Gophers Hockey Great Natalie Darwitz Makes Her Mark as GM of Minnesota PWHL Women's Hockey, Team Overview


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Mar 5, 2023
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Hockey great Tessa Bonhomme, defense for Team Canada and Ohio State, described Minnesota Gopher great Natalie Darwitz, a forward, as "a nightmare to play against." Darwitz broke the NCAA record for most points in a season on her way to winning back-to-back national championships with Minnesota.

Now as General Manager for Minnesota's PWHL team, she's built the franchise in her image -- a scoring attack onslaught. I'll walk you through the draft and free agency so you see what I mean.

Making Sense of the Draft Picks and Free Agency Signings

Free Agent Signings
1. Kendall Coyne-Schofield, Forward
2. Kelly Pannek, Forward
3. Lee Stecklein, Defense

Draft Selections
1. Taylor Heise, forward/center
2. Nicole Hensley, goaltender
3. Grace Zumwinkle, forward
4. Maggie Flaherty, defense
5. Susanna Tapani, forward
6. Clair DeGeorge, forward
7. Natalie Buchbinder, defense
8. Denisa Krizova, forward
9. Sidney Morin, defense
10. Sophia Kunin, forward
11. Amanda Leveille, goaltender
12. Michela Cava, forward
13. Liz Schepers, forward
14. Minttu Tuominen, defense
15. Sydney Brodt, forward

Kendall Coyne-Schofield is one of the biggest stars in hockey, revered for her blazing speed and offensive firepower. She won the Patty Kazmaier Award for the best player in college hockey and won gold with Team USA. She's generated a lot of buzz for her leadership in hockey.

She's the first woman to compete in the NHL All-Stars Competition, recording a race time of 14.326 seconds in the fastest skater challenge, comparable to the rest of the NHL competition and not last place. She's also been a color commentator and broadcasting analyst for NHL games.

Factoid: Her husband is an NFL offensive lineman.


Kelly Pannek won two national championships with Minnesota plus numerous achievements with Team USA. She was a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award after scoring 62 points in 39 games in 2016-17. She's a native of Plymouth, Minnesota.

Factoid: Pannek once scored a hat trick (3 goals) in high school in 22 seconds! Whoa!

Kelly Panneck
Lee Stecklein breaks up the Canada attack and passes for a break away goal by Abbey Murphy of the Gophers in the Gold Medal victory over Canada this year.

6' 0" Lee Stecklein is a shut down defender who facilitates scoring and scores points herself. She's arguable Team USA's best defender, though a few names get mentioned. As a defender for Minnesota Gophers she was consistently ranked one of the leaders in the nation for points by a defender. She won two national championships with Minnesota Gophers.

With their first draft pick, Taylor Heise is a scoring menace who led the NCAA in scoring this year. She won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best player in women's college hockey. Today her name is all over the news as the #1 overall draft pick of the inaugural PWHL draft. She's from Minnesota. (To keep this post relatively concise, I'm not going to post all her accolades).


With their second draft pick, GM Darwitz drafted the best goaltender in the draft, Nicole Hensley. The pick was a surprise because Hensley was expected to be drafted before Minnesota's 2nd pick. Hensley was the goaltender for Team USA until this season when she was edged out for the starting spot, but she's still ranked among the most-elite puck-stoppers in the world and played lights-out in pro hockey this year.


Before the draft, Darwitz said Minnesota probably wasn't going to draft a goaltender until the 4th-5th round, perhaps bluffing Hensley down to Minnesota's pick.

(FYI: Earlier that 2nd round, Boston sniped Toronto's pick one spot before, Sophie Jaques of Toronto. Boston, they hate you!)

With their third pick of the draft, Minnesota PWHL drafted another Team USA Minnesota Gopher in forward Grace Zumwinkle. She's consistently year after year one of the top scorers in the NCAA and does everything great, including able to play defense. She twice was a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award. She's from Minnesota.

Zumwinkle Patty Kazmaier Award Nomination Biography -- the First Time Nominated


In the fourth round, Minnesota drafted UMD defender Maggie Flaherty, one of the best defenders in college hockey. UMD is known for a stout defense. She's from Minnesota.


The Finland Attack (Hyökkäys Suomesta)
More speed and agility. With their 5th round pick, Minnesota PWHL selected forward Susanna Tapani of Finland, a truly unique pick. Besides one of the best hockey players in Finland, she's officially one of the greats in the sport called ringette that is similar to hockey but with some lacrosse elements; it's fast, the fastest game on ice, and requires more skating and team passing to succeed than hockey. She also competed in in-line skating. She played for the Finland national hockey team.

Ringette goal by Tapani:

With their pick in the 14th round, Minnesota PWHL drafted defender Minttu Tuominen of Finland. At this round you're looking for value and hidden gems. Well, Tuominen is unique in that she was a forward who switched over to defense. She led leagues in Finland for scoring by a defender. She played for the Finland national hockey team where she won 7 Bronze Medals and a Silver.


With their 6th round pick, Darwitz drafted another left shooting Team USA forward in Clair DeGeorge.

Six of the nine top players are forwards. The team has speed. The defenders are producers. The team just drafted the best player in NCAA hockey, the scoring leader. Attack, attack, attack and attack. This is exciting hockey to watch.

There is some risk. The Minnesota Gophers this last season led the NCAA is scoring. It got them to the Frozen Four. It was exciting to watch. But the defense looked overwhelmed at times, though that looked corrected in the post-season.

Good thing Minnesota PWHL has an elite Team USA goaltender.

