Read this at your own delight or dismay! Went unpublish for a reason, but I decided to post it due to sheer Ducks Hockey Off-Season Boredom. Thought a changeup from the acquisition talks and such to focus on the hockey was needed...
In hindsight, our Ducks Team overachieved mightily for a season that many (not so many here) saw as a rebuilding year in Anaheim. Why, with the departure of future hall member, Scott Niedermayer, it seemed as though the Ducks had a tall task in order of piecing together a defensive unit that could compete at the highest level for a full NHL season last July. Starting the season the way the Ducks did, with 3 blowout loses, it looked as though our boys were destined to live out the season that many "experts" had penned for them.
However, somewhere between the offseason and "on-the-fly" retooling of their backend players, the Ducks formed a rearguard that met the challenge of competing with the world's best offenses and ultimately found themselves in the mix of one of the exciting playoff runs the Western Conference has ever experienced. Obviously, the fairy tale ending was crushed by a pesky Predator team riding Pekka Rinne, but nevertheless our Ducks Defenders came together to make a season out of one experts had us throwing away.
The question I had was why were the Ducks able to surprise some by shoving their way into the playoffs without the services of early-season Vezina hopeful Jonas Hiller? Surely, names like Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman should come first in this discussion as the 2 cemented their roles at the top of Anaheim's blueline corp, and of course, where would the Ducks have been this season without the amazing contributions of Paul Mara, Andreas Lilija, Dan Ellis and Ray Emery (all acquisitions made on-the-fly). And while all these factors were the bigger picture, many of us here at AC will admit that it was easy to forget all of these when #s 4 and 5 stepped on the ice. These two raw talents seemed to grab our collective attentions throughout the season and I often found myself expecting magic from them. Thus, I wanted to focus on the amazing development of our two young guns, Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa, in a full op-ed post to keep me going until the upcoming season or at least until we all hear from Teemu.
It has been touched on ad nauseam, but it must be remarked again about how amazing a 18-19 year-old took to the waters in his first season out on the pond. From a bird's-eye, his 40 points (10 goals and 30 assists) were usually had in crucial moments of games and of the season. Solid powerplaying with the first unit plus even strength top 4 time saw his ice time average over 20 minutes per game for the season. Case in point, young Fowler was an integral part of the Ducks' Season.
Looking closer at his season, Cam struggled often with finding consistency in his own zone. A part of this can most definitely be contributed to the revolving door of partners he found himself playing with (Mara, Brookbank, Lilija, Beauchemin, Sutton, etc.), but honestly much of the fault was in his inability to battle into good position on the wall or infront of the net night in and night out. His -25 rating hints of this issue, however, it must be noted that much of his struggles of this nature were in the 1st half of the season. For the last two months of the Ducks' season (March 2 until they were ousted April 24) Cam had a rating of -2. I feel that this had much to do with his increased physicality and much better positioning throughout that span. In the playoffs, besides Beauchemin, I thought Cam was our best blueliner. Of course, we undoubtedly will be looking for Cam to provide offense from the back moving forward, but for me, it was this increase in defensive efficiency that I found most exciting as I watched the last few months of the season.
Purely based on my observation, I thought at times this season Cam looked very vulnerable defensively. He often left less-skilled players beat him to the spots backdoor and many times looked to not "keep his feet moving" when teams were cycling the puck in our zone. His positioning was not good often and his inability at times to play on the wall against more physical forwards made him susceptible to turnovers behind the net. Often times, his superior athleticism and skill let him get away with this, but as I noted before his plus/minus rating hints that he didn't get away with it all the time. But as I also mentioned, Cam seemed to show signs of his game maturing rapidly as the end of his season would show his growth as a more effective defender. I saw much better play along the wall and much better battling around the net then was the case early in the season.
Aside from that, his puck-moving (great outlet passer!) and play-making abilities are all-star caliber. He emphatically showed that his game plays at this level in his first NHL season. In addition, his skating hopefully will continue to make him both a potent offensive threat as well as a competent defender. Lastly, seeing glimpses of a defensive game that shows both the necessary physicality and craftiness to make a defender like him effective gives me excitement to think that he can become a better player.
All this said, Cam has shown that he has the makeup of the total package and we as Ducks fans hopefully will share in his blossoming talent for years to come.
