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What Went Wrong for the US Women in 2022, And How to Fix It for 2026

2022 Winter Olympics - Day 13 Set Number: X163956 TK1

The 2022 Olympics ended in disappointment for the American women with a 3-2 loss to Canada in the gold medal game. Much has been written about the loss in the wake of last week’s game, but however you want to look at it, everything comes down to the simple fact: The US got beat by a much better hockey team.

People are free to grieve that fact however they would like, and they have, it seems, mostly by choosing denial. But pretending the US didn’t win simply because their coach chose not to in favor of some mysterious personal vendettas belongs on the medal podium at the Bad Take Olympics right next to the Toronto Star lady that implied she totally could have won a gold medal, but didn’t want to because it was too easy.

The US didn’t lose because they left better players at home. They didn’t lose because they chose to start a goalie that was sensational in the semifinal rather than a goalie that gave up four goals to Canada a week prior. They didn’t lose because they built an early lead and poor bench management led them to run out of gas at the end. (In fact, if anything it was the exact opposite as their third line put them in a deep 2-0 hole early that they were never able to recover from.) They lost because they were out-muscled and out-hustled by an extremely deep and talented Canadian team led by a generational talent. A shortened US bench that seemed to draw so much attention is a symptom of that, not a cause.

There was little doubt that Canada was the better team this time around. The real question is will it get fixed by the next Olympics?

As the US autopsies the wreckage of 2022 and heads back to the drawing board for the next Olympic run, the first place you have to start is looking to play a heavier, more physical brand of hockey. The dominance of the Canadian women at this year’s Olympics I think shows the future for the women’s game. Which is to say, we’re starting to reach the point where pretty much everyone can skate well enough to get to the right spot at the right time. The separator then becomes which players can make plays without the luxury of time and space. The Canadians had the strength, physicality, and mentality to do that; the US did not. That showed up not just in the gold medal game, but also the earlier rounds, where the gap between the US and the rest of the world seemed a lot closer than it was for Canada vs. the rest of the field.

In the men’s game, I would compare it to the huge jump between the high school level and junior hockey that some players are able to make, and some players that scored a bunch in high school can’t adapt to. Not coincidentally, whereas 20 years ago the women’s national team was struggling against boy’s high school teams, they can now more or less hold their own against some junior teams. It’s becoming a different game, and the US will need to adapt.

That dynamic might change a little bit by the next Olympics. Not only for the United States, who I think has some better options coming on the way up, but also for the Canadians. As physical power forwards like Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianne Jenner, and Natalie Spooner start to pass their prime(though I’ve resigned myself to the fact that MPP is beyond human and will score a goal in every gold medal from here until the planet is too hot to sustain ice), much of the next generation of Canadian stars—Sarah Fillier, Emily Clark, Emma Maltais, Daryl Watts if that relationship ever gets mended—lean more towards a high-end skill game. That is going to present its’ own set of problems, but if the US can be the better team on the walls and at the net-front, I’ll take my chances. There was, after all, a reason for the US taking five of six U18 gold medals in that stretch from 2015-2020, a generation that should hit their prime in 2026.

With all that said, I decided to take a look at what’s on the horizon for the United States, and who some of the players in the next generation might be. Note that this focuses solely on NCAA players since I don’t really watch enough women’s pro hockey to have anything meaningful to add in that regard. I do think the growing pro game in North America will continue to have a bigger and bigger impact on the top level national team, and we may begin to see more players emerge post-college. Four years is a long time too, and there are definitely some players on the fringe right now that could easily play their way into consideration. I’m sure I missed a lot of plausible names. But this is a decent starting point.

Forwards

Here is this year’s roster with their age four years from now in parenthesis:

Abby Roque(28), Kelly Pannek(30), Grace Zumwinkle(26), Brianna Decker(34), Hayley Scamurra(31), Jesse Compher(26), Hannah Brandt(32), Hilary Knight(36), Dani Cameranesi(30), Alex Carpenter(31), Kendall Coyne-Schofield(33), Amanda Kessel(36), Abbey Murphy(23)

Better training and pro hockey opportunities have pushed player careers longer and longer, but a generational changing of the guard is likely to take place before the next Olympics. As a rough guess, you’ll probably see two or three player retirements, and probably two or three more at the bottom of the line-up that get pushed out by younger, better options. In total, you’re looking at anywhere from four to as many as eight new forwards for the next Olympics.

