2024 Cincinnati Cyclones vs Indy Fuel

Walleye's Keenan, K-Wings' Vorva Among 10 Most Underrated ECHL Players

Walleye's Keenan, K-Wings' Vorva Among 10 Most Underrated ECHL Players

So much attention goes to the scorers, big-shooting defensemen and standout goalies. Now, it's time to give some love to the ECHL's underrated contributors.

Feb 26, 2024 by Justin Cohn

We all give a lot of love to the big scorers in the ECHL, the Brandon Hawkins and Wade Murphys of this world. And, of course, we love those big-shooting defensemen like Matt Register and Jalen Smereck. And the highlight-making goaltenders, such as Cam Johnson.

But we also all know you can’t win hockey games without great depth. 

Those players who win key faceoffs, rack up shot blocks and score goals when the top-liners are shut down, they’re ultimately of great importance, too, even if they don’t get the publicity.

So, let’s take a moment to give some love to the players few ever talk about. Here are my top 10 criminally underrated players in the ECHL:

10. Ryan Wheeler, Adirondack Thunder

I watched a good bit of Wheeler last season as a defenseman with the Iowa Heartlanders. They weren’t a good team in their own zone, and Wheeler certainly had his troubles, too, going minus-17 over 59 games. But there were times he looked outstanding, blending reliable defense with physicality.

This season, with the Thunder, he’s rounded things out and has three goals, 13 points, a plus-5 rating and 29 penalty minutes in 39 games.

Adirondack is fourth in the league defensively with 2.69 goals against per game, a big reason it’s atop the North Division, and Wheeler, 26, is a key cog in the success as he marks opposing high-flying forwards.

9. Jackson Leppard, South Carolina Stingrays

Even as a rookie during the 2021-2022 season, Leppard was an underrated wing. He had 20 goals, and people didn’t notice because his team, the Allen Americans, had Chad Costello, Jack Combs, Spencer Asuchak and Brandon Troock all potting more.

With the Stingrays for the last year and a half, Leppard, 24, has rounded out the defensive parts of his game and became good in all spots.

He has 10 goals, 26 points, a plus-9 rating and 82 penalty minutes in 46 games. Yeah, about those penalty minutes – he’ll get his nose dirty, and that has been important for the Stingrays.

8. Conlan Keenan, Toledo Walleye

On several teams, Keenan, 28, would be the most feared center. But because he’s with the high-firing Walleye – who have Brandon Hawkins, Orrin Centazzo, Trenton Bliss, Sam Craggs, Brandon Kruse and Mitchell Lewandoski – people tend to forget just how good Keenan is.

In 47 games this season, he’s got 18 goals, 30 points, a plus-1 rating and 34 penalty minutes. That includes no points on power plays, which is sort of crazy when you think about it.

I would like to see some more production in the playoffs from Keenan, who has four assists in 19 games, but with this season’s team, he’s able to focus on being defensively reliable and not forcing anything offensively.

7. Marc-Olivier Duquette, Kansas City Mavericks

Wherever Duquette has played – including Fort Wayne, Wheeling and Maine – the defenseman has looked solid. He’ll use his 6-foot-4, 210-pound size to batter opposing forwards and will chip in plenty of offense.

It’s almost amazing he hasn’t stuck anywhere. That might change with the Mavericks, who are a league-best 36-9-3.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the Mavericks’ third-ranked offense (4.17 goals per game), but the defense also is ranked third (2.67 goals against per game) and Duquette is a big part of that.

In 49 games, he has five goals, 21 points, a plus-27 rating and 48 penalty minutes.

6. Rylan Parenteau, Cincinnati Cyclones

It’s even more shocking that Parenteau hasn’t stuck anywhere, after stints in net with Newfoundland, Toledo (twice), Fort Wayne and Trois-Rivières.

Parenteau proved with Fort Wayne last season he could steal games – one Scorpion-like save in particular made highlight reels everywhere – though he still needs to prove he can do it over an entire playoff series.

When he joined the Cyclones this month, it was clear he was their best option in net. He’s gone 3-2-0 with a .909 SP and a 3.20 GAA with Cincinnati, which also has Olof Lindbom and Talyn Boyko.

5. Jérémie Biakabutuka, Orlando Solar Bears

This may seem like an odd choice, since Biakabutuka has an NHL contract with the St. Louis Blues, but I feel as if not many people group him among the big NHL prospects in the league.

