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Kaz Watch: Wisconsin Sophomore Kirsten Simms is Thriving on the Wing

03/10/2024, 10:15am MDT
By Nicole Haase

Simms leads the country with 74 points, including 20 during the most difficult part of Wisconsin’s schedule.

Wisconsin Sophomore Kirsten Simms, in her white and red Wisconsin jersey, skates around the ice with the puck.

An award of The USA Hockey Foundation, the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award is presented annually to the top player in NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey. The 2024 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner will be announced on March 23 in conjunction with the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four in Durham, New Hampshire. The 2024 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award Show will be broadcast live from the Whittemore Center Arena Lobby beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET on NHL Network.

There’s a different view of the ice — of the possibilities of what can develop— that Kirsten Simms sees now that she’s playing right wing. The Wisconsin sophomore was a center for most of her career, including her first season in Madison, but she feels freer to push the offense from the wing, utilizing her creativity and — as her nation-leading point total (74) shows — get the puck to the net.

The new perspective opened up the game for Simms. The Plymouth, Michigan, native earned a spot on the top line and, with it, an increase in playing time.

She’s made the most of the opportunity. 

Simms more than doubled her offensive output from her rookie season. She leads all skaters with a 1.97 points per game average, while her 32 goals, 42 assists and eight game-winning goals are second-best in the country.

Her slashing moves between the faceoff dots have become a signature as she flips backward to pull the attention of the goalie and the defender and then uses a toe drag to buy just enough space to score.

Patty Kaz: Kirsten Simms (School: Wisconsin, Class: Sophomore Position: Forward, Hometown: Plymouth, Mich, Statistics: 74 points in 37 games - 32G, 42A)

“The second I see the defense hesitate, I know if I make that stop and get my momentum going backwards, that creates a freeze in the play,” Simms said.

That gives her a lane to shoot, or the chance to drag the puck into an open lane. It also freezes the goalie as they’re tracking her movement, leaving them moving in the wrong direction and giving her space when she shoots across them to the back post.

Simms plays with a deceptive nonchalance. She looks like she’s trying tricks on a backyard rink instead of against the top teams in the country. It can look bold and cheeky, but that boldness is borne of hours studying tape — college and pro, women’s and men’s — followed by thousands of repetitions in practice.

Linemate and fellow Patty Kazmaier Award Top-10 Finalist Casey O’Brien described Simms as having elite hands unlike anyone else in women’s hockey, but also said Simms’ dedication to improvement is part of what has made her the nation’s leading scorer.

“Simms always wants to get better,” O’Brien said. “She’s a hard worker. She’s aware of her strengths — her vision, her hands, her shot. But she’s always aware of her weaknesses, and she’s not afraid to ask for help and work on them. Even though she’s having a stellar year, she still wants to get better, and she works at that. It’s really special.”

All that work helps Simms see and read the game better, and combined with her new perspective from the wing, it has created a situation where Simms feels like she’s in control of the play and that she’s letting the game come to her, not the other way around. 

“I’ve always been interested in slowing the game down and almost forcing the defender to do what I want them to do,” Simms said. “Finding little ways to do that all over the ice, you get into the flow and groove. That’s my style.”

Aside from everything else, Simms said she plays loose because she knows that’s when she’s at her best. She trusts her instincts and the work she’s put in to serve her well. And she’s having fun.

“The second you’re tensing up, you’re going to mess up,” she said. “It’s about trusting myself, and what I see on the ice which forces me to make the right play and not hesitate. Games are important. I want to win. The team wants to win. That’s the end all be all, but the second I start to take it too seriously, I tense up and stop playing my way.”

Knowing that her coaches trust her allows Simms to play relaxed and not overthink things.

Simms has put in a lot of work on her own, but she said one of the biggest factors in her improvement has been playing with and against her teammates day in and day out. The Badgers have won three of the past four NCAA titles since 2019, including last year’s, and currently rank No. 2 in the nation.

“What has really helped me over the past two years is going against the best players,” Simms said. “Everyone’s so talented on this team that just pushes you and gets you comfortable going against those bigger players and kind of helps you figure out what works.”

Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson is known for switching up his lines, which helps his players learn adaptability. For someone who is always trying to learn and grow, Simms finds appeal in playing with a wide variety of teammates. She picks O’Brien’s brain about skating technique to improve her speed, learns about using her body from Laila Edwards and is inspired by Lacey Eden’s creativity.

“I’m always looking for new plays, new ideas and always learning new things to try in my game,” she said. “I enjoy trying new things and seeing what works.”

It feels like everything is working for Simms. Having scored the only goal in last year’s national championship as a rookie, she has followed it up with Wisconsin’s first 30-goal season since Hilary Knight, Brooke Ammerman and Brianna Decker did it in 2011-12. It’s already been a heck of a collegiate career, and it’s not even half over, but Simms said she’s just enjoying the ride. When she’s having fun, her game is at its best. 

“I like to remind myself I’m playing the game I love and with the people that I love, and there’s nothing better than that,” she said. “I’m always trying to have fun out there, and that’s kind of what helps me stay loose.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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