Moose Finding Success Raiding U-Sports Ranks

The best scouting staffs find the best players to fill holes in the lineup, no matter what league they’re in. In the last couple of seasons, the Manitoba Moose have found some help in an unusual place.

Men’s U-Sports (formally CIS) hockey hasn’t traditionally been a hotbed of future pros, but in recent years a trend has emerged of AHL squads filling their rosters with Canadian university standouts. The Moose have been among those at the front of this trend.

Manitoba started it out by grabbing Francis Beauvillier from the dominant UNB Varsity Reds program. He paid immediate dividends, potting four goals and five points in his first nine games. His season started late this year due to injury.

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Beauvillier has company on the Moose from the former U-Sports ranks. Cam Maclise, a former Mount Royal Cougar, buried the first goal of the year for the Jets’ AHL farm club and has added an assist since then for two points in three games.

Maclise’s goal (shorthanded no less) was another win for the Moose picking up a U-Sports free agent. They tried another player from Canada West, Elgin Pearce, who has his first AHL point. In one ECHL game in Jacksonville, he put up a goal and an assist.

Pearce in particular was a good find. A hard worker with good physicality and skill during his days with the Calgary Dinos, Pearce likely had other pro options and chose the Moose. He may not be back in the AHL for some time, but Moose fans shouldn’t be discouraged by this. His ECHL pace, at this rate, will see him back eventually.

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The Moose aren’t the only team doing well with former U-Sports players. Former Alberta Golden Bear Levko Koper was a mainstay of the Charlotte Checkers lineup last year, playing 56 games.

And just in case you think these players never go on to contribute in the big leagues, Carolina Hurricanes forward Derek Ryan, now a fixture up front in Raleigh, spent four years at the University of Alberta.

Scratching The Surface

Scouting is a competitive business. AHL teams, like NHL teams, need to drain whatever talent wells are available to them. And these teams are just now dipping a finger in the well of talent that is U Sports.

This league, particularly Canada West, is near and dear to my heart, as I got my start as a broadcaster there before moving to a full-time position in the junior ranks. I’ve seen many of these players in action during their university days during my time with the Manitoba Bison men.

I can tell you I have memories of Koper, Maclise, and Pearce (especially Pearce) being Bison-killers in their days there. They were lethal every time they came to the keystone province.

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I can also tell you they were never the best players in that league. At times, they weren’t even the best players on their teams. The AHL is just scratching the surface of the talent they could swipe from this circuit.

U Sports players were not all junior all-stars, though many were, like Alberta’s Tyson Baillie or Manitoba’s Michael St. Croix. Maclise played only one major junior year, instead serving as a junior-A standout for the AJHL’s Brooks Bandits.

Not every player peaks during their junior years. Some simply aren’t ready for the pros even after four or five seasons in major junior or junior-A. U Sports represents a place for these players to grow and develop and come to the professional ranks as mature young players (to say nothing of the degree they could walk away with).

Some players come out of junior as good as they’re ever going to get. Others turn their time in leagues like U Sports into their best developmental years.

My favorite example of this is a young defenseman for the Saskatchewan Huskies named Jesse Forsberg. Rarely a scorer but with heavy PIM totals in his WHL days, Forsberg has used the time at the U of S to develop his offensive game. He now has a fluid skating stride and a heavy shot to go along with his mean streak and stocky frame.

Forsberg has scored at almost a point per game from the blueline the past two seasons. Mark my words, when his eligibility is up, there will be a spot for him in the pros if he wants one.

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So Who’s Next?

It’s been almost eight months since I was behind the mic for a Canada West game, but there were some players who could easily be among the next wave to help shore up the ranks of a pro team.

As mentioned above, Pearce, Koper, and Maclise were all top-notch players in the U-Sports ranks, but they weren’t the absolute best.

And no, AHL teams are not going to find their savior in these leagues (most likely) but there’s no team so good they can afford to turn down a competitive advantage. Scouting a mostly unheralded league is a good way to get that.

Mount Royal’s Connor Rankin, Alberta’s Baillie, Manitoba’s St. Croix and Brett Stovin, and Saskatchewan’s Josh Roach (among many others on the U of S) have all stood out throughout their U Sports careers. The pro ranks will come calling for some of them.

And that’s just Canada West. The UNB program that gave us Beauvillier has worlds of talent, including Jets young stars player Tyler Bolland. So does the Acadia Axemen program.

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And while the next Wayne Gretzky likely isn’t coming out of these teams, the next Derek Ryan might be. And no team is too good to be turning those players down.

It’s nice to see the Manitoba Moose looking for some talent in unusual places. Now, maybe the Jets can apply some of that outside-the-box thinking to some other aspects of their operations?