The most obvious name to make the step up to the national team is Britta Curl, who was added to the US roster after Brianna Decker’s injury, but was unable to make it to China due to Covid protocols. Curl made a huge jump from fringe national team prospect to first-person-called after taking off in her first two seasons at Wisconsin. Curl’s strength on the puck is a huge asset

The player I’m probably most excited about joining the national team picture this coming cycle is Lacey Eden, because she brings such a unique skill set. Eden is a power forward that excels at winning puck battles and plays with a tremendous motor. The US didn’t really have a player like her on this year’s team, which is why she came so close to making it despite being very young. The US power play looked terrible much of the tournament not for lack of talent once they possessed the puck, but because it often took them so long to win clean possession of the puck off the wall. Eden is a player that is going to win pucks in tough areas, and has the shooting ability and net-front presence to chip in offensively as well.

One of the leaders during the US run of four straight U18 gold medals was Taylor Heise, who was a key component in three of those four tournaments. Heise is an elite skater, but has really diversified her offensive game since playing for the University of Minnesota, becoming better at using her teammates rather than trying to do everything herself.

Clair DeGeorge is a player the US has been waiting on for a long time because a 5’10” player with her skill level is practically a unicorn. She wasn’t quite there for these Olympics, but hopefully spending the year at Ohio State, which prides itself on mimicking Canada’s hard-nosed style of play and terrible taste in uniforms, benefits her in the long run, because the upside she possesses is tremendous.

At one time, I would have said Caitrin Lonergan was a lock to play on the Beijing team, but injuries slowed her down considerably. She’s still a very good NCAA player, however, and depending on how her pro career progresses, her maturity and experience could be really valuable in 2026.

Dominique Petrie is another three-time U18 veteran that didn’t generate a lot of buzz for roster consideration this time around, but after watching the way Canada destroyed the US this time, I think Petrie checks a lot of the boxes for what the US needs. Big, physical, good on draws, good defensively up the middle. The US can’t get away with playing four first lines of descending effectiveness anymore. They’ll need to find a third and fourth line that they can trust defensively to get to the next shift so they don’t have to lean so heavily on their top lines.

Makenna Webster was a huge scorer for the US U18 program in her three tournaments with them, and is up among the NCAA leaders in her second season at Wisconsin. Webster might find herself in a bit of a tweener spot in that if she can’t secure a top-6 scoring role, it might be hard to justify a bottom-6 role for her. That said, I think the US will want her tenacity somewhere in their line-up.

Speaking of hard work and tenacity, Gabbie Hughes played her way into fringe consideration for this year’s team. She has improved a lot defensively over the course of her college career, which helps make her a more viable candidate for future teams as well. Like Webster, maybe not the prettiest player, but nobody is going to outwork her and I think that grit factor is valuable.

Boston College has a pair of potential candidates in the mix in Hannah Bilka and Kelly Browne. Bilka is the more-skilled, more electric player, but Browne is a really smart, two-way player that would bring a little more grit to the line-up.

Becca Gilmore at Harvard and Elle Hartje at Yale are both having really nice seasons in the Ivy League this year, and will be worth watching over the next few years.

Peyton Hemp is a really high-energy player and is chipping in offensively at Minnesota at a nice rate. A good example of a player that isn’t huge, but can still play an aggressive, tough style of hockey, which is what the US needs.

Kirsten Simms is a bit of a wildcard, if only because after a very promising World U18s as a 15-year-old, she has had to deal with cancellations for the past two U18s. She’s got electric skill which could put her in the mix, although it’s becoming tougher and tougher for players that young to compete at the Olympic level.

Defense

Here’s the current roster with where they’ll be at in four years: Lee Stecklein(32), Cayla Barnes(27), Caroline Harvey(23), Megan Keller(29), Megan Bozek(34), Savannah Harmon(30), Jincy Dunne(28)

This was the biggest concern throughout these Olympics for the United States, and I’m not sure there are many easy answers here. Defense is always going to be the toughest spot to fill because it is the most-demanding and least-forgiving position.

This was probably the last Olympics for Megan Bozek and Lee Stecklein was reportedly unsure if she even wanted to come back for this one, so I’d be surprised if she’s around in four years, so a minimum of two open spots to fill.

