Rockets’ Morrissey tops ranking of medal-laden WHL defensemen

By Glen Erickson
Josh Morrissey - Team Canada - 2015 World Junior Championship

Photo: Kelowna Rockets defenseman and Winnipeg Jets prospect Josh Morrissey is one of six WHL defensemen that earned medals at the 2015 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Aaron Bell/CHL Images)


This is the first in a series of articles that ranks by position NHL-drafted prospects from the WHL. This article looks at defensive prospects that are property of NHL clubs who are currently competing in the WHL.

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

Six players in our ranking played in the championship game at the 2015 World Junior Championship in Toronto. Two others attended Team Canada’s WJC selection camp. There are eight Canadians in our ranking along with two import players. It’s an even split as well, with five players from each conference. A total of four players are NHL first round selections. Eight of the 10 have been signed to NHL entry-level contracts.

1. Josh Morrissey (WPG), Kelowna Rockets

Traded to the Rockets from the Prince Albert Raiders on Dec. 10th, Morrissey did not play in Kelowna until Jan. 10th. There was the little matter of chipping in to earn a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 WJC that kept the Calgary native busy.

In joining Kelowna, Morrissey will have a legitimate shot at earning a WHL Championship and a trip to the Memorial Cup. The Rockets are the top team in the WHL, and also own the top power play in the league. His “complete-game” skill set simply makes the Rockets even more daunting.

Morrissey was outstanding last season in the AHL playoffs after his season with the Raiders ended. In St. John’s with the IceCaps, Morrissey appeared in 28 games and established himself as perhaps the premiere defenseman in the Winnipeg system. At 6’ and 185 pounds, Morrissey is able to handle the physical play and has become very capable when initiating contact. The Jets signed Morrissey to an entry-level contract on October 3, 2013.

Morrissey entered the WHL as a member of the Prince Albert Raiders, who made him the sixth overall pick at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. He was selected in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, 13th overall, by the Winnipeg Jets.

2. Madison Bowey (WSH), Kelowna Rockets

At 6’2” and 203 pounds, Bowey is a solid contributor at both ends of the rink. While he is physically capable of defending in front of the Rockets goal, he is also tremendously quick to jump up on the rush. Bowey is the team captain in Kelowna.

A native of Winnipeg, Bowey arrived in Kelowna as a 16-year-old and has gradually progressed to become one of the most effective two-way defensemen in the WHL. With Morrissey joining the Rockets after the WJC, Kelowna is arguably dressing the top two rearguards in the WHL.

The Rockets acquired Bowey in the second round, 23rd overall, of the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. Selected in the second round, 53rd overall, by the Washington Capitals at the 2013 NHL Draft, Bowey has scored 11 goals and added 29 assists in 33 games this season, his fourth in Kelowna. He has been signed by the Capitals.

3. Shea Theodore (ANA), Seattle Thunderbirds

Theodore arrived back in Seattle around mid-November following a six-week rehabilitation stint with the Anaheim Ducks after suffering an injury to his elbow in training camp. He patrols the blueline for the Thunderbirds with maturity and confidence.

Theodore played one game in the 2014 Subway Super Series for Team WHL and was also a member of Team Canada at the WJC. He’s 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 defenseman in the WHL.

The Thunderbirds acquired Theodore in the third round, 64th overall, at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. Selected in the first round, 26th overall, by the Anaheim Ducks at the 2013 NHL Draft, Theodore has scored seven goals and added 12 assists in 18 games this season. He has been signed by the Ducks.

4. Joe Hicketts (DET), Victoria Royals

A complete defenseman with very good offensive skills, Hicketts plays much bigger than his 5’8”, 185-pound frame. He responded well last season after suffering a severe triceps injury, one that required surgery. His absence had an enormous impact on his draft status as curiously, the Kamloops native went undrafted. Surprisingly thick and sturdy, the native of Kamloops, BC has a lengthy and productive history in Hockey Canada programs, which culminated this month with a gold medal as a member of Team Canada at the WJC.

The Royals acquired Hicketts with the 12th overall pick at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Hicketts was eventually signed by the Detroit Red Wings after attending a development camp, the rookie tournament in Traverse City and then the Red Wings main camp. He has scored nine goals and added 35 assists in 39 games this season, his third full campaign with the Royals.

5. Dillon Heatherington (CBJ), Swift Current Broncos

The Calgary native is considered a prototypical shutdown defenseman, but those who watch him frequently suggest that he has more offensive skills than many pundits give him credit for. Heatherington makes good first passes and has proven capable of carrying the puck out of his own end. He is in his fourth full season with the Broncos, and this year was a member of Team Canada at the WJC.

