University Cup: Top five players to watch

Defenceman Ryan McKiernan was the leading point-getter for McGill during the regular season. (McGill Athletics & Recreation)

When the 2014 PotashCorp University Cup presented by Co-op kicks off Thursday, CIS fans will be treated to some highly-skilled and intense hockey.

The participating student-athletes do not receive nearly as much fanfare as they did when they starred for their respective junior teams, but in most cases their games are much improved. They are bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced at this point of their hockey careers. These CIS players go under the radar in terms of hockey in Canada, but this week they will be front and centre, showcasing their talent.

Programming alert: Catch live coverage of the CIS University Cup this weekend, with two games Saturday on Sportsnet 360 and Sunday’s final on Sportsnet. | TV schedule

Here are my top five players to an eye on in this year’s University Cup:

1. Liam Heelis, Forward | Acadia Axemen

Heelis was awarded the Senator Joseph A. Sullivan Trophy as the CIS Player of the Year, just another feather in his hat during this breakout season. The third-year forward led the country in goals, tallying 24 in 26 games.

Over the Christmas break, he represented Team Canada as part of the AUS squad that captured gold at the FISU World University Games, and was named the AUS Finals MVP. He is the triggerman on a highly-explosive top line for Acadia. In eight playoff games, he notched five goals and six assists, and will need to do more of the same this week to help the Axemen get to Sunday’s final.

2. Cedric McNicoll, Forward | McGill Redmen

At the ripe age of 25, Cedric McNicoll is certainly the most experienced of any players skating in the University Cup this week. Undrafted, McNicoll signed with the Colorado Avalanche following a 104-point season in the QMJHL in 2008-09. McNicoll went on to play three seasons professionally, splitting time between the AHL and ECHL.

In his first year skating for the Redmen, he recorded 53 points in 34 games, including 16 points in eight games during the playoffs. This performance earned him a spot on the OUA East’s First All-Star Team. His offensive instincts make him an exciting player to watch.

3. Sean Ringrose, Forward | U of Alberta Golden Bears

Being the captain of the most successful CIS hockey program in history comes with a bit of extra pressure, especially when U of A has not won a national championship since 2008. But Sean Ringrose stepped up this season, leading the top offensive team in the country with 36 points. The Golden Bears were only required to play four games in the Canada West playoffs, but he still managed to register seven points.

The closest Ringrose has come to a championship was an overtime loss to my Saint Mary’s University Huskies in 2009-10, unheard of by Golden Bears’ standards. With this being his fifth and final season, you will see the urgency of a highly motivated, determined captain trying to steer his team to victory.

4. Ryan McKiernan, Defence | McGill Redmen

New York native Ryan McKiernan possesses the puck-moving skillset that every coach wants on his blueline. The OUA East Defenceman of the Year is a smooth-skating, highly offensive-minded blueliner, who plays with controlled aggression and contributes in both ends of the rink. He not only led the country in scoring for a defenceman, he also topped the entire McGill team in points during the regular season.

Coming into the University Cup, McKiernan recorded a point per game through McGill’s eight playoff contests. On top of all his on-ice accomplishments, the all-star is also a three-time Academic all-Canadian studying finance.

5. Derek Hulak, Forward | U of Saskatchewan Huskies

For the second time in three seasons, Huskies forward Derek Hulak has led the Canada West conference in scoring. This year, the dynamic Hulak registered 48 points earning him a selection as a CIS First Team All Star. A solid gritty player, Hulak anchors the point on the Huskies’ power play.

Last year, the Huskies fell short as hosts, and he only recorded a single point. The concerning issue this time that the Huskies have not played since Feb. 23rd when they lost to UBC in the quarterfinals of the Canada West playoffs. In their second and final time hosting the University Cup, he and his teammates will be looking for a much different ending, and Hulak will be expected to lead the charge.

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