Pouliot, Reinhart among top drafted WHL defensemen

By Glen Erickson

Derrick Pouliot - Team WHL

Photo: Portland Winterhawks defenseman and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Derrick Pouliot is currently tied for third in scoring among WHL defensemen with 44 points (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Our ranking of the top defensemen in the WHL includes a mix of offensively gifted players and prototypical “shut down” defensemen. For this list, the criteria we used ranks drafted and/or signed NHL prospects currently playing in the WHL.

Derrick Pouliot (PIT), Portland Winterhawks
Pouliot is just another in a long line of elite defensemen to wear the Winterhawks’ jersey in recent years. Selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Pouliot was perhaps the best blueliner Team Canada iced at the 2014 WJC. A powerful skater with great vision and a heavy shot, Pouliot plays in all situations for the Winterhawks.

Now in his fourth full season with Portland, Pouliot continues to be a force offensively from the back end. Despite an ankle injury that hobbled him last season, the Weyburn, Saskatchewan native has posted 179 points in 226 regular season games, and 41 points in 64 post-season games. He has been on a tear since returning from the WJC, with five multi-point games so far in January.

Griffin Reinhart (NYI), Edmonton Oil Kings
In some quarters, Reinhart’s return to Edmonton this season from the New York Islanders was a surprise. A benefit of his return was the show of confidence Hockey Canada displayed by naming him to the national team for the WJC, even though he was ineligible for the first three games due to an IIHF suspension.

The native of West Vancouver was selected fourth overall by the Islanders in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft. He is already physically ready for the NHL, checking in at 6’4” and 205 pounds. Reinhart, like Pouliot, has played with a host of elite rearguards during his junior career, and has played in a Memorial Cup. He should reach the 250-career game milestone later this season.

Mathew Dumba (MIN), Portland Winterhawks
Dumba enjoyed an extended stay in Minnesota this season until the Wild loaned him to Hockey Canada for the WJC. A lightening rod of sorts, Dumba was about average in Sweden, although he played courageously through injury and illness while there.

Selected by the Minnesota Wild seventh overall in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Dumba is back in the WHL for the rest of the season. His rights were traded to Portland by the Red Deer Rebels before Christmas. Dumba makes an already strong Winterhawks’ blueline much more stout as the team looks to defend its WHL Championship. Not shy of physical play, Dumba also has reliable offensive skills.

Josh Morrissey (WPG), Prince Albert Raiders
Morrissey may have been a surprise selection at #13 in the first round at the 2013 NHL Draft, but he most certainly earned consideration from all teams seeking a defenseman with complete game skills. Noted to date in the WHL for his offensive prowess, the 6’, 185-pounder from Calgary has become a more physical player of late, willing and able to take the body effectively without having to deliver monster hits.

In his third full season with the Raiders, Morrissey has 43 points in 36 games, a sure bet to significantly surpass his career high of 47 points tallied last year in 70 games. He played for Team Canada at the WJC in Malmo, Sweden, and has gold medals in his possession from both the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and 2013 U18 World Junior Championship. A leader in Prince Albert and a rearguard playing in all situations, Morrissey was signed by the Winnipeg Jets in early October.

Mirco Mueller (SJS), Everett Silvertips
Mueller is yet another in a long line of imports from Switzerland to make their presence felt in the WHL’s U.S. Division. He is a tall, lanky defender who uses his frame to protect the puck when slowing the play down in the defending zone. A willing puck carrier, Mueller can separate from opponents with his strong stride and acceleration.

He checks in at 6’4” and 200 pounds. Mueller is not overly physical for a big body, but he is adept at squeezing opponents off the puck or towards the boards. Selected in the first round by the San Jose Sharks, 18th overall, at the 2013 NHL Draft, Mueller is playing a ton of minutes for the Silvertips this season.

Shea Theodore (ANA), Seattle Thunderbirds
The leading scorer in the WHL this season among defensemen with 60 points in 49 games, Theodore continues to patrol the blueline for the Thunderbirds with maturity and confidence. A graduate of the Yale Hockey Academy in British Columbia’s lower mainland, Theodore quarterbacks the power-play for Seattle, provides consistent offensive support and moves the puck as well as any defender in the WHL.

