The smallest defender lands the top ranking in this Hockey’s Future ranking of the top WHL defenders that are currently the property of NHL teams. Joe Hicketts of the Victoria Royals and a prospect of the Detroit Red Wings gets the nod as the defensive NHL property out of the WHL.
Our ranking includes a mix primarily of offensively gifted players, along with a couple of prototypical “shutdown” defensemen. For this list, the criteria we used ranks drafted and/or signed prospects currently playing in the WHL.
Five players in our ranking played in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland, while another attended Team Canada’s WJC selection camp. There are eight Canadians in our ranking along with one American and one Russian. Seven players are with Eastern Conference teams. A total of four players are NHL first round selections. All 10 have been signed to NHL entry-level contracts.
1. Joe Hicketts (DET), Victoria Royals
A complete defenseman with very good offensive skills, Joe Hicketts continues to play bigger than his 5’8”, 185-pound frame. He is thick, sturdy, physical and a great team leader. This season, in his fourth full campaign with the Victoria Royals, Hicketts has scored three times and added 34 assists in 37 games. He has appeared in 228 WHL games.
The native of Kamloops, BC has enjoyed a productive history in Hockey Canada programs, which culminated with a gold medal as a member of Team Canada at the 2015 WJC. He was also an assistant captain for a young Team Canada that did not medal at the 2016 WJC in Finland.
On a somewhat serious note, though potentially humorous, Hicketts was also able to produce under pressure off the ice at the 2016 WJC. Selected by the IIHF to provide a urine sample for testing by the doping agency after a 3-2 win over Switzerland, Hicketts summed up the experience for the Canadian Press. “You have to pee I think 100 millilitres and I was short about 10. Four litres of water and about an hour later and I was finally finished.”
The Royals acquired Hicketts with the 12th overall pick at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Hicketts was not called at the NHL Draft, but persisted and was eventually signed prior to last season by Detroit after attending a development camp, the rookie tournament in Traverse City and then the Red Wings main camp.
2. Travis Sanheim (PHI), Calgary Hitmen
With eight goals and 32 assists in 30 games, Travis Sanheim would seem to be on pace to match last season’s output of 65 points in 67 games. The rangy rearguard from Elkhorn, MB checks in at 6’3” and 184 pounds.
The Hitmen acquired Sanheim in the ninth round, 177th overall, at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Selected in the first round, 17th overall, by the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2014 NHL Draft, Sanheim has since been signed by the Flyers. He has another future Flyers teammate with him in Calgary this season, that being Russian import forward Radel Fazleev.
Sanheim, who gives the Hitmen power play tremendous punch from the backend along with highly-touted Jake Bean (2016), suffered an upper body injury in November that kept him out of the CHL Canada Russia Series games. He was able to recover and earn a spot with Team Canada for the 2016 WJC.
3. Ivan Provorov (PHI), Brandon Wheat Kings
Ivan Provorov burst onto the WHL scene last year, coming over from the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL. His presence as an offensive contributor in Brandon was pivotal as the Wheaties advanced to the WHL Championship series last season.
Provorov was selected in the first round, seventh overall, by the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2015 NHL Draft. He was signed on July 3rd. From Yaroslavl, Russia, he is rare among CHL imports, a player who has appeared in consecutive World Junior Championships and has earned a pair of silver medals with the Russians.
He uses his reach, which is aided by perhaps the longest stick in junior hockey, to tremendous advantage, shutting down passing lanes and forcing opponents to the outside. Provorov is capable physically, checking in at 6’1” and 201 pounds. Provorov scored 11 goals and 33 assists in 44 games, maintaining the point-per-game scoring pace he set last season in his rookie campaign in the WHL.
4. Brandon Carlo (BOS), Tri-City Americans
Brandon Carlo is a hulking defenseman, among the biggest players in the WHL. At 6’5” and 198 pounds, he covers the ice almost effortlessly with his big strides and long reach. While The Americans are struggling to secure a postseason berth, Carlo and teammate Parker Wotherspoon (NYI) are a formidable pair on the back end.
Carlo was a much sought after defenseman at the WHL trade deadline, but the Americans were adamant that his poise and leadership in Tri-City were extremely valuable assets within a very young group. Obviously, no WHL teams presented a knock-your-socks-off offer, which means Carlo will conclude his major junior career as a member of the Amerks.
With two goals and 14 assists in 30 games, Carlo’s importance lies in his ability to help keep pucks out of his team’s net. Selected in the second round, 37th overall, by the Boston Bruins at the 2015 NHL Draft, he was signed to an entry-level contract on September 25th. He has played for Team USA at the past two World Juniors, earning a bronze medal last month in Finland. One Boston media outlet addressed Carlo’s WJC performance by referring to him as the “U.S. Secretary of Defense”.
5. Haydn Fleury (CAR), Red Deer Rebels
It would seem that Haydn Fleury has regained some of the confidence that made him so prominent during his NHL Draft season.
Selected in the first round, seventh overall, by the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2014 NHL Draft, Fleury did not produce a dominant campaign last season in Red Deer. However, as the Rebels prepare to play host to the 2016 Memorial Cup in May, Fleury projects to be a stalwart on the back end with his ever-improving play. He has been signed by the Hurricanes.
The Rebels acquired Fleury with the 43rd overall pick at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. He has scored nine goals and added 19 assists for 28 points in 36 games, matching his scoring output from last season, although his numbers last season came in 63 games. At 6’3” and 198 pounds, he is also playing at a slightly lighter weight than last season.
