Keegan Kanzig is making the most of his WHL return

It’s easy to be cynical about Calgary Flames prospect Keegan Kanzig.

The third-round selection of the club in the 2013 NHL Draft was selected after first rounders Sean Monahan, Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk, all of whom are playing professional hockey right now. He was selected before guys like Anthony Duclair and Anton Slepyshev, who have both played in the NHL already.

Kanzig? After an all-too-brief sojourn into the professional ranks in the fall, he’s back in a familiar spot: on the Calgary Hitmen blueline. But given the organization’s log-jam of young defenders and where he is in his development, it might not necessarily be a bad thing for him in the long run.

The 2015-16 season was supposed to be a coming out party for Kanzig. Drafted for his size and the defensive advantage provided by his freakishly long reach, he was traded to the Hitmen in November 2014 from the Victoria Royals. He turned 20 the following February, and the expectation was he’d make the jump to the pros – already possessing pro size – in the Flames minor league system the following season.

Instead Kanzig played a lengthy waiting game: he waited in the pre-season but didn’t get into any games with the Flames, and waited some more with the AHL’s Stockton Heat but only got into a single game. Eventually he was returned to the WHL on Nov. 5, where he finally got a chance to play some hockey.

“It was a little uncertain,” said Kanzig on the whole early-season experience. “I did my best to focus on just playing my game and that’s what I did. Unfortunately it wasn’t good enough to stick at the pro level, and they thought it would be better for my development to come back to juniors. And I just had to run with it, and that’s what I did.”

While Kanzig has become a big piece of the Hitmen – he’s both their biggest player, one of their three over-agers and an alternate captain – he admits feeling some negativity at first to returning to the WHL.

“At first, obviously there’s some frustration there because I was hoping to stick and play at the pro level in Stockton,” said Kanzig. “So I was disappointed to get sent down. Once it kind of sunk in, I didn’t have much choice but to make the best of it and really focus on being a crucial part of the team down here in Calgary.”

Hitmen head coach Mark French praised Kanzig for his maturity and leadership on a pretty young junior team.

“I think like anybody he was a little disappointed coming back,” said French. “I think he had his mind set around being a pro. But we probably saw that for about 12 hours, and he quickly reset, and he automatically became a leader in our room, wanted to take a real lead role within our group being an overage guy in the room and on the ice, and I think he’s done a real good job of that.”

While the brief pro hockey experiment didn’t end the way Kanzig (and probably the Flames) wanted it to this season, it wasn’t a total wash for young man. He learned some lessons down in Stockton.

“It was a good learning experience,” said Kanzig. “I learned a lot about what the compete level is at that level, the pace that’s involved not just in the games but in the practices. And just what it’s all about down there, and how tough it is sometimes to be out of the line-up. I think it’ll be good mentally for me to have gone through that next year and be a little more prepared for some of the adversity that I might have to face.”

Is it ideal for an almost 21-year-old defender – his birthday is in February – to be playing junior hockey? Generally no. But Kanzig’s return to the WHL has corresponded with the emergence of some never-before-seen offensive swagger in his game. He nearly scored a hat-trick in Calgary’s Dec. 30 win over Lethbridge and had another two-goal performance on Jan. 9 in Edmonton – his first multi-goal performances probably in a decade. It’s unlikely that he’d be getting the ice-time or puck touches at the pro level to create that kind of confidence with the puck.

And sure, he’s physically bigger and older than the majority of the players he’s facing. Given his circumstances, that might have been the point.

“I think that was a consideration when Calgary sent him back,” said French. “I think we knew that he’d be probably stronger than most of the guys, but it’s one thing to go out and play with that strength every night and he does that. He’s certainly showing that he is that, but I think he had a lot that he could still benefit by coming back… like his puck control and some of his puck abilities that certainly still needed to improve for him to play at that next level. It’s nice to see him starting to work on those things, excelling at some of what his strengths already are, but maybe improving some of the areas that needed improved as well.”

Kanzig was drafted where he was drafted. Now it’s up to the Flames organization to develop him and maximize him as an asset. Given the log-jam of blueliners in Stockton this season, sending Kanzig to the Hitmen has given him a chance to round himself out as a strong major-junior defenseman and a big contributor to the team’s success.

We’ll have to wait until next season to see if he can become even more than that.