Vancouver, BC- Professional hockey is nearing its return, and similar to other professional sports, the NHL’s return-to-play has a hint of U SPORTS flavour.
Two U SPORTS alumni have found their way onto the expanded NHL playoff rosters; Derek Ryan with the Calgary Flames, and Phil Maillet with the Washington Capitals.
Ryan, formerly of the University of Alberta, has been with Calgary all season and is a grizzled NHL veteran, however, the same cannot be said for Maillet, who could make his NHL debut in the strangest of circumstances.
Maillet, 27, signed in the American Hockey League with the Ontario Reign following his four years with the University of New Brunswick. He joined the Reign immediately after hoisting the 2017 U CUP, before spending parts of three seasons with the AHL team.
Ahead of the 2019-20 NHL season, Maillet was signed by the Washington Capitals and assigned to their AHL franchise in Hershey, PA.
“It’s exciting to see Phil keep progressing in his hockey career,” said UNB head coach Gardiner MacDougall to UNB Athletics. “He has a high compete level that allows him to use his skills, elite hockey sense, and passion for the game to have success, which includes this opportunity to play in the NHL.”
The former Varsity Red has always been at the top of his game. In his first year at UNB, he was named the AUS rookie of the year, and when he left, he was the U SPORTS MVP.
His journey to the NHL been different than other modern-era U SPORTS to NHL stories. For players such as the aforementioned Derek Ryan, or newly-minted Anaheim Duck Kodie Curran, their careers went twisting and turning through small European leagues before eventually landing North America. That’s not the case for Maillet, who’s never stepped foot on non-North American ice.
In a regular year, Maillet likely would have been left to watch the Capitals’ playoffs on TV, but with teams allowed the expand their rosters for the COVID-19 affected post-season, he squeezed onto the team.
The Capitals named 18 forwards to their playoff roster, meaning at least six will be healthy scratches on any given night of the post-season. Although Maillet is unlikely to crack the starting lineup, if he does find himself in a game, he’ll be ready for it. The 27-year-old led the Hershey Bears in scoring with 44 points when the AHL season was suspended after 62 games in mid-March.
If Maillet does get the chance to play, he will become the eighth player in UNB Varsity Reds history to play an NHL game and the first to play a competitive game since 2013.
As one of the Eastern Conference’s top four seeds, the Capitals are playing in the seeding round of the NHL Playoffs, kicking off their campaign Aug. 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Derek Ryan, on the other hand, will face a much more rigorous return to the NHL post-season. His Calgary Flames are taking part in the “play-in” round, a best-of-five series against their prairie rivals, the Winnipeg Jets. The first game of that series is also Aug. 3.
Ryan, 33, has established himself as a serviceable NHL player since returning from various European stints but only made his post-season debut in 2018-19. Ryan spoke with 49 Sports about his journey to the NHL back in January.
While the two U SPORTS alumni won’t take the spotlight of the NHL post-season, they provide a window to Canadian university hockey, an often overlooked step in professional hockey development.