When at his best, Fleury is one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the WHL, with great mobility and a certain physical presence. Although he was unable to crack Team Canada’s lineup for the 2015 WJC, he made the roster this time around for the 2016 WJC in Finland.
6. Noah Juulsen (MTL), Everett Silvertips
Noah Juulsen had a breakout season in 2014-15, producing big numbers offensively for a team that is traditionally viewed in WHL quarters as defensively focused. The roster did include Nikita Scherbak (MTL), who provided a high-octane offensive threat and strong power play support which aided Juulsen’s statistical package.
Coincidentally, it was the Montreal Canadians that selected Juulsen in the first round, 26th overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft, which is exactly the position they chose Scherbak at the 2014 draft.
At 6’2” and 174 pounds, Juulsen is capable physically now, even though he would appear destined to add weight and muscle to his frame. With four goals and 14 assists in 41 games, he is below last season’s pace, yet the Silvertips appear to be a better balanced team this season. The native of Abbottsford, BC was among the final cuts from Canada’s squad for the 2016 WJC.
7. Andrew Nielsen (TOR), Lethbridge Hurricanes
On a Hurricanes squad that leads the WHL standings, Andrew Nielsen is an important specialty team contributor and an offensive force. Through 50 games this season, Nielsen has scored 12 goals and added 40 assists for 52 points, tops among WHL defensemen.
Much has been made of his association with the Red Deer Rebels, where he was a stick boy as a youngster. He suffered some setbacks during his minor hockey days, being cut from a couple of teams due to fitness and work ethic issues. In recent years, the hard knocks have served as motivation for Nielsen, fueling his desire to maximize his abilities. Now 20, Nielsen is considered to be a bit of a late bloomer.
At 6’3” and 207 pounds, he is already pro-sized and very mobile. Selected in the third round, 65th overall, by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2015 NHL Draft, Nielsen signed an entry-level contract in mid-November.
8. Brendan Guhle (BUF), Prince Albert Raiders
The Buffalo Sabres tapped into the WHL for a pair of defensemen at the 2015 NHL Draft, but it was Brendan Guhle who particularly impressed the team during on- and off-ice testing prior to the draft. He was chosen in the second round, 51st overall, by the Sabres at the 2015 NHL Draft.
The native of Edmonton, AB was signed on July 27th, then went on to enjoy an extended stay at training camp prior to the current WHL regular season when the Sabres encountered a number of injuries along the blueline.
The durable rearguard is considered to be a complete athlete. During his draft year, he appeared in all 72 regular season games and collected 32 points for the Prince Albert Raiders, who did not qualify for the postseason. This season, he has scored seven goals and added 12 assists in 44 games.
9. Dysin Mayo (ARI), Edmonton Oil Kings
Dysin Mayo has played a lot of hockey since his arrival in the WHL as a 16-year-old rookie. He has already played over 270 games as a member of the Oil Kings, nearly 50 of which have come during the postseason.
During his first two seasons, Edmonton advanced to the WHL Championship series, both times against the Portland Winterhawks. After losing the first time around, the Oil Kings won the league title in 2013-14 and then captured the 2014 Memorial Cup. Mayo collected 15 points in 21 WHL playoff games during the run to their national championship.
For Mayo, the value of those early lessons, especially learning to win, has become important as he assumes a leadership role in Edmonton. When the Oil Kings graduated many of the core group that contributed to the Memorial Cup win, Mayo emerged as a key offensive producer with 51 points during his third full season in the WHL. This season, he has 32 points in 52 games on an Oil Kings team that is certainly in re-tool mode.
The Arizona Coyotes selected Mayo in the fifth round, 123rd overall, at the 2014 NHL Draft and signed the 6’1”, 191-pound native of Victoria, BC a couple of months ago on December 26th.
10. Keegan Kanzig (CGY), Calgary Hitmen
Indeed, he might very well be considered a man among boys to some degree. However, just imagine how it feels to be a member of the Calgary Hitmen this season, looking down the bench at the 6’7, 245-pound Kanzig. The term “level of comfort” comes to mind.
Over the course of his WHL career, Kanzig has diligently worked on his skating. He is a veteran of 332 games (and counting). Kanzig, from Athabasca, AB, entered the WHL at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, when he was chosen seventh overall by the Chilliwack Bruins. The Bruins relocated to Victoria prior to the 2011-12 season, where Kanzig would play three full seasons and part of a fourth before being dealt to the Hitmen.
He is a burly, rangy, physical defenseman with very good straight ahead speed. Not known for his offensive prowess, Kanzig has scored a career-high 10 goals this season, along with four assists and a +11 rating in 32 games.
Mitch Wheaton (DET), Brandon Wheat Kings
Marc McNulty (DET), Kamloops Blazers
Chaz Reddekopp (LAK), Victoria Royals
Tate Olson (VAN), Prince George Cougars
Parker Wotherspoon (NYI), Tri-City Americans
Ben Thomas (TBL), Vancouver Giants
Sam Ruopp (CBJ), Prince George Cougars
Ryan Rehill (NJD), Kamloops Blazers
Devante Stephens (BUF), Kelowna Rockets
Mackenze Stewart (VAN), Tri-City Americans
Colby Williams (WSH), Regina Pats
Ethan Bear (EDM), Seattle Thunderbirds
Connor Hobbs (WSH), Regina Pats
Nelson Nogier (WPG), Red Deer Rebels
Brycen Martin (BUF), Everett Silvertips
Sergey Zborovsky (NYR) Regina Pats
Aaron Irving (NSH), Edmonton Oil Kings
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