*inhales a deep breath* Oh man it's good to be back! And hey this time it's going to be for a full 82 games! How about that!
Gary Bettman, upon telling people that there will be a full 82 game schedule this season. via 25.media.tumblr.com
So before I can find a reason to use another Aladdin gif, let's get down to business and talk hockey, specifically about our Anaheim Ducks and their ever-so-bittersweet defense corps.
Despite starting the shortened 2013 season well and catapulting the Ducks to a monumental division lead, the defense slowly started falling off and as a result the Ducks went into the playoffs slightly colder than they should have been and they paid for it by losing in the quarterfinals in 7 agonizing games.
But the past is exactly that, and it's a new season so let's buckle down with what he have to work with for the start of 2013-14.
First the bad news. The Ducks lost one young guy, Jordan Hendry, to free agency, and one veteran member of their defense this summer as Toni Lydman officially hung up his skates and set out for the greener pastures of retirement. He never truly was the same after the scary double-vision issue he had not long after signing his first free agent deal with Anaheim back in 2010, but he certainly had his moments. In fact, Lydman was arguably one of Anaheim's best defensemen in their playoff series against Detroit; right up until Justin Abdeldouchebagger tried to put his shoulder through Lydman's skull.
Lydman did have a characteristic flaw however, and it's unfortunately one that's become all-too-characteristic of the Ducks defense the last several seasons. (BOOM! Segue!)
Lydman was constantly guilty of losing his man in front of his own net, and it often led to either a high-quality scoring chance or a goal against. Unfortunately he's not the only one on this roster who's been guilty of it as guys like Luca Sbisa, Sheldon Souray, and Bryan Allen were notoriously bad either this, or giving up a costly turnover in their own zone.
There are two types of defensemen in hockey: offensively-minded, puck-moving, rush-leading, and high-scoring defensemen (a la Scott Neidermayer and hopefully one day Cam Fowler), and defensely-minded, big-bodied, tough, gritty, and zone-aware defensemen. Only the truly great defensemen can be both of those roles (think Shea Weber in Nashville), and aside from Francois Beauchemin, the Ducks don't really have anybody who can.
Bob Murray has said that agile, puck-moving defensemen are the most vital with "The way the game is played now," but I firmly disagree. There needs to be a physical edge to your blueliners, a pairing of big, gritty guys who are unafraid of body contact, intimidate opposing offenses, and most importantly are extremely aware in their own zone so they can cut off passing lanes, and get the puck out of the defensive end without making any costly mistakes.
Only time will tell if this year's Anaheim defense will improve in these vital areas.
Projected Roster Players
2013 Stats: 48 GP, 6-18-24, 23:27 TOI, 22 PIM, had several votes for the Norris Trophy.
Last year's grade: A- from Daniel
After the kind of killer season Frankie had last year, combined with the torn ACL he suffered and the ensuing reconstructive surgery he had, it'd be pretty easy to imagine him not having as good a 2013-14 season as he did the previous year. However, early reports out of training camp is that the veteran blueliner is in fantastic shape and skating as though he was never even injured in the first place. He's leaner, stronger, and even more dedicated, often being the first guy on the ice and one of the last ones off. Normally I'd say he'll regress this year slightly, but with the amount of work he's putting in I'd say expect him to be just as good this season, if not even better.
2013 Stats: 37GP, 1-10-11, 20:26 TOI, 4 PIM, sustained an early concussion.
Last year's grade: B from Kristen
The key to Cam Fowler's success next season is pretty clear: stay the hell away from Jarret Stoll. Up until the nasty cheapshot (for which Stoll should have been suspended) that sent Fowler to the IR for 11 games, Fowler was finally starting to show some of the promise and maturity that was advertised when we drafted him. He wasn't putting pucks in the net, but his defensive play became far more solid. And likewise there were times where you thought the universe just hated Fowler with how badly he was getting robbed of that ever-elusive first goal.
There is still much work to be done however, as Fowler, who will be entering his fourth season in the NHL, is yet to finish a year positive in plus-minus. Even in the shortened season last year he finished a -4. He's a brilliant skater with amazing play-reading abilities, but so far he's shown that he's a defenseman who's struggling to keep opponents off the scoreboard, which seems very counter-intuitive to the position.