The issues on the blue line are similar to the issues at forward, if not worse. A lot of talented puck-movers and smooth skaters that didn’t have the grit and physicality to win battles in front of their own net, especially as you move down the depth chart. From that standpoint, Stecklein is going to be really tough to replace because she provides that strong defensive presence, and as of now, there really isn’t someone else like that in the pool.

One of the more obvious choices to ascend into the national team picture is Northeastern’s Skylar Fontaine. Fontaine has been a prolific offensive D for the Huskies, and while her addition likely doesn’t address any of the concerns on the defensive end, she’ll likely get a long look.

Minnesota State’s Anna Wilgren was one of the last players cut from this year’s team. Wilgren is a later-bloomer that has benefited from playing top pairing minutes against a strenuous WCHA schedule. I think her late addition to the centralization camp this year was an acknowledgement that the US didn’t really have anyone that could play the role of a reliable, defensive-minded third-pairing D. Wilgren’s skating and foot speed might keep her from being able to compete at the pace of play against a team like Canada, but this might be a case where a post-college career helps her develop and gain the experience to overcome some of that.

Grace Bowlby is an elite skater, and I sometimes think what she has done at Wisconsin has been underappreciated. But a lack of shooting ability—she has just four goals in almost five NCAA seasons now—limits her effectiveness as an offensive driver and power play option, and she’s not a very physical defender. But she’s talented enough that she’ll get a long look.

The heir apparent to Stecklein on the blue line was Gracie Ostertag, who was rock solid on the blue line for the US for three straight U18 gold medals. At her best, she’s a strong two-way defender that can do a little of everything. But injuries have really slowed her down over the past couple seasons, and I think the consistency needed to be a reliable defender at the Olympic level takes longer to develop in general.

Madeline Wethington shared the blue line with Ostertag for three straight U18 tournaments. Wethington is big and athletic, and while she hasn’t taken over the college game as an elite player like some thought she might, she is progressing and starting to become a bigger offensive threat as a junior this year.

Nicole LaMantia isn’t as physically gifted as some of the other options available, but makes up for it by being extremely steady and reliable.

Haley Winn played huge minutes on the U18 as an underager and double-underager before Covid wiped out her final year. I thought she might have been the pick for the seventh defenseman “Just here to get some experience” role that ultimately went to Caroline Harvey. She’s been solid in her first season at Clarkson.

Overall, I thought the ‘02 birth year for the United States was pretty deep, beyond Caroline Harvey, who will already have Olympic experience under her belt. The next front-runners of that group are probably Maggie Nicholoson, another potential defensive D Stecklein replacement if she continues to develop, and Rory Guilday, a smooth skater who is very similar to Harvey.

Goalie

Here is this year’s roster with their age for 2026: Nicole Hensley(33), Alex Cavallini(34), Maddie Rooney(28)

Traditionally, this has always been a pretty deep position for the US. But as of now, things might be thinning out a little bit. This was probably the last Olympics for Cavallini and Hensley, meaning two open spots to fill.

Normally, you’d just plug in the starting goalies from the impressive string of U18 success the US has had. But Alex Gulstene was forced into early retirement due to concussion issues. Lindsay Reed has had a slower adjustment to college hockey in her first two seasons, but has the size and talent to be really effective. Skylar Vetter has shown potential in her first season at Minnesota, and will likely be in the mix.

The next obvious choice is Aerin Frankel, who has put together an excellent career at Northeastern. She was close this time around, but I think it made more sense to go with the goalies that were probably looking at their last Olympic opportunity. Frankel should get her shot next time if she continues to play at the level she has.

Beyond that, there aren’t a lot of super-obvious choices. Goalie is a position that takes longer to develop though. Emma Polusny kind of fell off the radar at St. Cloud State, but anyone that has watched her consistently hold her team in games longer than they have any right to knows the type of talent she possesses. If she moves on to professional hockey, she could earn her way back into the picture. Amanda Thiele and Jojo Chobak have spent the early part of their respective college careers as back-ups, but showed a lot of promise while the starters ahead of them were at the Olympics this year. They might be worth watching in the coming years as they move into the starting role.

Chances are good that someone off the radar emerges over the next few years. There’s always the possibility someone younger emerges as well, though it’s a little tough to tell right now with the past two U18 being canceled.

Regardless, they really just need to find one really good goalie by the next Olympics, and they have enough options that at least one should rise to the level they need.