The 21-year-old defenseman has transitioned seamlessly as a rookie out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – he has four goals, 17 points, a plus-2 rating and 27 penalty minutes in 49 games for Orlando – and brings a solid, physical presence to the blue line. He’s had to match up against some outstanding offensive players in the South Division and has held up well.

I’m excited to see what Biakabutuka does in playoff hockey – if the Solar Bears can ascend from fifth place in the division – because he seems to be the type of player who’d excel in big games.

4. Jason Pineo, Wichita Thunder

I knew Pineo, 25, was a high-energy forward who could impact games at both ends. I knew he could be a solid defensive forward. What I didn’t know was how good he was offensively, not until I watched him beat up on the Fort Wayne Komets recently in back-to-back games.

Pineo clearly has gained some confidence – he has five goals over his last 12 games – and he’s totaled nine goals, 17 points, a minus-15 rating and 59 penalty minutes in 51 games this season.

Wichita has had a tough 17-26-7 season, so I wouldn’t sweat Pineo’s plus/minus rating too much. He’s been seeing more ice time in high-leverage situations lately, and the Niagara University product has been taking advantage.

3. Yuki Miura, Iowa Heartlanders

Nothing in Miura’s game is flashy, but he’s reliable in all 200 feet of the rink. And opportunistic on offense.

In 52 games this season, the forward has nine goals, 27 points, only 18 penalty minutes and a minus-2 rating, which actually is one of the best on the team.

Miura is in his third season with the Heartlanders. 

Not surprisingly, given his full-throttle game and work teaching young hockey players in the community, he’s popular with the fans in Coralville, Iowa, but I can’t help but wonder what he’d be doing if he were a third-line center on a team with more talent.

The Heartlanders are on the upswing, though, and would be wise to hang onto the 27-year-old from Lake Superior State University. He’s the type of multi-faceted role player every good team needs.

2. Darick Louis-Jean, Norfolk Admirals

A defenseman who’s solid in his own zone, can chip in offensively and will fight, that’s a bit of a unicorn in the ECHL – but that description fits Louis-Jean, 23, who was skating in the Southern Professional Hockey League two seasons ago.

In 45 games this season games for the Admirals, he’s got five goals, 16 points, a plus-16 rating and 58 penalty minutes. That includes six fights.

The Admirals, who joined the ECHL in 2015, are on pace to make the playoffs for the first time. 

The job Jeff Carr has done as head coach since taking over in November 2022 has been terrific, and one thing he did was identify a good nucleus in the second half of last season and bring it back. Louis-Jean, a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League product, was part of it.

With each punishing check he delivers, it’s a reminder that was a wise choice.

1. Hunter Vorva, Kalamazoo Wings

Look, I’m a sucker for anyone playing in his hometown, as Vorva – who hails from Kalamazoo, Michigan – is for the Wings.

I’m also a sucker for any player who works his way up from the Southern Professional Hockey League and carves out a role at the ECHL level, as Vorva has, after playing 35 games for the SPHL’s Huntsville Havoc between 2021 and 2022.

But story aside, he’s just dang good.

I’ve given a lot of love to Kalamazoo’s No. 1 goalie, Jonathan Lemieux this season. I think he’s a legit prospect for the higher-level American Hockey League and already has an AHL contract with Abbotsford. But Vorva might scare opponents more than Lemieux when it comes to taking over games. 

Vorva is not big at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, but he’s an acrobatic throwback to someone like, oh, Mike Vernon, and seems to thrive when facing a ton of shots.

If Kalamazoo makes the playoffs – and right now, they’re on pace to do that – I would assume Lemieux starts Game 1. But if Vorva gets called upon, I could see him getting hot and maybe taking over a series.

Vorva, 28, is 13-6-0 with a .926 save percentage (third among goalies with at least 960 minutes played), a 2.33 goals-against average (fourth) and two shutouts. He might be the best No. 2 goalie in the league.

By comparison, Lemieux, 22, is 13-14-2 with a .910 save percentage, a 2.89 GAA and one shutout.

Honorable Mentions

Easton Brodzinski, Allen Americans: The opportunistic goal-scoring forward has 19 goals on only 95 shots.

Jack Gorniak, Fort Wayne Komets: If there’s a faster forward in the ECHL this season, I haven’t seen him.

D.J. King, Indy Fuel: He plays with an edge and has offensive upside as a defenseman.

Joe Vrbetic, Trois-Rivières Lions: He’s been an absolute workhorse goalie this season, keeping the Lions in the playoff hunt.

Connor Welsh, Worcester Railers: This defenseman has manned the No. 1 power-play unit and been trustworthy in own end.