2013 Stats: 44GP, 7-10-17, 20:55 TOI, 52 PIM, Signed as a free agent in summer of 2012.
Last year's grade: B-/C+ from Daniel
Sheldon Souray started last year looking like the gem veteran-defenseman signing of the NHL. He was hammering shots from the point, scoring goals, keeping pucks out of the net, and had ridiculous chemistry with Francois Beauchemin that got the entire league's attention.
Then after about the halfway point of the year his stats started dipping, and like Daniel said, we watched him turn into a pylon. The whole shebang when it comes to defensive mistakes: costly turnovers in your own zone, getting flat out beat on the outside by a forward, losing your man and getting scored on, taking selfish penalties, you name it. It all culminated with Souray being benched during the playoffs for more or less playing like crap.
This season we'll hopefully see a return to the Souray that started last season, but we won't get to see it for some time, as he'll be starting the year on IR after injuring his wrist in an off-ice workout in July. He'll likely be out until December.
2013 Stats: 41GP, 0-6-6, 18:44 TOI, 52 PIM.
Last year's grade: D from Chris
Bryan Allen is one of those big-bodied defensemen that I've been saying the Ducks need. The only problem is he's missing the other part of what he needs to be: defensively-aware and mistake-free. He's far from that last one.
Coming into last season I honestly had high hopes for Allen. Despite early rumblings that he came into training camp out of shape and struggling, I hoped he'd get his act together and be at least a stable big-bodied guy who can keep offenses at bay. Well he's 6'5" and nearly 230, but boy he wasn't that much more intimidating than a cardboard cutout.
Allen was constantly the one at fault for losing his man, a costly turnover, or flat out blown coverage that resulted in a goal against. I know we've never really found a replacement for Chris Pronger, but Allen's proven that he's likely not it.
I would expect more of the same this season, however if he can find the right defense partner, I have hopes still that he may improve.
2013 Stats: 41GP, 1-7-8, 19:50 TOI, 23 PIM.
Last year's grade: D- from Kristen
Luca Sbisa has been notorious for having size but not using his physicality to his advantage. We've seen him lay down some good hits before, but we've never seen it consistently. As a result, his crease is never clear, he gets lost on the ice, he gets beat, and he often gets pressured into mistakes by opposing forwards.
Still there is hope (as Kristen explains) for this season as Sbisa will have a chance to rebound. If he can build up the confidence to throw his weight around more and shove a forward out of his crease, Sbisa has the makings of a very complete defenseman. He even responded with his best game of the season after getting benched by Coach Boudreau after a terrible performance. He's got some smarts and awareness, now he just needs the confidence to use them along with his frame.
That being said, if there's more of the same from him after the first 20 games or so, it's time to put this kid on the trading block. There's too much talent nipping at his heels for him to just be able to cruise by with a secure job.
2013 Stats: 35GP, 0-10-10, 18:13 TOI, 29 PIM, acquired mid-season from Pittsburgh for a 5th-round pick.
Last year's grade: A from Derek
Say what you will about Bob Murray as a GM, the man is an absolute wizard for constructing this deal. Ben Lovejoy might be the best bottom-pair defenseman the Ducks have had since Ric Jackman (and coming from me, that's high praise).
There's so much to like about this guy. He's not overly-physical despite his size, but rarely found himself out of position, made some key plays, and perhaps my favorite part about his game is his work ethic and aggression for the puck. It was this effort that set up the most important goal of Anaheim's season last year.
Lovejoy re-signed with the Ducks for three more years this summer for the extraordinarily reasonable price of $1.1m per season.
I'm honestly hoping to see more of the same from Lovejoy next season, and more of it. Being a bottom-pair guy means you're one of the first candidates to be a healthy scratch every game, but Lovejoy deserves to be out there. On a team where so many guys struggle with their defensive game, Lovejoy is a big bright spot that some of even the veterans can learn from.