The Broncos acquired Heatherington with the 11th overall pick at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. Selected in the second round, 50th overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2013 NHL Draft, Heatherington has scored once and added 11 assists in 37 games this season. He has appeared in 236 WHL games over four full seasons, all with the Broncos.

6. Rinat Valiev (TOR), Kootenay Ice

After 36 games in the USHL with the Indiana Ice during the 2012-13 season, Valiev moved on to the WHL where he was outstanding during the second half of the 2013-14 season. A big, physical defenseman, Valiev also has very good puck skills. Kootenay uses the Russian in all situations, and by coming to the defense of his teammates on many occasions, he has also established himself as a very gritty, no-nonsense type of player.

The Ice acquired Valiev with the 25th overall pick at the 2013 CHL Import Draft. Selected in the third round, 68th overall, by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2014 NHL Draft, Valiev has scored six times and added 25 assists in 30 games this season, his second in Cranbrook. He earned a silver medal as a member of Team Russia at the WJC, where he watched WHL teammate Sam Reinhart collect a gold medal with Team Canada.

7. Haydn Fleury (CAR), Red Deer Rebels

Fleury has established himself as one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the WHL. He is already pro-sized, checking in at 6’3” and 205 pounds, and is very mobile for a big player. Fleury has had success in Hockey Canada programs, although he was unable to crack Team Canada’s lineup for the 2015 WJC. He could probably play pro hockey next season, though he might benefit as a leader and a key contributor in Red Deer as the Rebels are the host team for the 2016 Memorial Cup.

The Rebels acquired Fleury with the 43rd overall pick at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Selected in the first round, 7th overall, by the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2014 NHL Draft, Fleury has scored three goals and added 14 assists in 38 games this season, his third in Red Deer. He has been signed by the Hurricanes.

8. Travis Sanheim (PHI), Calgary Hitmen

Sanheim improved his stock in somewhat meteoric fashion last season when his playing time increased immensely due to injuries along the Hitmen blueline. When the Hitmen were bounced from the WHL postseason, Sanheim was presented with an opportunity to join Team Canada at the World U18 Championship where he made himself conspicuous with some outstanding offensive play.

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 scored 10 goals and added 33 assists in 44 games this season, his second with Calgary. He has been signed by the Flyers.

9. Keegan Kanzig (CGY), Calgary Hitmen

At 6’7” and 241 pounds, Kanzig is always easy to spot on the ice. He played 234 games with the Victoria Royals before being dealt to the Hitmen in mid-November to bolster a young defensive corps. While not a prolific offensive producer, Kanzig is not shy of physical play. He’s toned down the fisticuffs, due in part to a reduced number of challengers.

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 would relocate to Victoria prior to the 2011-2012 season. Selected in the third round, 67th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft, Kanzig has been signed by the Calgary Flames. He has scored one goal this season, and has collected 14 assists, 121 penalty minutes and +28 rating in 47 games.

10. Anton Cederholm (VAN), Portland Winterhawks

From Helsingborg, Sweden, the 19-year-old Cederholm has played plenty of hockey over two WHL seasons. An integral member of the defensive group, he appeared in a total of 92 games last season for Portland as a WHL rookie. At 6’3” and 215 pounds, Cederholm is among the biggest and most physical rearguards in the WHL. He was scouted by the Vancouver Canucks in Sweden and was drafted into the NHL before his WHL career began.

Cederholm was chosen by the Winterhawks with the 60th pick in the 2013 CHL Import Draft. Selected in the fifth round, 145th overall, by Vancouver at the 2013 NHL Draft, Cederholm has been signed by the Canucks. He has scored six times and added four assists in 47 games this season.

Other Notables

Brett Lernout (MTL), Swift Current Broncos
Tommy Vannelli (STL), Medicine Hat Tigers
Ben Betker (EDM), Everett Silvertips
Mason Geertsen (COL), Vancouver Giants
Nick Walters (STL) Lethbridge Hurricanes
Mitch Wheaton (DET), Kelowna Rockets
Tyler Lewington (WSH), Medicine Hat Tigers
Travis Brown (CHI), Victoria Royals
Marc McNulty (DET), Kamloops Blazers
Eric Roy (CGY), Brandon Wheat Kings
Ben Thomas (TBL), Calgary Hitmen
Ryan Rehill (NJD), Kamloops Blazers
Mackenzie Stewart (VAN), Prince Albert Raiders
Kyle Burroughs (NYI), Medicine Hat Tigers
Nelson Nogier (WPG), Red Deer Rebels
Brycen Martin (BUF), Saskatoon Blades
Aaron Irving (NSH), Edmonton Oil Kings
Dysin Mayo (ARZ), Edmonton Oil Kings

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51