If scoring sells tickets, this new Minnesota PWHL team should have plenty of fans in the seats.

Early Thoughts
Minnesota probably will lead the PWHL in scoring. Boston looks dangerous. The Canadians are the Canadians -- Toronto's coach is also the head coach for Team Canada's national women's team. My thoughts... intensely competitive. They all badly want to win.



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Mar 5, 2023
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Thanks for the comment. Jaques was drafted two spots before Hensley.

I think you're on to something that Jaques was rated higher and Minnesota maybe even planned to take her if she was there.


There was a run on defenders early. 7 of the first 10 picks were defense.


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Mar 5, 2023
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Minnesota PWHL's strategy with their 2nd pick, #12 overall, was to draft either defender Sophie Jaques (Ohio State) or defender Ashton Bell (Team Canada and UMD), probably, or another top defender.

Jaques was rated the #13 prospect by Hockey News, and The Athletic had her going at #4 in the first round to New York. The Athletic said this would be higher than her rating but a bold move to build around a young defense talent.

Jaques won the Patty Kazmaier Award this year for the best player in NCAA hockey. She's a top defender who scores. The knock on her is that she's hasn't played for a national team. Since her team would be Team Canada it's not so bad to miss the cut.

What happened is that Jaques was drafted before Minnesota could draft her with their 2nd pick.

Ashton Bell was rated the #25 prospect by Hockey News, and The Athletic had her going at #30 to Montreal. I think Minnesota would have drafted her with their second pick at #12 but instead was drafted with the #8 pick to Ottawa.

By the time Minnesota was on the clock with their second pick, they were at the end of a run of defenders. 7 of the top 10 picks were defenders. At that point, you do not want to be picking another defender at the end of the run and then someone starts another run you are at the end of too.

So Minnesota started the next run and took the top goaltender in the draft and then game back to defense later by drafting UMD defender Maggie Flaherty at #24.

Had Minnesota been able to draft defense in the second round, Minnesota then would have drafted a goaltender at #24 instead. But the defenders went early.

So Minnesota has an attack, attack and attack team. That would still be the case if they drafted defense with their 2nd pick but it does put a bit more pressure on the defense now.

It's nice to know Minnesota has a proven goaltender.

I had thrown around the goaltender name Emma Soderberg because she's played hockey in Minnesota at UMD and would draw attention from UMD fans, and she was famous for her 51 save performance against Canada earlier this year that nearly upset Canada. But she is inexperienced, and GM's maybe want to go with a proven player, so Soderberg fell in the draft.

Anyway, expect the new Minnesota PWHL team to skate with speed, shoot hard, and score a lot. The action should be fast with probably higher scoring on both sides.

I think people who haven't seen top women's hockey do not understand how fast they are and how hard the shots hit -- BOOM when the puck misses the pipe and hits the boards. Yea, women's hockey can look a bit slow when you go down the talent level.

These new PWHL teams are almost all-star teams. I think the strategy is to put on exciting games that, if people just watched, would change their opinions about women's hockey. They are the best of the best. In the future if the number of teams doubles will that change? I don't know.

The huge success of the NCAA women's basketball tournament shows that people will watch if the games have stars and the action is interesting.

PWHL needs to market their stars, get that information out to potential fans. Right now these new teams will sell if people just learn a bit about them and watch how fast they skate.

Key groups to target are girls/women who play hockey and their families. <<--- #1. Women who have disposable income to attend games for entertainment. Following a sport takes some engagement, knowing who is who and what's going on. What motivates people to pick a team.

One problem is that women haven't been interested in sports like men have. And when they have been it's the NFL, MLB... What would make more women become engages to spend money on sports. I don't know.

And what I said about the past does not necessarily dictate the future.

I would avoid trying to attract men who follow the NHL or most other sports. Although their partners/spouses could become interested. In general some men are unfortunately obnoxious in even opposing women's hockey as slow and no checking, sad to see. Don't waste a penny trying to sell them.

I would definitely play one game in Duluth for the media coverage. I don't know about the other markets.

Also maybe they can deploy these players in community outreach to the many girls hockey programs through the state. Send a player to that community outstate.

Targeted marketing. Who is your target group. How are you going to connect with them while avoiding wasting resources. Avoid the shotgun approach.

I think Billie Jean King has been really great talking about women's equality without sounding partisan. Do not sound partisan because then you put yourself in a corner and alienate everyone who is not in that partisan corner. So far they are unfolding this so well.


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Apr 3, 2022
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My mistake, either way the name of the game is offense. I think we have a solid first line, but after that is anybodies guess. I guess Darwitz was thinking get the best Minnesota players so they can sell it to the fans to come and see some of your favorite Gophers or a hometown kid play in a professional league. Can't wait to see how this all plays out.


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Mar 5, 2023
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This is a good analysis of PWHL Minnesota's roster -- and the other rosters too.


Update: So that article said about PWHL Minnesota: "You can argue that Minnesota was too impatient in drafting a goalie but the goalie tandem they’ve ended up with might be the easiest to play in front of."

So let's look at the next available pick after Minnesota took a goaltender.

It's another goaltender. The next pick after Minnesota was a goaltender by Boston.

Minnesota's goaltender is better. Hockey News rated Nicole Hensley the #10 overall player available for the draft. Hockey News rated Kristen Campbell the #27 player, not that rankings are perfect.

The next defenders taken were Jincy Dunne and Dominka Laskova. So at that point probably start the run on goaltenders and swing back later for defenders.

The benefit of Minnesota taking the #1 pick also meant that they had a long wait until the next pick and defenders flew off the board.


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