2013 Stats (Edmonton Oilers): 25GP, 0-6-6, 15:20 TOI, 32 PIM, acquired this summer via free agency.
Last year's grade: N/A
It was announced that the Ducks had signed Mark Fistric as a free agent right alongside the announcement that Sheldon Souray would miss the first half of the season due to his injury. Fistric has size and grit needed to make a good stay-at-home defenseman, and perhaps his most pleasant stat is his +6 rating from last season, showing he did a pretty good job keeping the puck out of his own net. This is made even more impressive when you consider he played for the Edmonton Oilers who couldn't keep anybody from scoring on them (mostly due to Justin Schultz's terrible defense).
Fistric is no question a fill-in guy picked up because the team needed an experienced guy but likewise I'm curious as to what will become of him once Souray is healthy. His $900k contract is one-way meaning we can't send him to the minor leagues without him first clearing waivers.
I'm not expecting highlight-reel plays from Fistric this year, but I do think he'll have what it takes to make a good stay-at-home guy who can occasionally chip in with a good exit pass that results in an assist.
2013 Stats: (Anaheim) 8GP, 2-0-2, 15:49 TOI, 0 PIM; (Norfolk) 62GP, 9-36-45, 44 PIM
Last year's grade: B+ from Derek
Sami Vatanen had the unfortunate role of being the guy who's too good for the AHL, but due to contract issues and experience reasons never really got his full shot at the NHL. Vatanen proved himself remarkably with the big club, scoring his first goal with a wicked shot past Sergei Bobrovsky. The kid can skate and shoot.
However he's all-offense when it comes to his game. Despite finishing second on the Norfolk Admirals in points, Vatanen finished even on plus-minus, meaning he was getting scored on a lot as well. While I would expect him to be the first to get the call when Anaheim needs a blueliner, his paltry 5'10" stature means he's going to need to build some experience slowly before being thrown in full-time with the big club.
The kid is everything we hoped for in a powerplay leader and puck mover and will definitely have his fair share of 40+ point seasons, but those might be just a little ways off yet.
2013 Stats: (Norfolk) 44GP, 1-10-11, +5 rating, 16 PIM, yet to appear in an NHL game.
Last year's grade: N/A
The word out of training camp this year is that Hampus Lindholm is improving. His first full season in North America was shortened by a concussion that kept him out from several games as well as the 2012-13 World Junior Championships where his Team Sweden won silver.
However, Lindholm has exhibited issues with making smart decisions with the puck while exiting his own end. Whether it's him throwing the puck carelessly away to an opposing player or getting it taken away from him, Lindholm needs to work on taking care of the puck before he'll really be NHL ready. I wouldn't be surprised to see him make his debut with the big club this season, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he spends this entire season in Norfolk. He's got a little ways to go yet.
Norfolk Admirals-bound Players
2013 Stats: (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) 67GP, 2-16-18, 113 PIM
Having now exceeded his eligibility for "The Q" as they call it, Andrew O'Brein will likely be bringing his gritty, physical game to Norfolk. He needs to work on not getting himself in so much trouble with penalties, but I have to admit I love his 6'4", 208 lbs frame. If he can really improve his game he'd make a great replacement for Bryan Allen when that contract expires. He is currently injured however and will likely start the year that way as well.
2013 Stats: (Wilkes-Barre, AHL) 46GP, 4-16-20, +5 rating, 73 PIM
Another big-bodied defenseman in our system, Grant stands at 6'3", 200 lbs. I wouldn't expect to see him up with Anaheim anytime soon but Norfolk is certainly going to have a pretty big-bodied physical blueline this season. It'll be interesting to see what that does for their season, as last year they fell short of the playoffs on the last weekend.
2013 Stats: (Norfolk) 71GP, 1-9-10, -13 rating, 79 PIM
Clark needs to work on his defensive game, big time. Albeit Norfolk wasn't a stellar AHL team last season and Clark saw a lot of minutes against opposition top lines, but there are certainly a few guys who are likely to get a call-up to Anaheim before he will. Still, expect him to be a steady figure on the Admirals' blueline for another year.
