For purposes of this list, we used the criteria whereby we ranked only NHL drafted or signed blueliners currently playing in the WHL. Most of those in our Top 10 are providing valuable offensive contributions for their respective teams, with only a trio on this list establishing themselves as true shut-down types.
1. Tyson Barrie Kelowna Rockets (COL)
2. Jared Cowen, Spokane Chiefs (OTT)
3. Stefan Elliott, Saskatoon Blades (COL)
4. Brayden McNabb, Kootenay Ice (BUF)
5. Brett Ponich, Portland Winterhawks (STL)
6. Alexander Petrovic, Red Deer Rebels (FLA)
7. Martin Marincin, Prince George Cougars (EDM)
8. Brandon Manning, Chilliwack Bruins (PHI)
9. Matt MacKenzie, Tri City Americans (BUF)
10. Dylan McIlrath, Moose Jaw Warriors (NYR)
The native of Victoria, B.C. has become more efficient defensively, but his offensive skill set remains his most polished attribute and there is also no questioning his ample hockey IQ. He has already become the Rockets career leader in scoring among defenseman. Through 32 games, he has scored eight goals and added 32 assists.
Selected in the third round, 64th overall, by the Colorado Avalanche at the 2010 entry draft, Barrie has always been a consistent offensive contributor. He has also been blessed in Kelowna with partners on defense like Luke Schenn and Tyler Myers, players with shut down abilities that effectively enabled Barrie to thrive offensively.
This season, Barrie has become the mentor in Kelowna among the youngsters in the dressing room. He has become tremendously effective in his own end and has increased his size and speed. An injury in September prevented him from skating at the Avs rookie camp, but barring the same, he is certainly capable of making a huge impression in 2011. His performance with Team Canada at the 2011 WJC in Buffalo, New York confirmed his upper echelon skill set.
Perhaps the top shut-down defenseman in the WHL, he was selected first overall by the Spokane Chiefs at the 2006 WHL Bantam Draft. Then, he went to the Ottawa Senators in the first round, 9th overall, at the 2009 entry draft and has since been signed. He was a member of Team Canada’s entry at both the 2010 and 2011 WJC’s.
Mobility was initially a concern with Cowen, especially after suffering a serious knee injury during his draft year. However, he slowly and efficiently responded to treatment and has become one of the foremost rearguards in the entire CHL. On some of the smaller WHL ice surfaces, he is very seldom beaten to the outside. Cowan possesses the long reach that can frustrate oncoming forwards and handles the area in front of his team’s net with authority.
Born in Allan, Saskatchewan, a community just east of Saskatoon, the 6’5, 220-pounder is physically NHL-ready.
Stefan Elliott, Saskatoon Blades
Elliott may be the best defenseman in the WHL that many fans have never heard of. However, the Colorado Avalanche took notice, selecting Elliott in the second round, 49th overall, at the 2009 entry draft.
The top scorer among defensemen in the WHL with 21 goals and 34 assists in 49 games so far this season, Elliott has also compiled a +38 rating with the league leading Blades. Elliott, from North Vancouver, B.C., was honored by the CHL as the Scholastic Player of the Year for the 2008-09 season. Work ethic, both on and off the ice, are obvious attributes. The key for Elliott this season is to elevate his game in the playoffs amid very high expectations in Saskatoon.
While he will not dominate games physically, there remains plenty of room in professional hockey for cerebral defensemen who can contribute offensively. A quiet leader on some very successful Saskatoon Blades team in recent years, the lack of significant playoff success for the franchise may be keeping Elliott from truly achieving star status. Perhaps the most well-rounded defenseman in our ranking, Elliott has made key offensive contributions this season. He is a leader in Saskatoon, a veteran who should have an important impact on the development of potential 2011 first rounder, Duncan Siemens.
Brayden McNabb, Kootenay Ice
McNabb continues to be calming, veteran influence along the blueline in Cranbrook as the Ice battle among upper echelon teams in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the third round, 66th overall, at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, McNabb excels on the defensive side. However, like many rearguards who spend the early parts of their junior careers honing defensive skills, McNabb has begun to influence results with his offensive output. Through 39 games, he has scored 13 goals and added 32 assists, good for third place overall among WHL defensemen.
At 6’4, 210 pounds, McNabb controls the front of his goal with his strength and reach. He grew up in the Davidson, Saskatchewan area, also the home of current Calgary Flames defenseman Cory Sarich.
Brett Ponich, Portland Winterhawks
It has usually been size that has distinguished Brett Ponich from his peers in the WHL, but maturity and poise have emerged in droves since being selected by the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the 2009 draft.
An original bantam draft pick by Portland, Ponich has developed in the Winterhawks’ system to the point where he was named team captain this season. His size and strength are his strong suit, possessing a commanding physical package that attracted the attention of the St. Louis Blues when they selected him in the second round, 42nd overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
At 6’7, 220 pounds, Ponich is NHL-ready in the size department, but will have to continue working diligently to improve his mobility and foot-speed. Ponich has identified the growth spurt he experienced during his 15- and 16-year-old years as most challenging, a time in his young life where he battled through fatigue and coordination.
