Wealth of experienced international talent up for grabs in 2024 PWHL draft

Finland defender Ronja Savolainen (88) and forward Noora Tulus (40) celebrate after a goal at the 2023 women's world championship in Brampton, Ont., last year. Both have declared for the 2024 PWHL draft. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Finland defender Ronja Savolainen (88) and forward Noora Tulus (40) celebrate after a goal at the 2023 women's world championship in Brampton, Ont., last year. Both have declared for the 2024 PWHL draft. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Daniela Pejšová has spent years watching the NHL draft and feeling excited for the men who get to have their draft moment.

But she always wished she could dream about being drafted.

On Monday, the Czech defender will get that chance. She'll get to walk across the stage and pull on a sweater from the PWHL team that chooses her. It's a moment she'll travel across the world to experience.

"Sometimes it's hard to believe that it's true," Pejšová said. "I'm very excited."

Forty-two players will hear their name called during the seven-round PWHL draft on Monday in St. Paul, Minn. The draft, which will be streamed on the league's YouTube channel, begins at 7 p.m. ET.

WATCH | Previewing the 2024 PWHL draft on CBC Sports' Hockey North:

New York will select first, followed by Ottawa, Minnesota, Boston, Montreal and Toronto. That order, which is based on regular-season standings, will repeat over all seven rounds.

More than 160 players have declared themselves for the draft and will be eligible to be selected, including players from 19 countries.

It's a key step in the PWHL's goal to attract the best talent from across the world. Women from 10 countries played in the league last season.

"Players are getting better and players are coming from everywhere nowadays," said American national team defender and top draft prospect Cayla Barnes, who grew up in California. "You see it at women's worlds. Teams are getting better. Games are close. It's amazing to see."

Moving across the world

Pejšová played for powerhouse Luleå Hockey in the Swedish Women's Hockey League (SDHL) last season and won a league championship. She also plays on the Czech Republic national team, and is expected to be selected in the first two or three rounds of Monday's draft.

Pejšová didn't plan to return to Luleå next season. As the inaugural PWHL season went on and she watched from afar, she kept thinking about the possibility of moving to North America.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

It was encouragement from her best friend, PWHL Montreal defender Dominika Lásková, who convinced her to take the next step and declare for the draft.

Pejšová, who turns 22 in August, could be the youngest player to compete in the PWHL next season.

'A dream come true'

The draft isn't just the way into the PWHL for young and emerging players. Veteran players who'd like to enter the league have to go through the draft, too.

That includes 26-year-old Ronja Savolainen, who played on Luleå's blueline alongside Pejšová this past season, logging 29 points in 35 games. Savolainen has eight years of professional hockey with Luleå under her belt.

At five-foot-10, she'll bring size, speed and grit to a PWHL's team's defence next season.

"It's going to be a dream come true to play in the best league in this world," Savolainen said. "I'm just so proud of myself that I took the step. It was hard to say goodbye to Luleå but I think this is the best for me and the best for my hockey career, to move on."

Petr David Josek/The Associated Press
Petr David Josek/The Associated Press

Players coming from the SDHL and other European leagues will be playing on a smaller ice surface. With less room to manoeuvre, Savolainen is expecting to have less time to make decisions in games where physicality can have more impact.

As she watched PWHL highlights this season, Finnish forward Noora Tulus immediately saw a faster and more physical style of play, pointing to speedy Montreal forward Laura Stacey as a barometer of the league's pace.

"I need to prepare myself for it," said 28-year-old Tulus, who led the Swedish league in points this past season. "I feel I need to come there with my game style and I need to trust what I can do on the ice and go with my strengths."

Other top international prospects who've declared for the draft include Austrian forward Anna Meixner, Swedish defender Maja Nylén Persson and Czech forward Klára Hymlárová, among others.

Having more talent from across the world is good for the PWHL, but also for those players' home countries.

Savolainen expects games against Canada or the United States at Olympics or world championships to get tighter as players on her team move into the PWHL. Boston's Susanna Tapani was the only Finnish player in the PWHL last season.

"I think we can beat them in the future if we just get more players on the other side of the [world in the PWHL] and kind of play against those best players that we only get a few times each year with the national team," Savolainen said.

Swedish league a PWHL development hub?

Thirty-one players from the Swedish Women's Hockey League declared for the draft this year. Considered the second-best women's hockey league in the world behind the PWHL, it could also become a development hub for PWHL players.

The PWHL doesn't have a development league, which creates a gap for players who get drafted but don't make a roster and would like to keep playing and developing. Jayna Hefford, the PWHL's senior vice-president of hockey operations, has said that finding a solution to that problem is at the top of the league's to-do list.

The SDHL could be part of that solution. On Thursday, Toronto GM Gina Kingsbury said her team is in talks to work with European clubs that share her team's philosophy and values, though she didn't mention any specific teams.

"Not that we would enforce an athlete that's drafted by us that doesn't make our team to to head overseas," Kingsbury said.

"But having those opportunities in front of them and being able to to help guide them in that sense I think is one critical part of planning and the vision of our organization for the future."