2013 Stats: (MODO, Sweden) 46GP, 7-25-32, 30 PIM
Now in his second stint in the Anaheim organization, Kyle Cumiskey put up some pretty good numbers last year with MODO of the Swedish Elite League. Good enough to put his name in the conversation for a possible call-up as well, seeing as he does have 132 games of NHL experience with the Colorado Avalanche.
2013 Stats: (St. Johns, QMJHL) 31GP, 11-23-34, 14 PIM; (Rimouski, QMJHL) 31GP, 6-31-37, 22 PIM; (Norfolk) 5GP, 0-1-1, -3 rating, 0 PIM
Kevin Gagne now needs to begin adapting his game to a professional level, which won't be easy due to his 5'8", 176 lbs. frame. He put up good offensive numbers in juniors, but barring an explosion in which he starts putting up Visnovsky-like statistics with Norfolk, I don't know if he'll ever see time in an Anaheim sweater.
2013 Stats: (San Antonio, AHL) 71GP, 0-7-7, 93 PIM; (Florida Panthers) 7GP, 0-0-0, -1 rating, 11 PIM
Yonkman hasn't made a lot of friends in this training camp as I've read multiple reports that he's taken it upon himself to prove his physical nature and this has included laying a few good bumps on guys like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Emerson Etem. It's also garnered him a stern talking-to from the captain on one occasion.
He is however Ducks property, signed as a free agent from the Florida Panthers and does have seven games of NHL experience. And his big 6'6" frame makes him a hot commodity for the future should he manage to tone down his shenanigans in training camp.
2013 Stats: (Seattle, WHL) 71GP, 19-31-50, 32 PIM
Shea Theodore is exactly what Anaheim envisioned when they drafted him: a brilliant skater whose defensive game is a work-in-progress. He'll be headed back to Seattle to work on that defensive game because, gee, it would be nice if our prized defenseman prospect from 2013 would be capable of playing actual defense.
2013 Stats: (Calgary, WHL) 70GP, 0-20-20, 116 PIM
Kenton Helgesen is slightly better than Shea Theodore at playing actual defense, but only slightly. He's looked lost on multiple occasions throughout both rookie and full training camps, and likewise has made some costly mistakes. The Calgary Hitmen, Ryan Getzlaf's former junior team, will be happy to have him back for another season however.
2013 Stats: (Vasteras, Sweden) 52GP, 4-15-19, 40 PIM
I first saw Warg at the prospects game vs. Los Angeles in Anaheim and wasn't too impressed. He's got size but he was out of position a lot and got burned heavily by quicker prospects. He made a lot of key mistakes both with and without the puck that contributed to Anaheim's prospects getting slaughtered. He's still Anaheim property so expect him either to head back to Europe or to be bound for Anaheim's new ECHL affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies.
2013 Stats: (Providence, AHL) 52GP, 2-7-9, 95 PIM
Exelby has NHL experience with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets organization, but never really panned out with them and has since been bouncing around the AHL, most recently with the Providence Bruins. He's now in Anaheim on a pro-tryout and I don't see him staying long. The Admirals don't need another big penalty-minute bruiser with Vatanen and Lindholm ready to make the jump to the NHL. He doesn't make the team.
2013 Stats: (Stockton, ECHL) 34GP, 5-8-13, 68 PIM; (Oklahoma City, AHL) 5GP, 0-1-1, 4 PIM
I was first introduced to Zahn at the first rookie camp game vs. Los Angeles in Anaheim. I left thinking he really wasn't very good. And I'm standing by that. Based on the word out of training camp he's hardly catching anybody's eye and is doing very little to make a case for himself. Zahn is also here on a pro-tryout and likewise I don't think he makes the team.
2013 Stats: (Medicine Hat, WHL) 57GP, 4-17-21, 28 PIM
Kyle Becker is here on an amatuer tryout, playing last season with the Medicine Hat Tigers, Emerson Etem's former junior team. I really haven't heard or read much about him and likewise I don't know if he'll do enough to earn himself a contract with the club. Either way he's got a year left of juniors eligibility so I wouldn't be surprised to see him back there next year.