Last year about this time, I penned an opinion piece discussing what I thought about the play of our two young defensemen, Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa, during the past season (2010-2011). In that piece, I basically praised both for their potential and criticized their flaws. My conclusion was that "at this point, Cam may be the better player of the two" though I saw upside for both. We'll explore if this held true this past season or if the cards were dealt differently...
Well, here we are just after what most Ducks' fans would agree was a disappointing season, and in the mist of the uncertainty surrounding SchultzGate 2012. I thought a look back at our two under-contract blue-liners might up the optimism and get our collective minds off of whether or not our blue-line will continue to be very left-handed. We can only hope that at this point next season I will be doing a review of young guns #4, #5 and #6. Of course, I will welcome the opportunity openly if it should present itself! Here's to hoping!
And now, Fowl Sbis
round 2... FIGHT!
Young Fowler was asked to do a whole lot his second year in the BIGS. He went from 3rd line D minutes to Top Pairing minutes against the league's elite offensive weapons. Plus, with Lubo struggling to regain his Norris-snubbed form of last season, Young Fowl-walk-er was asked to singlehandedly quarterback a limp powerplay as well. I won't go as far as to say that he didn't succeed, but from my point of view, the learning curve was steep and he definitely had his stumbles along the way. He again was the in the bottom 10 of the league in +/- at a team worst -28, (-3 worse than last year). Again, he played much harder minutes against teams top studs night in and night out (indicating by his relative corsi quality of competition), but Cam needs to figure out some things to make himself a more effective defender going into his 3rd season. Most likely a result of his increased defensive responsibilities, Cam saw his point total drop from last year, but appropriately he led the D in points and his minutes were second to only his D partner Francois Beauchemin. Another plus for Cam was his ability to stay in the lineup all 82 games and of course not get penalized often.
Looking at his split stats, its interesting to see that Cam had a pretty consistently "blah" season. His point total for a month peaked at 10 and bottomed out at 2 (excluding April's 4 games). Though nothing to sneeze at, with Cam's potential and time on the powerplay, his point production was low (of course, so was the whole teams).
As I mentioned before, Cam was part of the top pairing with Beauch. This tandem was an ugly -42 for the season (-32 in Duck loses for the season)This raises a question that I am not sure if this past season has not already answered: Are Cam and Francois an effective top pairing? As many of us here have noted, Beauch seemed to play a more complimentary game with Sbisa in the past rather than Fowler. I will venture to say that this past season might have put this into a much clearer focus. I am under the impression that though we can all envision Cam sidekicked by a bruiser ala Niedermayer - Daneyko/ Beauch, it may be better to pair Cam with a more "skilled" player to better see him flourish (i.e. Zubov - Sydor). The reason I ask is because Beauch is good at making the safe play and in many circumstances last season, I saw Cam making that play. But honestly, I don't want him making the safe play a lot. I want him to try to be great! However, part of me thinks that Shane Doan saw that "he never tries that again..." That said, Cam will need to utilize his speed and hands to carve his way through the neutral zone more often and lead the rush into the offensive zone to be a legitimate threat for the Ducks moving forward. They simply can't have him only utilize his passing ability here. He must exploit his talents in order to maximize his productivity especially with the decline we saw in the effectiveness of Lubomir Visnovsky. Hopefully, he can erase the most memorable rush he has had with a new one ending in an amazing goal or assist rather than a rhinoplasty courtesy of a beast-of-a-man.
Cam did show a definite attempt to employ much more (relative) physicality. He wasn't credited with any more hits this year compared to last, but I could see it and I hope he can continue this, but more so I like to him to improve what he does whether its physical or not. He continues to lose battles for body position in front of the net. This may change as his game and thinking mature, but he needs to focus on beating his opponents to spots on the ice rather than play behind or beside opposing teams' net-front presences (The whole team need to improve on this point! Gabby, please note!). Interestingly enough, Cam's play though crucial to the team's performance doesn't show up in the +/- split of when the team won vs. when it lost. In team wins, he was only a +4 while in team losses he tied with Beauch for a team low -32. To me, this shows that Cam's contributions on the scoreboard were not as productive as they were last season, and in fact, Cam scored most of his points in Duck losses last season oddly enough (22 points).
