The Ducks have only three of this year's regular defensemen (Visnovsky, Eminger, and Festerling) signed into next year. When you count anyone who wore a Ducks sweater in 09-10 (i.e. Sbisa and Oystrick), the number reaches five, but it's hard to pick out a Top 4 in that group. Well, unless we're calling anyone who played prolonged time with Niedermayer a Top 4 defenseman. Then we would have Festerling, Eminger and the option of signing Wisniewski-- nothing to worry about, right?
Murray will undoubtedly do some work on the blueline this offseason with signings (hopefully better than Boynton) or trades (hopefully better than Kunitz/Tangradi for Whitney), but if he re-signs RFA Brendan Mikkelson, a surprising question mark will continue for a THIRD year. Mikkelson or Festerling?
It seems unfathomable that the team could spend a third year putting a half-season into each of these guys and learning nothing from it. Granted, they spent this year trying to avoid that by signing Eminger and Boynton, but somewhere in the free agents' inability to keep the rookies in the farm and the rookies' inability to reproduce their AHL product on NHL ice, the Anaheim blueline became the ultimate victim of that attempted sidestep.
On paper, Mikkelson has the 'no-brainer' edge. He's the bigger player, the better skater and the Ducks' 2nd Round pick (31st overall!) in 2005; the team has more invested in developing him, even if only in terms of trade value. Generally, the fact that he tanked his contract year would be a good thing, but with the Ducks' defense so sorely shorthanded and the Nick Boynton signing casting a shadow on the ability of this front office (GM and pro scouting staff included) to find a depth defenseman, it's suddenly a very bad thing. And if Sheldon Brookbank can't see eye to eye with management, Festerling will have the skill-free defense market locked up.
Some thoughts and a quick statistical year in review after the jump...
First, I should note that there ARE options. In terms of the tiers of development, Festerling and Mikkelson exist on the same tier as Nathan Oystrick, though all three are probably behind the talent plus NHL experience of Luca Sbisa. If the Ducks are willing to pick a 5-7 defenseman from a tier lower, they can go back to Brian Salcido (who I still suspect was a Manon Rhéaume-ian publicity stunt), or a trio of minor leaguers (Stu Bickel, Eric Regan, John DeGray) all serving a contract year starting this fall. After that, there's Mark Mitera, who got SOME American League time this year, or they can take a chance on Jake Newton. Obviously, someone will stand out in camp, but as long as the Ducks take the preseason seriously and limit the number of Boyntons they work out, there are opportunities to promote from within.
That being said, there is an opening, both in terms of time and responsibility, for one of the Ducks' NHL experienced defensemen to play an entire year next year. And you would think that the front office knows Mikkelson and Festerling well enough by now to not be fooled, or at least overly influenced, by a strong showing in camp.
Again, in theory, the Ducks get more out of playing Mikkelson. There is still potential for a Top 4 toolkit there, and if he can at least fake that for half a season, they can trade him for the value they put into him. But as his inconsistency has degraded from game-to-game to shift-to-shift, putting that additional time into him sacrifices more than a few goals against and squanders the political capital Bob Murray might have had with GM's willing to take a chance on a former 2nd Rounder who "just hasn't put it all together yet."
Festerling tried to step it up in terms of hitting and puck carrying this year, but he may have reached the limit of his paygrade. Playoff teams generally have no problem putting 12 minutes into a guy who will always be a 12 minute guy; it's the definition of depth defense. But from a development standpoint, that's 12 minutes you could spend breeding a Top 4 defenseman. I suppose the Ducks have to decide if they're a playoff team that just missed the playoffs or if they need to recoup some assets before returning to the postseason. If the Ducks are playoff bound, they have to stick with the guy that won't hurt them, even if he can't do much by way of helping them.
Below, a quick statistical year in review of the two players, just to show you how they spent the season. No real statistical conclusions here. Don't be discouraged by Mikkelson's garish plus-minus with the Marlies. While he was tied for second worst on the team, there were six players with a -16 or less rating, including the -20 'leader' who played in only 34 games. Penalties drawn and corsi stats taken from Behind The Net.