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Red Wings Top 25 Under 25: Joe Hicketts Cleanly Exits the Zone at 11

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NHL: Preseason-Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Player Vitals:

Position: Defense

Height/Weight: 5’8”, 177 pounds

Shoots: Left

Birthday: May 4, 1996 (22 years old)

Birthplace: Kamloops, BC

Drafted: Undrafted (2014 NHL Entry Draft)

Contract: 3 years, $635,000 AAV (ELC - 2 years of entry level slide). Expires after 2018-19 season as RFA.

Last Season

In 2017-18, the diminutive Detroit defenseman made a very strong case in training camp and pre-season that he deserved to start the season in the NHL. Instead, he began the season in Grand Rapids.

An October article by Katie Strang in The Athletic Detroit (Paywall) illustrated that it wasn’t just fans who thought Hicketts showed he belongs in the NHL:

Then the Red Wings played him in an exhibition game against the talented Toronto Maple Leafs and got answers.

“The question was, ‘How is Joe gonna handle the speed of the National Hockey League if he gets the call?’ and we threw him in the game against Toronto, and Toronto had pretty much their whole lineup, and I thought he handled himself great,” [former Griffins head coach Todd] Nelson recalled.

Nelson feels he proved during camp he can run a power play at the NHL level as well, though this will be an area in which he’ll continue to get reps. Knuble said he’s shown the moxie and the smarts to handle this task; the final test might be simply throwing him into the fire to see how he will do.

He did not have an AHL season to write home about, stats-wise. Having shown an ability to provide some offense from the back end in his brief time in the NHL, his 12 points in the AHL was disappointing, especially considering he led the Griffins’ defense in the 2016-17 regular season in points with 34.

For AHL players, we don’t have access to nearly the same amount of statistics available for NHL players. Also, since Hicketts only played 5 NHL games this season, his sample size is too small to put much stock in his NHL numbers this year.

So, while Hicketts’ Goals Above Replacement per 60 was the highest for all Detroit skaters in 2017-18 (0.4), it would be a mistake to say that tells us very much. To me, the most we can take from it is that in his five NHL games this season, he was not in over his head, which matched the eye-test on his NHL games.

So why the difference between his play in the AHL and NHL? An article by Craig Custance in The Athletic Detroit (Paywall), written when Detroit had an opening on defense, but likely for one game, has a section that provides one hypothesis:

One NHL scout, who tracks AHL players closely, said there is a risk you run when calling up a young player for just a taste of the NHL. Even if it comes with the best of intentions, it can lead to a deflated attitude. Especially if it goes well in that brief opportunity.

“When you bring a guy up and send him down, their attitude usually sucks,” said the Eastern Conference scout. “It’s like, ‘I played well, was a plus-2 and I’m going back down?’ You’re on the private jets, great meals, you’re playing with (Henrik) Zetterberg and playing against (Sidney) Crosby and you’re like, ‘What do you mean I’m going back down?’ Then, the American League sucks, you have a bad attitude and you’re playing like crap and it takes two months to get out of it.”

I want to be clear here that I’m not saying I think Hicketts had a bad attitude when he didn’t make the team out of training camp, or when he was returned to the AHL after his four game stint. Since Hicketts played well in the pre-season without earning a spot in the NHL, then played well in a four-game stint from March 27 through April 3, it would make sense that returning the the AHL would be disappointing, even if a player is trying to make the best of it. I’ve long maintained that Hicketts should have made the team out of training camp, and the fact that he didn’t was roster mismanagement.

Of course, this is just one potential reason for his lackluster numbers in the AHL this season. We know the fact that the undrafted Hicketts has made it this far is a testament to his heart and work ethic. From the previously mentioned Strang article, people in the Detroit development team have raved about both those qualities:

“He’s hard not to like,” Griffins head coach Todd Nelson told The Athletic. “The fans all know when Joe Hicketts is out there, because it’s a little guy out there playing with the heart of a lion.”

Strengths and Weaknesses

Since Hicketts didn’t play enough NHL minutes to really look at his stats, I wanted to use some video to show how he performed in the NHL. I went back and watched all his shifts in the game against Pittsburgh on March 27th, the first game of his four game run.

This game featured many examples of the value Hicketts can bring to the Red Wings, as well as a few things he still needs to work on. In this game, the vast majority of his noticeable plays were positive, at least 90/10, if not greater.

On his very first shift of the game, Dylan Larkin tried to pass back to Hicketts, but it was intercepted. Hicketts hustled back and played the resulting two-on-one the best he could. He angled Jake Guentzel to the side so if he shot, it would have been from a wide-angle. At the same time, he used his stick to attempt to block the cross-crease pass. Even without the recipient being Sidney Crosby, this was the more dangerous scoring chance.