Additionally, Cam had a troubling tendency to shot the puck in to defenders shinguards often times on the PP. I account this for his inability to get the puck off quickly enough in particular circumstances where pressure was being applied as well as the powerplay's inability to set up point men on their off-wing for one-timed shots. My hope is that Cam can trust his decent wrist shot in these circumstances in order to maximize his effectiveness on the point. I respect that his slap shot is always gotten off with a quick, compact back swing, but I still believe he can increase his effectiveness by using the more accurate wrist shot in more circumstances.
One other related point about his play on the powerplay... I did notice a decrease in his presence at the side of the net or cutting through the slot. I am sure this is probably a coaching flaw, but Cam needs to use some creativity and have motion in and out of the middle of the ice with the man advantage. There is no doubt he is a more effective player from 10-15 feet from the net then 50-60 feet out at the point. His mentor, Scott Niedermayer was a natural at this and Cam should adapt this into part of his own game because frankly, he can with the talents he has been gifted with.
The take away points for Cam are that there was growth in his game though it looked and felt painful. The fact is he played more minutes against tougher competition (evidenced by his Relative CORSI QOC jump from 2010-11 season to 2011-12 one) and really only suffered a setback in point production even with a team that saw its total goal production drop from season prior. He continues to be one of the Ducks most intriguing players as he still is only 20 years of age! If he can begin to play with the confidence that we all have in him, we should see a different player this coming fall, one who leads the charge in to the offensive zone more often ala Erik Karlsson rather than defers to others. If he can also continue to increase his ability to play against physical forwards the likes of Patrick Hornqvist (yuck, my fingers vomit typing his name!) then he will indeed make strides that many hoped for in 2011-12 in 2012-13. I look for Cam to have an up tick in scoring recording 10-15 goals and 30-40 assists to match his improved +5 at next season's end possibly earning him a trip to the all-star game. Here's to Cam's continued success and our continued enjoyment in it!
Sbisa came into the 2010-2011 season with a literal bang after being recalled from Syracuse. This past season we saw less of this physicality, but instead improved play with the puck. Early in the season, I found myself holding my breath as Luca tried winding it up from behind his own net to start the offense for the Ducks. But what had change from the previous season was that his wheels seemed to be able to find open ice more often now getting him out of trouble and into the neutral zone. Of course, there were plenty of turnovers from Luca, but this area of his play was encouraging especially considering that his partner, Lubo was better known for this going into the season. He played in his most games missing out on only 2 of the final games on the schedule with an ailing back.
With this, we saw an applaudable increase in his point output with Luca tallying 5 goals and 19 assists basically doubling his output from the previous season. This was a very interesting development considering that with the arrival of Boudreau, Luca was basically the odd-man-out on the powerplay point. None of his goals were recorded on the powerplay all year. Hopefully, this changes as I believe the Ducks were a better team on the powerplay with two solid D pairs quarterbacking the point rather than dropping Getzlaf to do that job. Luca has shown that he can get his shot through traffic and that it is hard and heavy. Let's hope to see more goalies made into Swiss cheese by this shot next season (I couldn't resist!).
Also, Luca found himself ending up with a -5 rating in 80 games this season compared to -11 in 68 last season, which was an improvement considering that he, like Cam, saw increase in both minutes on the ice and play against better competition (illustrated by increases in his Corsi quality of competition stat both years). However, he began the season as part of the third D pairing and it wasn't until he got bumped up to the second pairing with Lubomir Visnovsky that he really began to see harder matchups. He did well though he did have the occasional hiccup where he would cough up a puck at the blue line or get bet one-on-one in around the faceoff circles in his own zone. It's still a work in progress here for Luca as he is also fond of being on the wrong side of his check and allowing opponents to park in front of Hiller. His tenacity along the side wall must be matched in the slot for him to be effective going forward.
As I noted earlier, there was not as memorable bumps put on players by Sbisa last season compared with the year before. He hit at roughly the same rate as the year before with 186 hits that found him in second on the team for the second year in a row. He seemed to show a little more restraint and control in when he would go for the large bump, but was victimized on a few occasions by the mistimed hit that led to quality scoring chances against. This part of his game continues to be a strong point and we can only hope that it continues to grow in this department.