In the shadow of Cam's breakout year, Luca Sbisa put together a year that he should be proud of as well. His 11 points (2 goals and 9 assists) are a little on the thin side for someone touted as a potential top 4 defenseman, as was his -11 rating on the season, but his credited 170 hits put him in second to Ryan Getzlaf on the Ducks. He averaged just over 16:30 per game on the ice with the majority of it coming even strength with a sprinkling of powerplay and penalty killing.
At the outset of the season, Luca looked to be lost in the shuffle of AHLers the Ducks shuffled in and out of their lineup. However, after a brief stint up and over in Syracuse seemed to wake him up, Sbisa came back with a vengeance, literally, throwing bone-crunching body checks to solidify his stay with Anaheim for the rest of the year.
Looking at how he ended the season, Luca seemed to tail off toward the very end of the season; he was also a minus in 4 of the 6 playoff games. But before the playoffs, he was a -1 after the all-star break through the end of the regular season compared to -10 for the rest of the season. What made this more impressive was this was at the point when he was playing against teams top players with Beauchemin.
Grabbing my microscope again, I see a player that has some critical flaws in his game. (Editorial Note: Don't get me wrong. I am a huge fan of Luca's and see him having the ability to be a solid player for the Ducks, but this is frankly what I saw.) Luca has the tendency to be overly aggressive on the sidewall and get caught out of position often. He also lacked the ability all season to read plays well and many times was beaten by a backdoor pass that he should have intercepted. His head need to be up and on a swivel more often as he found himself in trouble plenty of times not able to advance the puck out of his zone with a quick outlet pass instead electing to try skating it out of the zone unsuccessfully. He seemed to pick up his game quite a bit with the arrival of Beauchemin, but saw his own effectiveness slip slightly in the playoffs (brutalized by horrible penalty calls against him seemingly every night!) playing against a super aggressive Predators forecheck due in part to what I mentioned earlier about his inability to clear the zone. Additionally, he, like Cam, seemed to get caught chasing pucks in the zone against teams that could cycle the puck and even with his great skating abilities wasn't able to beat players to the puck to get it out of harm's way.
On the positive side of things, Luca looks to have something to build on going forward. He became a much more complete player as the season progressed. Starting as player the Ducks might have expected offense from to becoming more of a player they expected the less glamourous, but arguably more important job of shutting other teams' offenses down. He became a solid shot blocker with a respectable 85 blocks at season's end. And as mentioned earlier, his hitting game was good with plenty of big bumps handed out throughout the season. He also seemed to slowly get his outlet passes going as I can remember him dealing out a few strikes late in the season to spring his forwards on breakaways.
Going forward, Luca needs to look to make quicker, safer decisions with the puck. Often times he should have made the quick pass instead of having it stripped trying to wheel it out from behind his net. He also needs to just work on using his physicality more effectively, positioning himself better to eliminate players from getting to rebounds or beating him to the middle of the ice. Plus, he needs to keep his head up with the puck and find the open man or on defense, find the open man that is behind him (head on a swivel). If he continues to trust his skating and work on his powerplay game, which I thought got stronger as the year went on and he saw consistent time there, I see no reason that next season he won't see an increase in points.
Be it unfair or not, Both Luca and Cam shouldered much of the burden of defending an often-times under-sieged net throughout the 2009-2010 Ducks's Season. Accordingly both showed why they made it to the NHL while also showing that they both had much room for growth. They both possess great skating ability, quick compact shots, and snappy passing. And though, at this point, Cam may be the better player of the two, I see that both of these players have areas of improvement that they must conquer in order to progress to a higher level of play (Scotty, please show them the magic poke check of yours!). What makes me most excited is that most of my critiques regarding flaws in their game are coachable and very correctable. Obviously, the only thing that will make it happen is these two young guns putting in the work and improving at those points. What will also be interesting is to see if we in fact will witness the pairing of these two dynamos at times this upcoming season.
Case in point, #4 and #5 will again be focal points of fans in the 2011-2012 season and will be called upon mightily in order for the Ducks to make the playoffs again. Projecting from last season, they should both rise to the occasion and may rise beyond that if the stars align in our favor.