Selected in the first round, 26th overall by the Anaheim Ducks at the 2013 NHL Draft, Theodore checks in now at 6’2” and 175 pounds. He is a key leader among a group of huge teammates on defense in Seattle, a group that has the Thunderbirds headed for its second straight trip to the playoffs after years of languishing among the lesser lights in the WHL.

Damon Severson (NJD), Kelowna Rockets
As an integral part of the Rockets team that won 52 games last season, Severson remains a key ingredient among the current group that is on pace to obliterate that win total this season. Considered a risk/reward rusher of the puck in some quarters, he has become more reliable in the defending zone this season. The inconsistencies that surfaced frequently during the early years of his WHL career are disappearing.

Selected 60th overall by the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Severson continues to mature in Kelowna, an organization with a history of developing elite, NHL-ready defensemen. Severson, who checks in at 6’2” and 210 pounds, is from Melville, Saskatchewan. He is on pace to reach the 300-game plateau just prior to the beginning of the playoffs.

Madison Bowey (WSH), Kelowna Rockets
Part of the Rockets one-two punch on the blueline, Bowey arrived in Kelowna as a 16-year-old and has gradually progressed to become one of the most effective defensemen in the WHL. Selected in the second round, 53rd overall, by the Washington Capitals at the 2013 NHL Draft, Bowey is from Winnipeg, Manitoba.

At 6’2” and 203 pounds, Bowey is a solid contributor at both ends of the rink. While he is physically capable defending in front of the Kelowna goal, he is also tremendously quick to jump up on the rush. He is among the league leaders in scoring by a defenseman with 44 points in 49 games. In his last 118 regular season games over two seasons, he has compiled a +82 rating.

Ryan Pulock (NYI), Brandon Wheat Kings
Pulock is often hailed as the player with the hardest shot among WHL rearguards. Indeed, he drills it, but in Pulock, the New York Islanders have signed a defenseman that has continued to develop as an all-around player during his WHL career.

Selected in the first round, 15th overall, at the 2012 NHL Draft, Pulock has been a key leader in Brandon over the past couple of years. He has overcome an injury-riddled season last year where he was hit in the face with a puck and also dealt with a wrist ailment. Pulock is scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace with 15 goals and 27 assists in 43 games.

Keegan Kanzig (CGY), Victoria Royals
Now in his third full season with the Royals, Kanzig’s most redeeming feature at this point is his tremendous size. At 6’7” and 241 pounds, he is huge among WHL defensemen, and a big contributor to the Royals status among the league leaders in goals allowed by a team. They trail only the Kelowna Rockets, a team the Royals have beaten three times this season.

Selected in the third round, 67th overall, at the 2013 NHL Draft, Kanzig has been signed by the Calgary Flames. While not a prolific offensive producer, he is certainly not shy of physical play. He’s toned down the fisticuffs this season, due in part to reduced challengers across the league. Kanzig has become a disciplined, dominant defender who works hard to ensure his goaltenders get a clear view of oncoming pucks.

Other Notables
Alex Roach (LAK), Calgary Hitmen
Ben Betker (EDM), Everett Silvertips
Anton Cederholm, (VAN) Portland Winterhawks
Dillon Heatherington (CLB), Swift Current Broncos
Nick Walters (STL) Lethbridge Hurricanes
Mitch Wheaton (DET), Kelowna Rockets
Tommy Vannelli (STL), Medicine Hat Tigers
Mason Geertsen (COL), Vancouver Giants
Tyler Lewington (WSH), Medicine Hat Tigers
Jaynen Rissling (WSH), Calgary Hitmen
Travis Brown (CHI), Victoria Royals
Kyle Burroughs (NYI), Regina Pats
Marc McNulty (DET), Prince George Cougars
Kenton Helgeson (ANA), Calgary Hitmen
Eric Roy (CGY), Brandon Wheat Kings
Dalton Thrower (MTL), Vancouver Giants
Brett Kulak (CGY), Vancouver Giants

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