week. 

It’s been a marathon effort by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and its partners to get to this point, and it’ll be a flat-out sprint to get everything in place for puck drop in January.  

We learned a lot about the new six-team league during a press conference held Tuesday, including the team markets and key dates, and details about free agency periods and the draft. While we don’t yet know team names and logos, they did release the locations of the original six franchises.

And on Friday morning, the league introduced the six general managers who will begin building each franchise from the ground up: 

Toronto: Gina Kingsbury 

Montreal: Danièle Sauvageau 

Ottawa: Michael Hirshfeld 

Boston: Danielle Marmer 

Minneapolis-St. Paul: Natalie Darwitz 

New York City area: Pascal Daoust 

(You can read more about each general manager here.) 

We’re about to see those six general managers start to put together six elite rosters, headlined by major free-agent signings. Starting Friday, many of the game’s biggest stars can sign the first contracts in PWHL history as the initial free-agency period opens up.  

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Here’s how this initial free agency period works:  

• Beginning Friday at 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT, each of the league’s six teams has 10 days to sign three players. These contracts will be crucial in creating the foundation of each roster. Contracts can carry a maximum annual average value of $80,000 (all figures USD). with a maximum term of three years.

• This initial free agency period ends on Sept. 10. At that time, all unsigned players will enter the draft, which will be held on Sept. 18. (Players need to declare their own draft eligibility by Sept. 3.)

• By January, each team must have six players signed to three-year pacts worth no less than $80,000 per league year. So, this initial period really is only the beginning. All other contracts will carry one- and two-year terms.

Also on Friday, the PWHL released the selection order for its inaugural draft, determined via a lottery. Here are the results: 

Pick No. 1: Minnesota 

Pick No. 2: Toronto 

Pick No. 3: Boston 

Pick No. 4: New York 

Pick No. 5: Ottawa 

Pick No. 6: Montreal 

Here are a few more draft details: 

• The PWHL draft will be 15 rounds deep, with a snake-draft format. That means Montreal, after picking sixth in the first round, will select first in the second.
Teams cannot trade draft picks this year.

• By the end of draft night, each team will have a roster of 18 players (15 draft picks, and three free agency signings).

• Any undrafted players will immediately become free agents.

• Teams must invite a minimum of 28 players to training camp (starting November), giving undrafted free agents plenty of opportunity to earn roster spots in their desired markets.

• Regular season rosters will be capped at 23 players.

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Now, comes the fun part: 

Which stars will sign first PWHL deals? 

Here’s a look at a dozen of hockey’s biggest stars who are expected to be among the first signees once the 10-day period opens up Friday afternoon. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it provides a glimpse into some of the biggest names on the market, with a few different team-building strategies in mind. We’ve also included our best guess as to which city each of these stars might land in.  

NOTE: You’ll notice this list includes players only from Canada and the United States. That’s because many of the biggest European stars are playing in European leagues, so aren’t technically free agents. This list also does not include college players, who are not eligible for free agency at this time — that applies to players who have just graduated, too, as they’ll be part of the inaugural draft class. The PWHL will also accommodate some players via its “compassionate circumstance” policy, which allows players to declare themselves unable to relocate and is subject to league approval. It doesn’t guarantee those players a roster spot on their local team, but it does give them more control over where they can and cannot land.  

Marie-Philip Poulin | Forward, Team Canada  

Age: 32 

You already know what Poulin is about. Team Canada’s captain and scorer of golden goals should be the first and easiest decision her team’s new GM makes. Any team with Captain Clutch as its leader is a contender out of the gates.  

Best guess: Montreal 

It just makes too much sense. Poulin hails from Beauceville, Que., is already affiliated with the NHL’s Canadiens as a player development consultant, and should continue her incredible hockey legacy right at home with a “C” stitched on her sweater.  

Hilary Knight | Forward, Team USA 

Age: 34 

Knight has long been the face of the women’s game south of the border, and her resume speaks for itself. She’s already a legend but still has lots of her best hockey ahead of her. We all saw her leadership on full display this spring — upon being named captain of Team USA for this year’s world championship in place of Kendall Coyne Schofield (maternity leave), she led her nation to gold. 

Best guess: Boston 

Honestly, Knight is an obvious choice to build around no matter the market, but her professional roots started in Boston — first with the CWHL’s Blades, then the NWHL’s Pride — and it would be fitting to see her return to that passionate fanbase as captain of a new Boston squad. 

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Sarah Nurse | Forward, Team Canada 

Age: 28 

A big name who plays an even bigger game, Nurse thrives when the spotlight is brightest — whether that’s on Olympic ice, where she set a tournament points record in 2022, coming up clutch at the women’s worlds, or putting on a show during NHL All-Star festivities. She was a leading voice throughout the PWHPA’s journey to this point, is a vocal leader on the ice, and would be a no-brainer to build a team around.  

