At 5-foot-8, the deck was always going to be stacked against defenseman Joe Hicketts. But the standout for the Western League's Victoria Royals is quickly showing the rest of the country what he can do at Team Canada's world junior camp and the Detroit Red Wings free agent signing is already making the NHL look silly for passing on him at the 2014 draft.
That's right, one of eight D-men left on Canada's preliminary roster wasn't even among the best 210 players available this summer, if you went by what the league's GMs and scouting staffs had decided. But the Red Wings – of course it was the Red Wings – saw something in the youngster and invited him to their rookie development camp. From there, he did enough to warrant a spot at the Traverse City prospects tournament, where he combined a great physical game with offensive talent. Detroit signed him soon after.
“I got to play at a pace and with a lot of bigger guys," Hicketts said of the tourney. "I saw a lot of the top players from the OHL and QMJHL. For me to get that experience was important.”
At Canada's exhibition game on Saturday night, Hicketts was once again a highly efficient player during a 10-3 shellacking of a team comprised of Canadian University players (many of whom played in the Ontario League when they were younger). His 5-foot-8, 186-pound frame doesn't stop him from grinding in the corners and he made numerous smart decisions during the evening.
"He's strong in the defensive zone for a little guy and he can put up some numbers and be offensive," said fellow Team Canada blueliner Madison Bowey, who plays in the WHL for Kelowna. "He works hard and I know he can bring a solid two-way game to the defensive corps."
On top of his size, a shoulder injury limited Hicketts to 36 games with the Royals last season, which also hurt his draft stock. But he wasn't exactly off the radar, either: Hicketts did help Canada win gold at the summer's Ivan Hlinka tournament prior to the 2013-14 campaign. Nonetheless, his resume apparently didn't impress enough at the time and it already appears as though 30 teams made a mistake at the draft.
“They saw something in other guys that they obviously didn’t see in me," Hicketts said. "I was happy to get the opportunity with Detroit and they’ve been nothing but good to me. To get an opportunity to sign with a team that has a great history in developing players – free agents, first rounders, seventh rounders – you look down their roster and I think that was the right team to go to.”
With his shoulder healed, Hicketts has been on a tear for the Royals this season, putting up 38 points in 31 games to lead the WHL in scoring from the blueline. Now there's a very good chance that he makes the final cut with Team Canada, as only one more blueliner will get the ax. The fact Colorado pick Chris Bigras was sent home will help, since Bigras is a 19-year-old who actually made the squad last year.
Along with Hicketts, another 5-foot-8 player for Canada had a great weekend too. Tampa Bay third-rounder Brayden Point also brought a feisty attitude and scoring prowess to the roster and the leading light for the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors survived a round of cuts as well.
While size and physicality is a natural advantage for Canada at these tournaments, it has also put a target on the players' backs when it comes to international officiating. If players such as Hicketts and Point can get the job done without being behemoths, that may help the team overall in real game situations.
In the meantime, it's cool to think that an undrafted 5-foot-8 defenseman could be among the best 20 skaters in Canada when the tournament hits Montreal and Toronto later this month.