Kanzig stands on guard for Royals

By Glen Erickson

Keegan Kanzig - Victoria Royals

Photo: Victoria Royals defenseman and Calgary Flames prospect Keegan Kanzig is getting his first taste of the pro game after joining the Abbotsford Heat for the AHL playoffs (courtesy of Ben Nelms/Getty Images)

At first glance, one might assume that a player who checks in at 6’6” has got to be the tallest player on his team in a league full of teenagers. In fact, at that height, the player is probably always the tallest player in the room, at a restaurant or in a gym.

For defenseman Keegan Kanzig of the WHL's Victoria Royals, however, that distinction finally came to an end this past season. When the Royals acquired forward Axel Blomqvist from the Lethbridge Hurricanes about 20 games into the season, Kanzig finally found himself looking up to make eye contact with a teammate.

“It’s good to have size, good to use it,” Kanzig said when interviewed in Victoria by Hockey’s Future during the last weekend of the regular season. “I’m happy to be as big as I am. I didn’t really experience a growth spurt, it was actually pretty consistent. I was always the biggest guy in my class or on my team. There wasn’t really one year where I grew a whole bunch.

“But I’m the second tallest on the team here, which is new to me. Blomqvist is a hair taller than me!”

A perusal of online sources and other media can often result in the same player being listed at many different heights and weights. With benefit of speaking directly with Kanzig, we were able to ask the best source available if he would kindly divulge the correct numbers.

“I’m 6’6” and 245 pounds,” Kanzig said.

Kanzig, who hails from Athabasca, AB, is huge. That’s a pretty obvious first impression. But he has become a competent, elite WHL rearguard, a player who has used his junior hockey experiences to become one of the top defensemen in the league.

“He’s come a long way,” said Royals head coach, Dave Lowry. “He’s a signed prospect now. When we took the job here last year, Keegan was a big raw defenseman with potential.

“One intangible is that he is committed. He does everything that he needs to do to become a pro. He works, he knows where his deficiencies are and he knows that he has to concentrate on certain things to play better here and at the next level.”

Often times with big-bodied youngsters, skating skills and mobility are among the most challenging areas to develop. It wasn’t too long ago that a young Tyler Myers was spending significant time focusing on foot speed and acceleration drills both before and after practice with the Kelowna Rockets. Myers, who is said to stand about 6’8”, became a first round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres and is now a five-year NHL veteran.

“Keegan moves extremely well,” Lowry said. “You put him in a race, a straight line, and he’s one of our quicker guys. As with all big guys, sometimes some things take a bit longer and foot speed is always a concern. But for us, we’ve seen vast improvement and that’s what you’re looking for in the development of these young guys.”

Selected in the third round, 67th overall, by the Calgary Flames at the 2013 NHL Draft, Kanzig’s demeanor on the ice includes a significant measure of “truculence”. Perhaps this aspect of his game factored into the Flames’ decision to sign the 19-year-old to an entry-level contract back in December.

“It was a very exciting day to be drafted by the Flames,” Kanzig said. “It’s a great city and I’m excited to be part of the organization. For them to show confidence in me is, of course, a real confidence booster. It just motivates me even more to work harder and get to the point where I can earn a spot on the team.”

Kanzig played minor hockey through the pee wee division in the northern Alberta town of Athabasca, then moved on to bantam and midget hockey in Fort Saskatchewan. Both centers are located closely to the city of Edmonton, home of the NHL’s Oilers. Kanzig, a calm and poised speaker, managed a bit of a smirk when queried about how the locals might feel about their home grown guy suiting up for the dreaded Calgary Flames.

“There are a few guys that nag me a little bit,” Kanzig admitted. “But it’s all in fun. I know they’re proud of me having an opportunity to go to the Flames.”

There is another bit of uniqueness to Kanzig’s route to Vancouver Island and a roster spot with the Royals, a bend in the road that was completely out of his control. At the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, he was selected in the first round, seventh overall, by the Chilliwack Bruins. He was the third defenseman chosen, behind Jared Hauf (fourth) of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Josh Morrissey (sixth) of the Prince Albert Raiders. The year after he was chosen by Chilliwack, the franchise moved from British Columbia’s lower mainland to the city of Victoria.

During three full seasons with the Royals, Kanzig has played over 200 career games. It would be fair to categorize the 19-year-old as a stay-at-home defender, but he is also a capable mover of the puck. Statistically, he’s not lighting it up in the WHL, but he makes his physical presence felt.

“It’s a totally different season and level of hockey moving from minor to the WHL,” Kanzig said. “The first year is a big learning experience. I really enjoyed it and I love the game. It’s been enjoyable to play so much hockey, and also to have great teammates and a good coaching staff that have helped me along the way.”

The defensive corps in Victoria this season consisted of Travis Brown (CHI), who was acquired from the Moose Jaw Warriors at the trade deadline; 20-year-old Jordan Fransoo, who was drafted in 2011 by the Ottawa Senators but went unsigned; Joe Hicketts, who is highly-touted heading into the 2014 NHL Draft; Chaz Reddekopp, Ryan Gagnon, Bret Cote and Jake Kolhauser. The Royals gave up a total of 181 goals during the regular season, the second fewest in the WHL behind the Edmonton Oil Kings’ total of 179.

“We had some success coming into the end of the regular season here,” Kanzig said. “I think that we’ve all just been working hard to buy into the team game. There isn’t anyone playing like an individual or trying to do their own thing out there. The playoffs is a totally different season and we have to make sure that we can be even better.”

The Royals did establish themselves during the regular season as an upper echelon team, posting a 48-20-1-3 record that was good for second place in the B.C Division and third overall in the Western Conference. After bouncing the Spokane Chiefs from the 2014 playoffs in the first round, Victoria succumbed to the high-octane Portland Winterhawks in round two.

For Kanzig, the exit from the WHL post-season resulted in a short ferry ride from Victoria to the mainland, followed by a quick drive over to Abbottsford. He will finish the current campaign with the Heat as the Calgary Flames’ affiliate battles through the American Hockey League playoffs.

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51