On December 27 the Anaheim Ducks sat at the bottom of the Pacific Division, 30 points from 33 games with a sub-.500 mark of 12-15-6. Though they would knock off the Philadelphia Flyers that night 4-2, it came at the cost of defenseman Cam Fowler, who played just 3:36 and left the game with what would later be announced as a knee sprain.
Things looked bleak, with the win just Anaheim's second in six games and the team a lone point above Columbus for league-bottom.
Yet without their top minute defenseman, over the next 30 days the Ducks reeled off a 9-3-1 stretch, include a 4-0-1 road mark to pull within two points of the final Pacific Division playoff spot with two games in hand on slot-occupying Arizona. Sami Vatanen migrated up the depth chart to skate with Kevin Bieksa on the top pairing, while the duo of Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson settled into a second pair role that allowed both to generate amongst the best shot attempt percentages on the team.
It's a much different Ducks team that Fowler is returning to- one that sees Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on separate lines, David Perron and Ryan Garbutt as trade acquisitions replacing Carl Hagelin and Jiri Sekac, and a +12 goal differential in those last 13 games. The team is averaging 2.69 goals per game while surrendering 1.77 over that stretch, and the analytic dominance from the second month of the season on has started to show signs of fleshing out an offense that can help the team win with their stifling neutral zone defensive play.
So as Fowler makes his return tonight against the San Jose Sharks, there are a couple questions: How will the Ducks reincorporate their early season horse, and what should Anaheim do with their defense moving forward?
The first question was easily answered by the beat writers at the morning skate, as well as specifically by Ducks staffer Kyle Shohara:
Fowler - Bieksa
Lindholm - Manson
Despres - Vatanen
As Shohara points out, it seats all six players on their their preferred sides, and on a strictly personnel level appears to be the strongest unit Anaheim has iced all season. Shea Theodore was returned to San Diego last Wednesday after the final win before the All Star break in Boston, while with Clayton Stoner on injured reserve Korbinian Holzer holds down the seventh spot.
Moving forward, it appears now to be a matter of both finding the right fit with the players, as well as if any trades are to be made which of the multitude of riches is the one most acceptably parted with. Lindholm and Manson have developed such a chemistry in the second pairing that it would seem silly to bust it up, while there's familiarity in both potential Fowler-Despres and Vatanen-Bieksa pairings. It also would appear that unless the team is playing a bigger, more physical opponent in the vein of Los Angeles or St. Louis that, once healthy, Stoner could settle into that seventh role.
Fowler returns with the lowest five-on-five shot attempt percentage of the entire corps (49.47), second lowest scoring chance percentage (49.07), and lowest high danger percentage (49.54). Much of that has to do with him seeing not only the most, but the toughest minutes in his first 34 games this year, as well as Anaheim not really 'finding themselves' and locking down their defensive system until after Christmas. A player with his skating ability and skill set should thrive in the Ducks evolved scheme.
What do you make of Fowler's return? How do you want to see the defense handled? Sound off in the comments section!