Canadian university hockey is recognized as place for Canadian Hockey League graduates to prolong their playing careers and pick up a degree.
More and more, however, the CIS is a developmental league that’s preparing players for pro hockey.
With exams just around the corner and NHL teams searching for free-agents from both the Canadian and U.S. university/college ranks, 24 CIS hockey players have been recently signed to either pro deals or tryouts. Although it’s still a far cry from the amount of NCAA players turning pro, the credibility and reputation of the CIS as a developmental league has been on the rise.
Brett Gibson, the head coach of the Queen’s Gaels, recently told the Queen’s University Journal: “The CIS is becoming almost equivalent to pro hockey now. We’re getting the top players in their overage year. Instead of going pro, they’re coming to CIS to get their degree.”
Since he took over as coach in 2000, University of New Brunswick head coach Gardiner MacDougall has also seen substantial growth in the league as well, especially with goaltending.
“In the mid-2000’s, you were just hoping to could get a .900 percent save percentage out of your goalie,” MacDougall said. “Now you’re looking for a guy to have a .915 or a .920.”
He then added: “There’s a lot of CIS hockey players, post-career, having prominence. Whether it’s making the AHL or the odd guy that gets NHL games, or even more so in Europe, a lot of times you’re a lot better player at 24, 25, or 26 than you are breaking into pro at 21.”
ECHL teams have taken a great liking to the CIS as a league producing highly productive players for their roster at a relatively low cost, with Atlantic University Sport products like Mike Kirkpatrick and Eric Faille among the league leaders in scoring. But for a few select players, they grab the attention of NHL organizations. With the signing season firing on all cylinders, here’s five CIS hockey players gathering serious interest from NHL hockey teams.
5. Jordan Hickmott: University of Alberta Golden Bears
The Golden Bears have had 14 players go on to the National Hockey League, with the most well-known being long-time Edmonton Oilers defenceman Randy Gregg, and the most recent being Carolina Hurricanes forward Derek Ryan. Hickmott looks to be the next in line, and his tryout deal with the Toronto Marlies serves as a promising start. Having previously been given a shot with the New York Rangers coming out of the WHL in 2011, Hickmott has been a focal point of the Golden Bears’ offence since day one. A great eye for the game, Hickmott has a pro-level passing game with a very accurate wrist shot.
Hickmott should be a player who can certainly hang around in the AHL. However, being with a Leaf system loaded with prospects, it’s hard to imagine Hickmott gets a great shot with Toronto, but if anything, his time with the Marlies will be a showcase for other NHL teams expressing interest. The Edmonton Oilers historically have had a great relationship with Golden Bears products. The Dallas Stars have also shown interest as one of Hickmott’s former WHL coaches, Derek Laxdal now coaches the Stars’ AHL affiliate.
4. Brett Welychka: Carleton Ravens
The 2015-16 CIS Rookie of the Year award was the cherry on top for a dominant showing from Welychka, who finished second in CIS scoring with 46 points in 27 games. Having previously spent his OHL days with the London Knights and the Belleville Bulls, Welychka has a couple of NHL rookie camps under his belt with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Despite the pro interest in Welychka right now, the majority of people in the CIS think he’ll return to Carleton next year, but another year of improvement could boost Welychka’s stock even more. According to a Tampa Bay scout, Welychka is the type of player who can produce well enough in the AHL to warrant an NHL call-up if a few positions open up. Carleton head coach Marty Johnston, has gone on record saying Welychka put in more work in the past offseason than any other player he’s had before. That’s the type of work ethic Welychka will need to have if he wants to crack an NHL lineup. The Montreal Canadiens are also reportedly interested in Welychka.
3. Patrick Killeen: Carleton Ravens
It’s an extremely rare occurrence to see a CIS goaltender crack the NHL, but Ken Lockett and Jim Corsi have done it before, and there’s reason to believe Killeen could be the next in line.
A long-time starter for the OHL Brampton Battalion in the mid-2000s, Killeen was nabbed by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft. After bouncing around in the Penguins’ minor-league system, Killeen was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013. Never finding his game with Columbus, Killeen sat out the entire 2013-14 season, and joined Carleton the following year. Since then, he has been among the CIS leaders in save percentage and goals against average. If that wasn’t enough to put Killeen back on the radar of NHL teams, a marvellous 66-save performance at this year’s University Cup in a quadruple overtime thriller sure was.
Although there was interest from the Ottawa Senators, Killeen inked an amateur tryout deal with the Calgary Flames, who appear to have some long-term plans for Killeen. With Jon Gillies and Joni Ortio expected to be the future, the Flames are looking past Jonas Hiller, Niklas Backstrom, and Karri Ramo. Without much potential at the goaltending position behind Gillies on their AHL affiliate right now, the Stockton Heat, Killeen can muscle his way into a position to be Calgary’s call-up guy if a spot opens up at the NHL level. It’s possible the 25 year-old Killeen pulls a Tim Thomas or a Rob Zepp and becomes a serious late bloomer, but it’s also possible Killeen heads to Europe if he doesn’t feel like going through the rigours of another ECHL season.
2. Jordan Rowley: University of Alberta
Much like his teammate Jordan Hickmott, Rowley already has his foot in the door with the Toronto Maple Leafs having signed a tryout with their ECHL affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears, at the conclusion of the CIS hockey season.
Having been recognized as the Canada West defenceman of the year in 2013-14, Rowley has an excellent career resume from the CIS which includes a pair of national championships. Rowley received serious NHL attention back in 2014 when he earned an invite to the Edmonton Oilers main training camp, and although he didn’t crack the roster, the Oilers have remained interested in Rowley. His deal with the Leafs can likely be attributed to the club’s Western Canada scout Dale Derkatch, who was the development coach for the Prince Albert Raiders during Rowley’s time as the WHL club’s captain.
At 5-foot-11, 185-pounds, Rowley is a tad undersized, but his ability to move the puck around the ice and his heavy slap shot separate him from the rest of the league. If Rowley can’t find a roster spot in the Leaf’s organization, either the Calgary Flames or Edmonton Oilers would both be happy to have him in their system. It could take a while for Rowley to crack an NHL lineup, but the work ethic he displayed while with Alberta indicates he’ll do whatever it takes to grace the ice surface of an NHL arena.
1. Francis Beauvillier: University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds
The Varsity Reds have had three players sign directly out of the CIS to the NHL and another 28 play in the AHL in the last 10 years, asserting themselves as one of the best CIS schools for churning out pro talent. There’s a number of players you could pick from UNB’s roster that have a marginal chance to wear an NHL sweater, and one of them has already done that.
Beauvillier was selected 174th overall by the Florida Panthers in 2012. The fleet-footed forward, the brother of Canadian national junior team forward Anthony Beauvillier, was once a candidate to play in the world juniors. What held back Beauvillier in his junior days was his lack of strength, but he now plays at 200 pounds. Beauvillier has shown his versatility all over the ice using his speed to beat defenders to the net as well as being a valuable asset on the penalty kill.
Despite the pro interest in Beauvillier, he’ll more than likely return to UNB for another season of hockey with the reigning CIS champs. The belief is once his CIS playing days are done, he can slot in and produce on the bottom six for an NHL team the same way Darryl Boyce did for the Toronto Maple Leafs coming out of CIS. The Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues are a pair of teams showing interest in him.