Luca, very much like Fowler last season, found himself juggled throughout the lineup paired with everyone from the dearly departed, Kurtis Foster, to his eventual doubles partner, Lubomir Visnovsky, all by roughly the first 1/3 of the season. Lubo and Luca made for stretches of effectiveness, but at times found themselves caught in their own zone. After December 10, roughly coinciding with the Carlyle/Boudreau transitional period, Luca was consistently an even player (actually +3), he seemed to have settle a bit a play effective hockey. He showed some chemistry with Lubo, highlighted by January and February where they both turned in their best statistical production of the season. Interestingly, unlike Cam, Luca's play seemed to be determinate of how the Ducks fared on a nightly basis. In Ducks wins, he was a +17 and in loses he was -22. That difference was rivaled only by his two veteran partners Francois Beauchemin and Lubomir Visnovsky on D and Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf up front. This isn't a great way to show it, but I think it hints at the fact that Luca is a key component to the success of this club. If he is to get better, the team will be all the better for it.
For Luca, much of his future success will begin with how much better he becomes as a hockey player mentally. He will have to continue to improve his positioning and make smarter plays on and with the puck in traffic. Being that like Cam, this upcoming season will be his third (and 2nd of his extended deal), this may be a crucial year where the sample size will really begin to show what type of career Sbisa will have. We know he's physical, we know he's a gifted skater, passer and shooter. What we don't know yet is can he consistently play up to the level of opponents like Anze Kopitar or Steven Stamkos night in and night out? Can he win the majority of the battles when he's on the ice becoming a force that opposing forwards dread to take their shift against? The potential is there. The front office can see it, we can as well, but is that Luca's vision of himself?
When we talk about Fowler and Sbisa, I have to reel it in and remember that these two are still toddlers in their development at this level. They both are young and have yet to play their 3rd season of NHL hockey. We all know the curve for defensemen is a bit of a plunge and that most take time to develop into solid back guards, but how many of them have you seen that can skate like these two? After last season, I believe I was more worried about Sbisa's play then Fowler's. For one, I didn't think Cam would be that much more effective as a defender from one year to the next; he just doesn't strike me as having that compete level innate to him that good defensive players seem to have so I wasn't really expecting a quick improvement on that end just yet. I was just hoping for at least a repeat of his rookie year, which he gave us plus a bit more in terms of top pairing minutes. As for Sbisa, I was cautious to be very optimistic because of his tendency that first year for him to make bad plays skating and clearing the puck out of his own end. But last season, he was able to make a noticeable improvement here while also doubling his point production. Subtle, yet effective improvements for both, surely.
Last year, I had Fowler being the more effective player between the two. This year, I had to give the edge to Luca who seemed to show a marked maturity in his game while Cam basically was the same player, more or less. There is one thing that I think contributes to this a bit; chemistry. We know this to be one of the more esoteric things for pairings/lines to build and that it fades and resurfaces throughout the continuum of the 82 game regular season. But the question remains, are Fowler and Sbisa truly slotted next to complementing partners?
For example, last season, The Beauch - Fowl experiment was used again to what I consider to be mixed/disappointing results. If we were all hoping that Beauch would turn Cam into the next Scotty then I think we almost put that thought to rest. First of all, that's asinine. Scotty is a particular person and has played with the likes of Beauch, Pronger, Stevens, Wisniewski, Daneyko, etc. He was that player that played at that all-star level with whoever you trotted out next to him. Not saying that Cam can't do that either, just that partners don't make players who they are, they just compliment their skills (to a fault sometimes). You can look at the Luca - Lubo pairing as well and see similar problems here. Both can handle the puck well, and as I mentioned earlier, did so for a little more than 2 months of the 6 month season. They had games were a turnover by one would not be covered by the defense of the other, which I see as the key to D pairings. Can they read their partners play enough to back them up on mistakes or mismatches? I'd say that both pairings did this mediocre-ly. I would like to see a mix up on the backend a bit with Fowler and Sbisa being moved around with various partners in order to get a feel of what type of players they gel with. However, with the current roster, I am not sure how you pair it because I still think Beauch is your best defensive defenseman so he should get top minutes. I am of the school of thought that you pair Sbisa with Beauch and put Cam with either Schultz/Visnovsky or Lydman/Guenin at this juncture. I still hope we get to see the two together at points next season, but we will have to see.
So here's to another successful season in the young careers of two of our favorite players on this team. I hope that we continue to see them improve on their game and we get to see the development of these young guns into so chiseled, decorated veterans.