On Sunday, the Canadian Interuniversity Sports University Cup Final, an annual event that draws significantly less attention than the NCAA’s Frozen Four or the CHL’s Memorial Cup, will be played. CIS hockey is an undervalued and underappreciated brand of hockey in Canada. The players tend to be faster, physically stronger, more mature, and quicker at making decisions than junior players.
CIS hockey comprises of three Canadian university leagues: Atlantic University Sport (AUS) in Atlantic Canada with eight teams, Ontario University Athletics (OUA) in Ontario and Quebec with 19 teams, CWUAA (Canada West Universities Athletic Association) in Western Canada with eight teams.
Compared to the mainstream development leagues, few players from the CIS make it to the NHL. The often overlooked university leagues may be producing some late bloomers over the years, so let’s start mining for prospects with this season’s data.
First, we need to be able to compare current CIS players to a CIS alumnus who has played in the post-2004-05 lockout NHL as a regular player. Joel Ward is the only one who fits the criteria. In the 2004-05 season, his last season in the AUS at the age of 24, he recorded 44 points in 28 games, an average of 1.57 points per game, which is 2.88 standard deviations above the league median among forwards who played at least 75% of a season. Going forward, I’ll use Joel Ward’s 2.88 z-score as a benchmark for success.
Data for forwards, who played at least 75% of their games, are obtained from leaguestat.com for the OUA and CWUAA and the official league website for AUS. All three leagues have data for goals, assists, and points. The AUS also collects data on shots on goal. Canada West is the most comprehensive of the three, reporting shots on goal and power play points, a category that can then be used to calculate even-strength points. Other data was collected from hockeydb.com.
Since university leagues differ in competition, forward points per game are standardized to be on the same scale. Standardizing also allows us to see whether a certain level of offensive production is an exceptional case in a university league.
With the Joel Ward reference point in mind, here are some Canadian university forwards with the best chance at making the NHL:
Spencer Pommells, University of Windsor
In the OUA, Spencer Pommells, the CIS men’s hockey player of the year, registered 50 points in 27 games this season, 19 more points (or 61% more) than the next best Windsor forward in the same number of games. The CIS star’s point per game average of 1.85 is a 36% increase from his previous best of 1.36 in 2012-13.
Pommells’s 1.85 point-per-game average is 3.6 standard deviations above the league median, exceeding Joel Ward’s z-score. It’s the highest z-score among the analyzed forwards. Both Ward and Pommells turned 24 years old — the average age among this season’s group of 198 forwards is 22.41 years old — in their fourth CIS season, but unlike Ward, Pommells did not play major junior hockey.
T. J. Foster, University of Alberta
Right-winger T.J. Foster recorded a 1.5 point-per-game average in a 28-game season with the University of Alberta. In the Canada West league, Foster’s number of points per game in all situations is roughly the same statistical distance from the league median as his even-strength points. He is about 3.31 standard deviations above the league median in all situations and 3.32 during even-strength.
Foster, who completed his second CIS season, may have improved his offense this season, increasing his shot rate from 2.29 shots per game last season to 3.5, but his shooting percentage also exploded from 9.1% to 18.4%, a more than 100% increase, which may put a bit of doubt in his true goal scoring ability this season.
Before his CIS years, his play certainly didn’t go unnoticed by scouts. One scout sees the former WHL player “resemble a player like Eric Belanger”, praising him for his skating. In 2011, Foster was invited to the New York Rangers prospect development camp. Two years later, he got a tryout from the Washington Capitals.
Jordan Hickmott, University of Alberta
A teammate of Foster’s, University of Alberta center Jordan Hickmott recorded an average of 1.43 points per game this season, which places him 3.08 standard deviations above the league median.
Hickmott, 24, generated 4.29 shots per game this season, an increase from 3.07 and 3 in previous seasons. His shot rate for this season is about 3 standard deviations above the league median. So, his offensive effort is unquestioned from a shot volume perspective.
Cody Cartier, Mount Royal University
Cartier is a smaller forward at 5’9”, but has had about the same offensive success at even-strength as Jordan Hickmott. Compared to the two U of A forwards, Cartier shot less, but was still above the league median by 1.45 standard deviations.
Cartier improved his offensive production this season. His point-per-game average rose by 39% in one season from 1.00 (in 27 games) to 1.39 (in 28 games).
Tyler Fiddler, Mount Royal University
Although he didn’t make the Ward minimum requirement, Tyler Fiddler’s even-strength points per game z-score (2.47) is the same as Hickmott’s in the same number of games of 28. The 24 year-old left-wing completed his fourth CIS season, although this season is the first where he played more than 16 games. Fiddler is a former WHLer.
Based on the stats, CWUAA seems to be a good league to look for prospects this season. The OUA has one superstar forward, who happens to be the CIS scoring leader. And in the AUS, unfortunately, no forward was able to match the z-score of former AUS star Joel Ward. Here’s a summary table of this season’s best offensive CIS forwards and how they compare to Ward in his final season:
Table note: * – “P/GP Z” and “EV P/GP Z” are expressed in a “z-score” with standard deviations as units.