Joe Hicketts has always been defined by his size. The 5’8” left-handed defenseman went undrafted because he was deemed too small for the NHL. When the Red Wings signed him to an entry level deal in 2014-15, he was determined to prove everyone wrong. This determination has brought him a gold medal at the 2014-15 World Junior Championships as a member of Team Canada and a Calder Cup in 2016-17 with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Now, it’s closer to ever at paying off as Hicketts battles for a regular roster spot with the Red Wings.
After Hicketts had a solid season in 2016-17 where he was second among team defensemen in points-per-game, he put up an even more solid training camp last year. It was highlighted by an energetic shift during an exhibition game where he unloaded on the Toronto Maple Leafs, rocking Jake Gardiner in his own end and skating back to take out Tyler Bozak in the neutral zone.
It showed a hunger and eagerness that we hadn’t seen in a Red Wings defenseman for a very long time. It also showed Hicketts’ greatest quality: he plays a big game despite his small size. He’s not afraid to jump into the play or lay a big hit. Jeff Blashill referred to him as a “gamer” and I think the Wings believe in him far more than any other team in the league does.
Alas, Hicketts was not able to jump the likes of Nick Jensen or Xavier Ouellet on the depth chart and he was sent back to Grand Rapids to start the season in the AHL.
There, he put up a lacklustre performance compared to the year prior as some of the defensemen around him, most notably Filip Hronek, began to come into their own. Suddenly, he went from being second in points-per-game to seventh among team defensemen.
Regardless of this, Hicketts got the call-up when Mike Green was sidelined for the rest of the season in late-March. He played in five games, putting up three points (all assists) and one multi-point game. He was returned to Grand Rapids at the end of the NHL season for the Griffins’ playoff run.
So what happened to Hicketts last year? In my opinion, it was a classic case of Red Wings over-ripening. After a solid year and an even better pre-season, Hicketts probably deserved to be on the team at the start of last year. When he wasn’t, there was likely a little bit of deflation in his confidence, similar to what happened with Evgeny Svechnikov.
Looking ahead to the 2018-19 season, the Wings currently have a seventh defense spot open, with the top-6 already being occupied by experienced NHL defensemen. So that seventh defenseman will likely start in the press box, but it at least gives him a better chance at outplaying the top-6 and earning a regular spot on the ice.
The problem for Hicketts is that Hronek made great strides in his development last season to the point where he might be ready for the NHL. And he has a higher ceiling than Hicketts does.
I’m not writing Hicketts off completely. As it currently stands, I think he has the best chance of snagging that seventh roster spot, but he’s got some serious competition. The little defenseman has fought and clawed his way through his entire hockey career and this may be his hardest battle yet.
It’s time for Hicketts to dig even deeper because it’s never before been more sink or swim for him. He’s always made himself look bigger than he actually is. Come September, we’ll see if he can go just a little bigger.