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Five Olympic returnees who could make a splash in NWHL free agency

With the Olympic year complete, some of the top women's talent will be returning to the professional ranks next season. And as NWHL free agency opens Friday, here are five Olympians who could sign on for the coming season.

The end of another four-year Olympic cycle means the professional women’s game is about to get an injection of top-tier talent, and it will all begin Friday as the NWHL opens its free agency period with what could be a busy day for the women’s league.

However, as some of the top names in the women’s game get set to return to the NWHL, there’s an added wrinkle for the league. This time, instead of the Founding Four doing battle in the pursuit of top talent, they’ll have a fifth team to contend with in the Minnesota Whitecaps. And the addition of Minnesota to the NWHL ranks could mean some of the best the women’s game has to offer, and more specifically some of those who have foregone the pro game in favor of independent competition, could be making their way to the NWHL this coming season.

As NWHL free agency begins Friday, though, here are five of the top Olympians who could be set to shine in the U.S.-based league next season:

Amanda Kessel

True as it may be that Kessel didn’t have the best performance of her career at the 2018 Olympics — she managed one assist in five games — she did come up huge in the gold-medal game shootout against the rival Canadians, scoring the all-important tying goal in the fourth round. Kessel, or ‘Best Kessel’ as she’s affectionately known, may very well have the most name recognition of the major Olympic returnees to the women’s circuit this season. It’s well-earned, too.

Kessel was one of the most dominant college players of her generation and, after battling back from lingering concussion issues in time to return for the tail end of her 2015-16 campaign at University of Minnesota, made her NWHL debut in 2016-17 with the then-New York Riveters. Her rookie NWHL campaign saw her score four goals and 18 points in eight games, which she followed up with an assist in the opening round of the post-season. A disappointing and shocking loss for the top-seeded Riveters leaves Kessel with some unfinished business in the NWHL.

Keep An Eye On: Metropolitan Riveters

Brianna Decker

Hilary Knight is often recognized as the face of Team USA and she’s one of the most instantly recognizable name’s in the women’s game. And while Knight is no doubt one at the top of the class, if we’re to go by pure production, it’d be hard to argue against Decker as the best in the world right now. Her international totals alone speak volumes. In Team USA’s World Championship history, Decker is fifth in goals (24), sixth in points (58) and second in points per game (1.93). In Olympic play, she has two goals and nine points in 10 games. And she’s no stranger to dominating the NWHL.

Consider the following: since the inception of the NWHL, Decker is the league leader in goals (28), assists (32) and points (60). She also has a point-per-game rate of 1.81, the highest of any player with at least 10 games played. Decker missed the entire 2017-18 campaign in the NWHL as part of the buildup to the Olympics and still has a 16-point lead on the next-highest scoring non-Olympian in NWHL history. Whoever lands Decker will likely ice the NWHL’s scoring leader in 2018-19.

Keep An Eye On: Boston Pride

Hannah Brandt

Having previously earned her shot with the national team at the World Championships in 2012, 2015 and 2017, Brandt finally got her opportunity on the Olympic stage in 2018 and fared well, scoring one goal and two points in five games. And while there are questions surrounding where several of the top women’s free agents might land, or whether they’ll sign in the league at all, the path for Brandt seems quite clear.

During the 2016-17 season, Brandt, a Minnesota native, suited up for the Whitecaps while they played on the independent circuit. That included games against the likes of University of Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State University, Syracuse University and Brandt’s alma mater, University of Minnesota. During her time with the Golden Gophers, Brandt helped lead Minnesota to two national titles and she netted 115 goals and 285 points in 158 games. She’d give Minnesota some immediate — or possibly additional — star power in their expansion season.

Keep An Eye On: Minnesota Whitecaps

Meghan Duggan

Duggan is to Team USA’s women’s team what, say, Chris Chelios was to the men’s program. This is to say she’s been a fixture of the American squad at just about every tournament from the moment she first pulled on the sweater. Add it up and between the Olympics, World Championship and other international appearances, Duggan has pulled on the Team USA jersey 66 times, including five straight tournaments in which she's worn the ‘C.’ She’s tied for sixth all-time in Olympic games played and is seventh all-time in games played at the World Championship. And sure, maybe her offense doesn’t stand out like a Decker or Knight, but Duggan is consistent. She has 17 goals and 28 points in 54 games across the Olympics and World Championships.

Duggan’s familiar with the NWHL, too. She skated with the Buffalo Beauts in 2015-16 and moved over to the Pride in 2016-17, scoring 19 goals and 36 points in her 30 total games in the league. Given she has spent five of her past six professional seasons in Boston, she seems like a fit to return to the Pride.

Keep An Eye On: Boston Pride

Jocelyne Lamoureux

Lamoureux was Team USA’s Olympic hero. Not only did she lead the squad with four goals and five points in five games at the PyeongChang Games, one of only two Americans to score at least a point per game in the competition, but her dazzling shootout goal was arguably the highlight of the tournament. That it was also the gold-medal clinching tally also helps give it some extra cachet, too. (And come on, the move she used even has its own name.)

Lamoureux hasn’t made her way to the professional game yet — her play has been largely limited to international tournaments since her time at University of North Dakota came to an end — but the addition of the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps to the NWHL gives her a potential destination for the 2017-18 campaign. She was one of the college game’s most consistent players during her tenure at UND, and she’s been a fixture of the national team at every tournament. She’d be a big get for the NWHL.

Keep An Eye On: Minnesota Whitecaps

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