Danny Dekeyser fell on the play, and Darren Helm went to Guentzel instead of Crosby. The Penguins superstar took a great saucer pass from his winger and put it in for the first goal of the game.

Not a great start to the game, but it’s hard to fault Hicketts on this play.

In this next clip, Hicketts shows he has the ability to play quarterback on a power play at the NHL level. In part one, he carries the puck out of the zone and dumps the puck to an area where Anthony Mantha will be the first to arrive. As Mantha takes control of the puck, Hicketts skates in front of the net, providing a passing option if Mantha had less pressure when receiving the puck. When that doesn’t work, he backs up into an open space to give an option at the point.

The next clip picks up where the above one left off, and Hicketts receives the puck at the point. He fakes the shot and passes to Nielsen, who passes back. On a team that had the tendency to overpass the puck on the power play, Hicketts taking the available shot is refreshing. After he gets the puck back, his pass to Nielsen could have been quicker, and the Wings lose zone possession shortly after this clip ends. At the same time, if he had gone point-to-point there, a pass that was slightly off could have led to a breakaway the other way, so he makes the safest play.

As I said above, the vast majority of what Hicketts did in this game was promising, but he still has things to work on at the NHL level, which is understandable. The next clip shows how a bad pass by Hicketts led to a dangerous scoring chance against. After the pass is intercepted, he recovers to a position where he can keep Crosby from a tap-in at the back post, but its a chance that shouldn’t have happened. He didn’t have a clear great play, since a Penguin was blocking the pass out to the blue line, but rimming it up the boards to at least clear the zone would have been a better option here.

It should be emphasized that in this game, Hicketts made a smart play the majority of the time. Out of 17:40 played over 24 shifts, he only made two plays where he had a clear better option.

One of the questions about Hicketts has been his size. With one exception, he was not physically overmatched by the Pittsburgh players. He finished the game with 6 blocks, and these were not plays that took him out of position. He was in the correct position to have his body in between the shot and the net.

This can be seen in the next clip. It’s not an overly special play, but Hicketts falls back to a position by the net where he is able to block the shot and shield it until Nielsen can pick it up to begin a play that should have led to a clean zone exit.

The next clip shows him body up Evgeni Malkin, no easy task, and make a quick play with his stick to keep possession with Detroit.

Any analysis of this game would be incomplete if it didn’t include Hicketts’ first two NHL points, both on secondary assists. He didn’t do anything special on these plays, but he was in the right place and made the right play to set up the primary assist man.

Adding Joe Hicketts to the Red Wings defensive corps all of last season would not have solved all their defensive woes. His ceiling is probably a 4/5 defenseman who can step in and run the power play on a good team. But on a Detroit team that so often struggled to exit the zone cleanly and with possession, Hicketts would have helped.

What’s Next for Joe Hicketts?

That’s a very good question, and it depends on a variety of factors.

It appears likely there will be a spot for at least one defenseman who was not an NHL regular last season. It also appears likely that Filip Hronek has passed Hicketts on the list of next NHL ready defenseman, and Dennis Cholowski possibly has as well. Libor Sulak and Vili Saarijarvi could also be in the mix.

One disappointing sign for fans hopeful to see Hicketts next season is that his name is seldom mentioned in the first group of young defenseman by people like Ken Holland and Detroit beat writers.

In this writer’s opinion, Joe Hicketts has, at the very least, earned a long stretch of games to prove he can maintain the play he had in the NHL last year. We’ll see if that happens.


Poll

Do you agree with Hicketts at 11?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Yes
    (273 votes)
  • 30%
    He should be higher (closer to #1)
    (161 votes)
  • 17%
    He should be lower (closer to #25)
    (95 votes)
529 votes total Vote Now

WIIM Top 25 Under 25 Rankings So Far

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15. Givani Smith, Grand Rapids Griffins, AHL
16. Vili Saarijarvi, Grand Rapids, AHL
17. Keith Petruzelli, Quinnipiac University, NCAA
18. Dominic Turgeon, Grand Rapids, AHL
19. Gustav Lindstrom, Frolunda, SHL
20. Jared McIsaac, Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL
21. Filip Larsson, University of Denver, NCAA
22. Christoffer Ehn, Frolunda, SHL
23. Alex Regula, London Knights, OHL
24. Axel Holmstrom, Grand Rapids Griffins, AHL
25. Jack Adams, Union College, NCAA