Under head coach Mike Johnston in Portland, Ponich has improved his mobility and has also become more aggressive. Primarily a shut-down defender, Ponich is surrounded in Portland by others capable of handling the offensive push from the backend.
Unfortunately, Ponich finds his season in jeopardy after suffering a knee injury on Jan. 18. He is scheduled to undergo surgery early in February to repair a torn ACL.
Alexander Petrovic, Red Deer Rebels
There is a bit of nastiness in the play of Alex Petrovic, an Edmonton, Alberta native selected by the Florida Panthers in the second round, 36th overall, at the 2010 entry draft.
This season, Petrovic has turned up the offensive side of his game, scoring six times and adding 38 assists with a plus-21 rating in 50 games, good for fifth place among WHL defensemen. His total of 114 penalty minutes confirms he is not shy about mixing things up at either end of the ice.
The Rebels have been on a tear of late, undefeated in 12 games with 11 wins in regulation time. They are solidly among the top teams in the WHL this season after earning their first playoff berth in four seasons last year. Petrovic, 6’4 and 200 pounds, along with the entire blue line brigade in Red Deer have been very good this season in front of 20-year-old goaltender Darcy Kuemper (MIN), allowing a league-low 114 goals through 52 games.
Martin Marincin, Prince George Cougars
The Edmonton Oilers second round pick, 46th overall, at the 2010 entry draft has thrived in his WHL rookie campaign, providing an important offensive push in Prince George from the backend. When the Cougars partnered Marincin with undrafted 20-year-old Sena Acolatse, an instant comfort level evolved and both rearguards have been consistent scorers all season long.
At 6’4 and 190 pounds, Marincin could stand to gain some weight, but he certainly is not having any problems handling the WHL’s physical play and busy schedule. The Oilers had Marinicin in the lineup at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, British Columbia in September and he was a member of Team Slovakia at the 2011 WJC in Buffalo, New York. His stint at the WJC ended after two games when he was assessed a major penalty and subsequent four-game suspension for an indiscretion against Team USA.
If the hockey gods smile on the Cougars, they could have Marincin in their lineup next season as well. So far this year, he has scored 12 goals and added 32 assists through 32 games.
Brandon Manning, Chilliwack Bruins
Although he was never drafted, both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers showed some interest in form of free agent tryouts. While the Leafs took a pass, the Flyers had the benefit of watching Manning for another full season before inking him to a three-year deal midway through the current campaign.
Manning is a Prince George native who has been property of the Bruins since the expansion franchise began play in the WHL in 2006. He is physically capable, a willing pugilist if challenged. He has become a key power play contributor in Chilliwack, and also sees plenty of ice time killing penalties. After a career high 54 points last season, Manning is on his way to matching that output this year. He has scored tallied 14 times and added 22 assists in 37 games, while collecting 98 penalty minutes. The 20-year-old has spent time on the backend with a few different playing partners, including versatile agitator Curt Gogol (SJ), Zach Habscheid and Jesse Zgraggen.
At 6’1 and 195 pounds, Manning has become increasing mobile during his three full seasons in Chilliwack. The Bruins will need Manning at this best during the remaining regular season schedule as the club is continuing to battle for a post-season berth in the ultra-tight western conference.
Matt MacKenzie, Tri City Americans
Selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the third round, 83rd overall, at the 2010 entry draft McKenzie was a much-sought after commodity at the WHL’s trading deadline. With his Calgary Hitmen languishing through a rebuild this season, McKenzie was shipped to the Tri City Americans in January.
In McKenzie, the Amerks have added a consistent performer with veteran savvy and the ability to contribute in the attacking zone. McKenzie, who has benefited from his learning experiences in Calgary through a host of elite defenders over the past two seasons, is on his way to achieving career highs on the offensive side with four goals and 27 assists in 49 games.
The New Westminster, British Columbia native checks in at 6’2 and 200 pounds, making him a sturdy defender. He is a complete defenseman now who will play in Tri City in all situations.
Perhaps a surprise first round selection at the 2010 NHL entry draft, McIlrath has quickly become a steadily improving defender who is always capable of imposing his physical presence. Chosen by the New York Rangers, 10th overall, the 6’5, 215-pound McIlrath anchors a gritty group of blueliners in Moose Jaw on a team that is not prepared to give up deep playoff run aspirations this season.
Considered primarily a shut-down defender, McIlrath has scored four times and added 16 assists while collecting 97 penalty minutes in 45 games.
Brandon Davidson, Regins Pats (EDM)
Mark Pysyk, Edmonton Oil Kings (BUF)
Austin Madaisky, Kamloops Blazers (CBJ)
Rasmus Rissanen, Everett Silvertips (CAR)
Taylor Aronson, Portland Winterhawks (NAS)
Troy Rutkowski, Portland Winterhawks (COL)
Brenden Kichton, Spokane Chiefs
Brenden Dillon, Seattle Thunderbirds
Sena Acolatse, Prince George Cougars
Zak Stebner, Kelowna Rockets
Tyler Schmidt, Tri City Americans