Best guess: Toronto 

All six original PWHL franchises land in hockey hotbeds, but the media spotlight will likely shine extra bright in Toronto — and so would Nurse. She grew up in nearby Hamilton and knows the market well.   

Kendall Coyne Schofield | Forward, Team USA 

Age: 31 

It’s important to note here that she gave birth to her first child earlier this summer, and should be afforded all the time she needs before returning to the ice. But the opportunity to bring in one of the best leaders, biggest stars and fastest skaters in the game will have teams lining up to build a roster around her, even if she may not open the season.  

Best guess: Minneapolis-St. Paul  

Coyne Schofield played college hockey at Northeastern University in the Boston area, but has been affiliated with the Minnesota chapter of the PWHPA and spent a season with the NWHL Whitecaps. Relative proximity to Chicago, where she’s affiliated with the Blackhawks and has charitable initiatives, is a perk, too. 

Renata Fast | Defence, Team Canada 

Age: 28 

The blueprint for building a successful franchise from the start includes bringing in a blue-chip defender, and Fast is one of the best. She’s (fittingly) quick to adjust and adapt in every situation and known for being one of the toughest rearguards to play against.  

Best guess: Ottawa 

A product of Burlington, Ont., Fast could bring instant star power to her de facto hometown team but as the nation’s top rearguard, could be a prime candidate to wear a captain’s “C” in the nation’s capital. 

Abby Roque | Forward, Team USA 

Age: 25 

She’s a high-skill star known equally for her stickhandling and trash-talking — the perfect combination to build around up front in New York. Hockey is fun, and Roque is a blast to watch and will bring fans to arena seats.  

Best guess: New York City area  

Her game deserves to be seen under the bright lights in a big market … and we know she’s a fan of the bagels, too.  

Ann-Renee Desbiens | Goaltender, Team Canada 

Age: 29 

Among an extremely talented group of goaltenders that should be scooped up quickly via the draft later this month, Desbiens stands out — so much so, that it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see her sign on the dotted line long before draft time.   

Best guess: Montreal 

The Quebec-born netminder played college hockey in Wisconsin and spent a year with the Minnesota chapter of the PWHPA, but would look right at home playing in the pros in her home province as a pillar to form a foundation around. Montreal hockey teams do have a history of building around elite goaltending, after all. 

Megan Keller | Defence, Team USA 

Age: 27 

Every team should be taking a good hard look at how to build the strongest blue line, which means every GM should be calling Keller. The Team USA cornerstone plays a big, physical game and can also contribute offensively.  

Best guess: Boston 

Keller was a three-time Patty Kazmaier Award finalist during her time at Boston College. She knows the market well and would be a familiar face for a passionate fanbase.  

Brianne Jenner | Forward, Team Canada 

Age: 32 

Best known for her elite chemistry with Poulin on Team Canada’s top line, Jenner is a superstar in her own right, a bona fide leader and one of the best in the game, period.  

Best guess: Toronto 

The Oakville, Ont., native has a young family in Toronto and although she’d obviously excel in any market, has more than earned the right to play out her career at home as one of the foundational skaters in a league she helped build.  

Lee Stecklein | Defence, Team USA 

Age: 29 

A veteran defender in the prime of her career, Stecklein brings size, skill and a steady hand to a team looking to build around a solid blue line. A fixture on Team USA’s defence corps, she’s got a trophy case filled with hardware and has worn a letter on her sweater at every stop.  

Best guess: Minneapolis-St. Paul 

Stecklein basically is Minnesota hockey. Her hometown of Roseville, Minn., is just a 15-minute drive from Xcel Energy Center (a proposed home rink of the new PWHL squad), she helped lead the University of Minnesota to three national championships, including one as captain, and upon turning pro she started her career at home with the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps before training with the PWHPA’s Minnesota-based chapter.  

Emily Clark | Forward, Team Canada 

Age: 27 

Clark has really grown into a role as one of Team Canada’s core of young veterans and has shown her ability to thrive just about anywhere she suits up, from the top line to the fourth. It would be really fun to see her grow jump into a leadership role as a foundational part of a brand new franchise.  

Best guess: Ottawa 

She’s from Saskatoon, so while Toronto and Montreal could be leaning into the deep pools of local talent, Clark is an ideal candidate to help lead the game in a newer market.  

Aerin Frankel | Goaltender, Team USA 

Age: 24 

One year removed from college, where she put up otherworldly numbers with Northeastern (she never allowed more than 1.92 goals per game, and in her senior year averaged less than 1.00), Frankel is a young star who could bring both instant and long-term success to a franchise looking to build around the blue paint. Most recently, she backstopped Team USA to gold at the women’s worlds in her first stint as the national team’s starter.  

Best guess: New York City area 

Frankel is a New Yorker and in a hockey market that’s been spoiled with great goaltending over the years, would be an ideal candidate to continue that trend. 

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