Defensemen Ryan Wheeler, Jake Stevens back with Iowa Heartlanders

After the blueliners signed with the Heartlanders late last season, they have inked contracts for the upcoming campaign.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa defenseman Jake Stevens lines a puck during a hockey match between Iowa and Wheeling at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. The Nailers defeated the Heartlanders, 6-4.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

Two defensemen who signed with the Iowa Heartlanders late in their inaugural season are back with the club for the 2022-23 campaign.

Ryan Wheeler and Jake Stevens have inked ECHL contracts with the Heartlanders for the upcoming season, the franchise announced Thursday. The blueliners initially agreed to terms with the Heartlanders in 2021-22 after they finished their college careers.

Wheeler, who competed for four seasons at the University of Connecticut, appeared in 12 games and recorded one assist for the Heartlanders after he joined them on March 24. He said he loved every minute of his experience with Iowa and trusts the coaching staff to continue his development, noting he’s extremely comfortable returning.

“It was a good taste of that league,” Wheeler said. “Small sample size, but it gave me what I want to work on this summer and keep improving on. I learned how to be successful defensively, good stick positioning, stuff like that, just little things but also offensively where my game can grow and how to grow it this summer.”

As he practices in western New York during the offseason, Wheeler is focusing on shooting. The six-foot defenseman said he was involved in a lot of scoring chances with the Heartlanders because he joined the rush a lot.

The left-handed shooter likes to think of himself as a two-way skater and wants to create offense. In 108 contests at Connecticut, he totaled four goals and eight assists. Wheeler is also working on strengthening his skating as he believes it’s a strong part of his game.

On the other hand, Stevens came to Coralville after four seasons at St. Lawrence University and one season at Long Island University. Though Stevens played at two east coast schools, he’s from the Midwest, as he grew up in Naperville, Illinois.

“I did have a pretty good experience while I was at Iowa,” Stevens said. “I guess I always figured, you want to go where you’re wanted, you want to go where you’re comfortable. You can just worry about taking care of your job, and I feel like just when I thought about Iowa, I felt like that’s the best place that I can do it.”

In 11 contests as a Heartlander — with his professional debut on March 26 — the right-handed shooter put up one goal and seven assists.

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Last season, the Heartlanders first signed Stevens to an amateur tryout contract. After Stevens impressed them in his first five games, the Heartlanders offered him a standard ECHL contract, which the 6-foot-2 defenseman accepted.

During his stint in the ECHL last season, he said it took him a couple of games to become comfortable as he tried to learn the tricks of the trade and play simpler. He realized the forwards were good in the league, meaning that he knew he could pass the puck to them to make goals happen.

Stevens said he’s been in Las Vegas this summer as he’s seeing family and golfing but is returning to Chicago on Friday for more heavy training and ice time. So far, the 25-year-old has been focused on pushing his mental side into a good place.

The Heartlanders will begin the 2022-23 season on Oct. 21 against the Idaho Steelheads at 7:05 p.m. inside Xtream Arena.