AHHHH!!! Bobby!! Robby actually picked me over you!!! Only because he had to!!!
[Ed. Note: Earlier today, SK offered up Cam Fowler and Andrew Cogliano as the most important young defenseman and young forward for the Ducks this coming season. Let's see who Robby decided to pick...]
While the obvious choice here would appear to be Cam Fowler, I think a strong showing from Luca Sbisa will be equally important for the Ducks this season. Whereas Fowler put up 40 points in his first 76 games at the NHL level, Sbisa has only recorded 18 points in 115 career NHL games. And while Luca does not have the scoring touch that Cam has displayed, he's shown to be a more sound defender than Fowler. Cam's -25 rating is probably not the best indicator of his defensive abilities (playing with Paul Mara and Andreas Lilja might have something to do with that), but he has clearly struggled at times in his own end. Sbisa, on the other hand, has developed a reputation as a solid defender with the ability to eliminate players on his own end with devastating hits and solid positioning.
The biggest challenge Sbisa will face this year is maintaining his defensive prowess while developing his offensive game further. As he has shown at times both last season and to great effect this pre-season, Luca can be a solid puck-mover when given the space and opportunity. He also has one of the hardest shots on the team, and I'd like to see him earn some second-unit PP time this year to further develop that component of his game (he only averaged 1:18 of PP time per game last season). While Toni Lydman recovers from his shoulder surgery, Luca will reprise the Finn's role as the defensive stalwart to Lubomir Visnovsky's offensive prodigy. After Lydman comes back, though, Sbisa's ice time and potential partnership becomes a little bit harder to guess. I personally would like to see Luca paired with Francois Beauchemin. Not only would that pairing provide some serious shutdown potential, but Beauchemin is defensively responsible enough to give Luca some offensive leeway.
I fully expect Cam to grow and deliver an even better performance this year. But that's part of why I think Sbisa's performance will be so pivotal. Nobody is really counting on him to deliver like Fowler. But if Luca is able to end up closer to an even rating while upping his offensive production, the Ducks should be in great shape.
At the end of last season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Brandon McMillan was going to earn added playing time and a more prominent role in 2011-2012. The acquisition of Andrew Cogliano, the emergence of Andrew Gordon, and the physicality of Devante Smith-Pelly have left McMillan searching for time on the fourth line alongside Maxime Macenaeur and George Parros. While Randy Carlyle briefly flirted with McMillan in Jason Blake's spot on the second line, Brandon currently seems destined for an energy role. In my opinion, this would be a gross misuse of assets.
In 60 NHL games last year, McMillan earned 21 points while averaging 2:02 of shorthanded time each night. Although he came up as a center, McMillan ended up seeing more time as a LW as a result of his dismal 38.9 winning percentage in the circle. McMillan did show himself to be a capable penalty killer and his 11 goals were good for 8th best on the team. With some added PP time, and more than 14 minutes a night, McMillan could blossom into a credible top-6 forward, or at least a defensively responsible third liner with offensive upside. While he may not get those opportunities off the bat this season, I think a strong season from McMillan could help the Ducks shore up their third line. I hate to be a cynic, but I doubt that either Gordon or Smith-Pelly hang around for the full year. Whatever happens this year, I hope that McMillan keeps his spirits up and is able to fit into whatever role he is offered. Aside from Saku Koivu, I can't think of a better two-way player on this team and the Ducks will likely need McMillan to assume a more prominent role, sooner rather than later.