NWHL Free Agent Camp: Beauts make a splash with Casorso signing, Muni as co-head coach

While thousands gathered at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center downtown to watch a select group of teens get chosen for a chance at their dream career, just next door, a score of women took to the ice at Harborcenter to earn their own shot at stardom — with one scoring a contract after the first full day.

The University of British Columbia’s Sarah Casorso came out of Saturday’s sessions with a one-year, $13,500 deal with the Buffalo Beauts after an impressive showing during skill drills and the Red vs. White scrimmage. The offensive-minded blueliner graduated from UBC in 2015 and had been playing overseas before trying her luck with the NWHL this offseason.

Casorso called the contract a “dream come true” in the media scrum Sunday afternoon.

“I came in not really knowing what to expect,” she said. “I’m a bit of a question mark in these parts of North America, so I’m really, really excited to be part of the organization and an ambassador for my community.”

The defender’s skating and puck movement should certainly boost a Beauts team that struggled, particularly early on, to produce and provide their goaltenders with some support. Brianne McLaughlin forged a solid .907 save percentage over 14 games, and on many nights was the saving grace for her team. Production-wise, the Beauts forced just over three goals per game, a number Seiling would like to improve over next season.

Casorso provides a good back-end presence and a willingness to hustle on the backcheck (she stopped at least one odd-man rush in Saturday’s scrimmage), but also has great hands and an aptitude for jumping into the play. As a member of the UBC Thunderbirds, she led the CIS’ Canada West in scoring amongst defenders with six goals and 13 assists for 19 points in 28 regular-season games, which shows she can score, but also make great plays.

Beauts head coach and general manager Ric Seiling said Casorso was “just the type of player we’re looking for,” speaking to not only her ability on the ice but the character she possesses as reasons for her signing.

“I think she’s going to be a great fit in the dressing room, and I think she’s going to be a great leader on the ice,” he said.

The Beauts took care of more than just their roster this weekend, also announcing the hiring of former NHLer Craig Muni as co-head coach. Muni and Seiling have an established relationship, according to the league’s press release, having coached their sons together in the past. Seiling cited Muni’s winning past (three Stanley Cups with Edmonton in the late 80s) as something that would help the Beauts excel.

Muni said he hoped the learning curve, jumping from men’s to women’s hockey, would be quick enough for him to make an immediate impact.

“I’m going to have to get to know the girls on our team, get to know their strengths, get to know their weaknesses, and start figuring out how we can improve their game,” he said. “If we improve their game as an individual, we can improve the team’s game as a whole, so hopefully we can do that… right away.”

Coaches and GMs from most of the league’s other teams were in attendance for Saturday’s session at Harborcenter. The camp had four sessions in total — one Friday night as a warmup skate, two on Saturday (one drill session, one scrimmage), and a scrimmage Sunday morning to allow one last look at the available talent.

Players of all walks attended, from those just out of college (Beauts draft pick Jenna Dingeldein) to those with a more colorful path into hockey (Team Colombia member Sandra Velasquez, who also plays men’s rec hockey in New York City). Four previous NWHLers — Buffalo’s Hayley Williams and Amanda Makela, and New York’s Sydney Kidd and Taylor Holze — also hit the ice to try their hand at a new contract.

Williams in particular seemed bound and determined to prove she deserved a spot in the league. Her drill work was good, but she shone even brighter during the scrimmages, displaying lots of speed and what looked to me like improved skating and puck control as well. She crashed the net on multiple opportunities, and although no goals came of them, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Perhaps the comfort of being on former home ice at Harborcenter was a factor; either way, Williams said she’s focused entirely on maintaining her place as an NWHLer, preferably with her old club.

“I have an absolute loyalty to Buffalo,” she said after Saturday morning’s session. “People have asked me if I got an offer somewhere else, would I go, and I can’t actually answer that question, but when the time arises, if that happens, then I’d have to think about that.”

For her part, Makela is just trying to make the most of the moment and find somewhere to play for next season. If that means this might just be a way for her to stay in shape for another league, she says, so be it.

“I haven’t really thought about it yet,” she said. “I mean, the CW [Canadian Women’s Hockey League] is always an option, overseas is always an option. There’s always, I guess, options to play hockey somewhere.”