PWHL Minnesota enters season with firepower up front, led by 1st overall pick

Coverage of the first PWHL regular-season game on Jan. 1 (Toronto vs. New York) will be available on CBC, the CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices, and CBC TV, beginning with a pre-game show at 12 p.m. ET.


That’s the word that came to PWHL Minnesota general manager Natalie Darwitz’s mind when asked what she learned about her team after three pre-season games in upstate New York earlier this month.

Down 3-1 to Ottawa in the second period of the team’s first game, Minnesota stormed back, scoring five goals in a row en route to a 7-4 victory.

The next day, Minnesota was in a hole again, this time trailing 3-0 against a Toronto team that looked dominant. But once again, Minnesota came back and eventually won 5-4.

It was that character to keep battling back that Darwitz took from those games.

“I love our grit and our battle level,” she said at the end of the exhibition camp.

WATCH | Darwitz discusses team’s progression after pre-season games:

PWHL Minnesota GM reflects on pre-season camp in Utica, N.Y.

Natalie Darwitz describes her team’s strengths heading into the inaugural PWHL season.

Minnesota left Utica, N.Y., with three wins in three games — a grain-of-salt sample size in a league where every team is still figuring out chemistry and systems.

But there were encouraging signs for Minnesota’s leadership.

“They play hard,” head coach Charlie Burggraf said. “They don’t quit.”

Minnesota looks strongest on forward and in goal, with several players who’ve been part of Team USA over the years. More than half of the national-team roster hails from Minnesota, and some have been playing together for years. 

Others are familiar in name only, and need more time to get used to each other and flourish within Burggraf’s puck-possession style of hockey.

The first overall pick

Minnesota is powered up front by Taylor Heise, the 23-year-old from Lake City, Minn., who made history when she became the first-ever PWHL draft pick in September.

That came after a stellar career with the University of Minnesota, where she won the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the best female player in college hockey, in 2022.

A female hockey player in a white jersey and black helmet prepares for a faceoff.
Heise lines up for a faceoff in a pre-season game against Toronto. (Heather Pollock/PWHL)

A few months later, Heise made her senior national team debut at the world championship and promptly won tournament MVP after leading all players in points (18) on a dominant line with Alex Carpenter and Amanda Kessel.

Next on her to-do list is her regular-season pro hockey debut. If the pre-season is any indication, the transition should be seamless for Heise.

“She’s one of the best players in the world right now,” Darwitz said. “Every time she’s on the ice, she garners attention and is dynamic.”

Burggraf described Heise as an impact player, someone who has the ability to take over a shift and a game. But she doesn’t forget about the little details in the process.

“She plays hard, she backchecks, she does everything you want her to do,” the coach said.

WATCH | PWHL’s top pick Heise turned heads in pre-season play:

PWHL 1st overall pick Taylor Heise making an impact in pre-season

Minnesota forward picked up two goals leading her team to a win, in their second scrimmage of the PWHL pre-season.

On Heise’s left come January could be the speedy Kendall Coyne Schofield, who is working her way back to the ice after giving birth to a son in July.

Coyne Schofield wasn’t with the team in Utica, taking some extra time to recuperate. Her goal is to be ready to return for the team’s first game in Boston on Jan. 3, Darwitz said earlier this month.

Darwitz described Coyne Schofield’s work to return to play as a “huge deal” for women’s sports, following in the footsteps of American soccer star Alex Morgan, who was back on the field five months postpartum.

“Kendall is a special player, she’s a special person,” Darwitz said. “I think it takes someone like her to show you that it can be done. She’s just a phenomenal role model for everybody. That’s why we’re allowing the extra grace. It’s a special circumstance.”

The Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion will bring energy to Minnesota’s lineup. She’ll also bring leadership, having served as captain of Team USA and president of the player group that fought to create the PWHL and ultimately negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the league’s ownership group.

“We would not be here without Kendall,” defender Lee Stecklein said back in September, when Minnesota announced it had signed Coyne Schofield, Stecklein and forward Kelly Pannek as its first three free agents.

A steadying force

A female hockey player in a navy blue and bright yellow jersey skates with the puck.
Pannek, pictured during PWHPA action, can play up and down the lineup. (Stacey Revere/Getty Images/File)

Pannek might not put up huge amounts goals on the U.S. national team, but over the last seven years she’s become a steadying force who can play anywhere in the lineup. In the last two Rivalry Series games against Canada, Pannek opened the game centring the team’s fourth line.

She’ll likely play higher in the lineup in Minnesota, and will be a calming influence on whichever line she anchors.

“I’ve played with Kelly for quite a while now, and she is truly one of the smartest hockey players I think I’ve ever played with,” Stecklein said in September.

“Her hockey IQ is out of this world and her ability to play really any role is quite special.”

In the team’s final pre-season game against Montreal, Pannek logged time with Sophia Kunin, who Darwitz mentioned as an exhibition standout. Kunin assisted on both of Pannek’s goals in that game.

Kunin can also play anywhere in a lineup, but her speed may give her the edge on a top-six opportunity in Minnesota.

