The USHL: North America’s Fourth Junior Hockey League

 

The United States Hockey League (USHL) is the only Tier I Junior Hockey League operating entirely in the United States.  Unlike the three junior leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League, the USHL adheres to NCAA eligibility standards, which allows its players to continue on to college hockey before potentially moving on to professional careers.

 

Fifteen years ago, the USHL did not measure up to Tier I standards: it featured a lot of 9-6 games, and relatively few of its players continued their hockey careers along anything resembling a path to the NHL.  But as of 2006-07, nearly 10% of NHL players had also played in the USHL:

 

 

This is not surprising given that the number of USHL players moving directly to NCAA college hockey has been steadily increasing over the same time period:

 

 

At the same time, the caliber of USHL players relative to the NCAA has jumped substantially.  The plot below shows the relative points-per-game scored by USHL players in their first NCAA season.  The red line shows performance adjusted for the scoring levels in each league; blue is unadjusted.

 

 

As you can see, a point in the USHL has become 40-60% more valuable over the last fifteen years, assuming that the level of play in the NCAA has remained constant.  The translation from the NCAA to the AHL has been approximately constant during this era, so this is a safe assumption.  The average age of USHL players has also remained constant, which is especially significant given the dependence translations have on teenage players.

 

It is difficult to compare the USHL and Canadian Junior Leagues directly because the groups of players do not interact.  Few USHL players move to Canadian Junior (though they typically maintain their level of production), and virtually none move from Canadian Junior to the NCAA.  The table below shows the translations between leagues that commonly feed each other:

 

 

NCAA

AHL

CHL

N/A

0.43

USHL

0.65

N/A

NCAA

------- 

0.53

 

We can then estimate the translation from the USHL to the AHL by multiplying the translation from the USHL to the NCAA by the translation from the NCAA to the AHL:

 

 Implied Translation

AHL

USHL

0.37

CHL

0.43

 

The accuracy of the previous step is affected by a typical two- or three-year gap between a player’s last year in the USHL and first year in the AHL.  We can compare this to the observed translation from the USHL to the CHL for the relatively small number of players who played in both leagues:

 

 

CHL

USHL - Implied

0.86

USHL - Observed

1.12

 

It is clear that regardless of the analysis method, players who play in the USHL and CHL perform approximately the same once they get to higher-level leagues. Allowing for a year's worth of improvement, 18-year-olds in the USHL would maintain their level of scoring at age 19 if they transferred to Canadian Tier I Junior. Were they to transfer during the same season, they would likely maintain at least 80% of their scoring.

NAHL and Tier II Junior

It is important to keep in mind the gap between the USHL and non-Tier I junior hockey leagues.
Leagueto CHLmean Ageto NCAAmean Age
Tier II0.4517.30.3319.4
NAHL1.00*16.90.5019.6
* = small sample size

The USHL is clearly better than Tier II Junior Hockey.