In recent years, there has been increased attention paid by NHL scouts to the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and other Junior A leagues. As players such as Kyle Turris and Jamie Benn have demonstrated, playing BCHL prior to one’s draft year need not impede one’s hopes of attaining an NHL career.
Reece Willcox, the Flyers’ fifth-round selection (No. 141 overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft, is among the latest BCHL players to emerge as a future candidate for NHL play. Originally selected by the Portland Winterhawks in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, he ended up playing for the BCHL’s Merritt Centennials.
“Originally, my goal was to play for Portland, but I wasn’t ready for it as a 16-year-old,” Willcox said. “Things went well with Merritt, so I stayed with them last season and I focused my goal on playing college hockey.”
Although his WHL rights were recently traded from Portland to the Everett Silvertips as part of a deal for the rights to defenseman Seth Jones, Willcox has accepted a scholarship to Cornell University. An intelligent young man, the 18-year-old won the Centennials’ Athlete-Scholar Award last season for his combined strong academic performance as well as his standout play on the ice.
“I narrowed my choices down to about three or four schools, and most of them happened to be in the ECAC, so I focused in on that. With Cornell, I saw an opportunity to play for a good hockey program and also to get a good education,” said Willcox.
Central Scouting ranked the 6-foot-2, 185-pound defenseman 90th among North American skaters in its final rankings prior to the 2012 Draft. The right-handed shooting defenseman enjoyed a strong season in 2011-12, earning second-team BCHL All-Star honors.
Chris Pryor, the Flyers director of hockey operations, noted of Willcox that the player possesses many of the key attributes that NHL scouts value in defense prospects: natural athleticism and skill, above-average skating skills and two-way hockey smarts.
Although Willcox did not post eye-popping offensive stats (5 goals, 23 points in 52 games) for Merritt last season, he was considered one of the top puck-moving defensemen in the league. In his own zone, he was especially noted for his ability to remain poised under pressure. Although he is not especially physical (26 penalty minutes), he is not afraid of contact. Willcox gained the reputation for being able to contain opposing forwards without taking penalties.
“I think my two-way ability and my skating are the biggest assets in my game,” said Willcox. “I try to focus my game on taking care of things defensively, making a good first pass on the breakout and things like that.”
Last season, Willcox represented Canada West at the 2011 World Junior A Challenge in Langley, BC. Apart from taking away a gold medal, the young defenseman came away with a valuable learning experience.
“I didn’t get as much playing time as I would have liked, but it was a really neat thing to be part of it,” said Willcox. “Any time you can represent your country and play with a good group of players is something that’s definitely a positive.”
When the Flyers selected Willcox in the 2012 Draft, he became the highest drafted Centennials players since the Pittsburgh Penguins chose Casey Pierro-Zabotel with the 80th overall pick of the 2007 Draft. The player was thrilled to be chosen by Philadelphia.
“Obviously, it’s a great thing to be drafted by any NHL team, but when it’s one of the top franchises, it’s even more special. There’s a great hockey tradition in Philadelphia and the Flyers are usually one of the top contenders, so I was really happy about that,” said Willcox.
One of the advantages to drafting college-bound players is that NHL teams have the duration of their NCAA eligibility to evaluate and potentially sign them to entry-level contracts. As such, the Flyers will have a maximum of four years to track Willcox’s progress and decide whether to sign him. Conversely, NHL teams have a flat two-year window for signing major junior players.
An attendee at the Flyers’ Summer Development Camp, Willcox realizes that a professional future may still be a few years away. He hopes to absorb as much as possible from the camp and gain ice time as a freshman at Cornell next season.
“This isn’t a tryout camp, it’s about skill development,” Willcox said. “So I’m just trying to work on my skills, hear what the instructors have to say and keep going. I know I’m going to have to work hard to get a shot at playing for the Flyers eventually.”