Like her fellow Gophers co-captain, Heise, Grace Zumwinkle will make her pro hockey debut in her home state of Minnesota. Zumwinkle, who was twice a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier, spent some time playing with Heise before a crash into the end boards ended her pre-season prematurely.

Zumwinkle was flown back to Minnesota for medical evaluation, and should she be available for the beginning of January, her speed and hard shot will be attributes to watch for.

Two female hockey players battle for the puck, with one player stretching her stick out across the ice.
Forward Grace Zumwinkle, pictured here in the white jersey, will make her professional debut with PWHL Minnesota this season after a college career with the University of Minnesota. (Heather Pollock/PWHL)

Other forwards who stood out in pre-season were Brittyn Fleming, who has one season of professional hockey under her belt with the Minnesota Whitecaps of the now-shuttered Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), and Abby Boreen, another Gophers alum. Boreen was named to the team’s reserve list as she balances pro hockey with pharmacy school.

“She’s a grinder,” Burggraf said of Boreen. “She’s a quintessential defensive forward that can score, too.”

Finland’s Susanna Tapani also looked good in the team’s first pre-season game, logging a goal and an assist in regulation after not playing hockey last season. She missed the rest of the exhibition games in concussion protocol.

Stecklein brings ‘elite’ footwork to blue line

On defence, Minnesota is led by Stecklein, one of the best defensive defenders in the world.

She also has something to give on offence, scoring a goal from the blue line in a pre-season game against Toronto. Last season, Stecklein had 15 points in 20 games in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) circuit, and was named PWHPA defender of the year.

When Hilary Knight was asked which skill she’d steal from any player in the league, she chose Stecklein’s ability to turn on a dime.

“It’s one of those things you don’t necessarily notice if you’re just watching the game, but if you watch her specifically, I’d definitely say her footwork,” Knight said. “The way she can just serve the gap up, it’s pretty incredible.”

Stecklein may have some chemistry alongside Natalie Buchbinder, a rookie fresh off three NCAA championships with the University of Wisconsin. They were paired together during pre-season action.

A female hockey player has a conversation with a female goaltender. They have their backs turned to the camera. One jersey has #2 on it and says Stecklein on the back. The name isn't visible on the other jersey, but it's #33.
Stecklein, left, seen above talking to Minnesota goaltender Lauren Bench, was one of the team’s first free-agent signings. (PWHL Minnesota)

“I think she’s always been a great player, obviously was really happy when Minnesota drafted her and to get to play with her has been awesome,” Stecklein said during pre-season. “I’m excited for what she’ll do.”

Minnesota has a relatively young squad on defence, and if there’s a hole in the team’s lineup, it may be there. 

With Stecklein signed in free agency, Minnesota didn’t use a draft pick on a defender until the fourth round. That’s where the team selected Maggie Flaherty, a defender with an offensive flair.

A pair of Olympians in net

In net, Minnesota’s number one will be Team USA stalwart Nicole Hensley. She may have fallen behind Aerin Frankel on the American goaltending depth chart during the last world championship tournament, but Hensley is still one of the best goalies in the world.

Look no further than this save on Canadian Emma Maltais on Saturday night to see the kind of athleticism Hensley brings.

Joining Hensley is Maddie Rooney, who was only 20 years old when she led the Americans to a gold-medal shootout victory over Canada at the 2018 Olympics, and Amanda Leveille, who was a finalist for PHF goaltender of the year last season with the Minnesota Whitecaps.

Full Minnesota roster

#7 Claire Butorac (Andover, Minn.)
#10 Sydney Brodt (North Oaks, Minn.)
#11 Sophia Kunin (Wayzata, Minn.)
#12 Kelly Pannek (Plymouth, Minn.)
#13 Grace Zumwinkle (Excelsior, Minn.)
#14 Clair DeGeorge (Anchorage, Alaska)
#17 Brooke Bryant (Linden, Calif.)
#18 Brittyn Fleming (Oregon, Wis.)
#21 Liz Schepers (Mound, Minn.)
#26 Kendall Coyne Schofield (Palos Heights, Ill.)
#27 Taylor Heise (Lake City, Minn.)
#41 Denisa Křížová (Horní Cerekev, Czech Republic)
#77 Susanna Tapani (Turku, Finland)
#86 Michela Cava (Thunder Bay, Ont.)

#2 Lee Stecklein (Roseville, Minn.)
#9 Abby Cook (Kelowna, B.C.)
#19 Maggie Flaherty (Lakeville, Minn.)
#22 Natalie Buchbinder (Fairport, N.Y.)
#23 Mellissa Channell (Winnipeg, Man.)
#25 Emma Greco (Burlington, Ont.)
#36 Dominique Kremer (Napoleonville, La.)

#28 Amanda Leveille (New Hope, Minn.)
#29 Nicole Hensley (Lakewood, Colo.)
#35 Maddie Rooney (Andover, Minn.)

Lauren Bench, G (Eagan, Minn.)
Abigail Boreen, F (Somerset, Wis.)
Nikki Nightengale, D (Bloomington, Minn.)

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