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Protecting the Pond: Previewing the Ducks Defense

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A dive into the different assets on the Ducks blueline

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Edmonton Oilers at Anaheim Ducks Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A big strength for the Ducks over the past few seasons has been their Defense. The Ducks have arguably one of the top D-cores in the entire NHL and they return the majority of the defense from the ‘16-’17 campaign. The only two players lost were Shea Theodore and Clayton Stoner in what was a pretty solid deal by Bob Murray to avoid losing someone like Sami Vatanen or Josh Manson to Vegas in the expansion draft. Losing Theodore will hurt the D a little bit considering Theodore was likely to make the full jump to the NHL this season in Anaheim. However, getting rid of Stoner will also help the blueline by hopefully opening a slot in lineup (and some much needed cap room) for more talented players. Fare thee well, bear killer, may your hands be as rock hard in Vegas as they were Southern California.

The abbreviations listed in the preview will be Corsi For % (CF%), Scoring Chance For % (SCF%), High Danger Corsi For % (HDCF%), and Goals For % (GF%). I apologize for not having expected Goals For % listed, but at the time of writing this article, Corsica was still down. So lets jump into this preview of the Ducks defense:

Cam Fowler:

Fowler turned in a solid campaign in 2016-17 and was rewarded for it with a big contract extension that will kick in next season. He put up 39 points in 80 games and was at 50% CF%, and 52% in GF%, SCF%, and HDCF%, all while logging the most minutes per game of the entire blue line. Fowler also has been one of the better defensemen in the league at exiting the zone with possession, but has had an issue at limiting the other team from carrying the puck in against him. A big part of these issues, including his less than stellar advanced stats, can be traced back to his defense partners. He was primarily paired with Vatanen and Bieksa last season, neither of whom are particularly strong at defending their own blueline.

What to expect: Fowler, to start the season, will be heavily relied upon by Carlyle to hold the fort until both Lindholm and Vatanen are healthy. It seems like Fowler will start the season paired with Josh Manson. This pairing should work well and provide a very stable top pairing for the Ducks. Fowler should also be on the first PP unit to start the season, and a 30-40 point season could be in the cards again.

Hampus Lindholm:

Hampus Lindholm only put up 20 points in 66 games over the ‘16-’17 season, but his point total does not even get close to telling you how good of a player Lindholm is. He is one of the best neutral zone play drivers in the league (he is able to limit the ability of the other team to enter the Ducks zone with possession all while continually getting the puck out of the zone with possession when it comes in). Hampus also led the Ducks in CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and GF%. What this tells you is that even though he may not have put up the points, he had a major influence on the team. Lindholm will be out for the first month of the season and his presence on the back end will be missed. Fowler may be used as the first pairing D man, but it is hard to argue that Lindholm isn’t the best defenseman on the team.

What to expect: Lindholm, once back, should provide a steady presence on the back end. Depending on the success of the Fowler-Manson pairing (As I said above, I think it will work well), some experimentation may be needed to find him a D-partner. Lindholm and Manson have been paired together for much of the last two seasons, but we could see Lindholm placed with Montour, Bieksa, Beauchemin, or Vatanen if the Fowler-Manson pairing becomes a rock over the first month. There started to be some talk around the “twittersphere” that Lindholm should get some Norris love, and I think that will continue to gain traction as the season progresses.

Sami Vatanen:

I feel like it’s been almost two years of constantly waiting for the notification to pop up on my phone saying “Sami Vatanen traded to …” and yet here we are. Vatanen is still a Duck and that happily surprises me. Vatanen had a down year for point production, only putting up 24 points in 71 games last season. This was a pretty big drop off from the 38-point season he had in ‘15-’16. Vatanen is perceived as an offensive defenseman, so this drop in production could seem problematic. After digging into his numbers, his drop in production does not seem as bad. He only had a drop of 3 primary assists between the two seasons, and the drop in goals could have been luck (his sh% in ‘15-’16 was 6.4% and 2.6% in 16-17). He was at 49% CF on the season, which is slightly concerning, but was ever so slightly above 50% in SCF%, HDCF%, and GF%.

What to expect: Vatanen, if he is not traded, should have a bounce back year in point production. He should be the power play Quarterback and a jump in goals should be expected. I would not be surprised if he puts up 10 goals and 35 points this season. The real question is how he will be used this season. He was used primarily with Fowler last season to mediocre results. I think pairing him with Lindholm could be a decent option as this would allow for Fowler to stay with Manson and keep Vatanen in a top 4 role.

Josh Manson:

Josh Manson put in yet another solid season in 16-17, posting above 50% numbers in CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and GF%. He is the closest thing you will find to a successful stay-at-home D-man in the modern day NHL. Manson will never put up a lot of points, but he showed an ability to jump into the rush at opportune times. He posted 17 points in 82 games last season.

What to expect: Manson should start the season with Fowler, and will be utilized as a true top-pairing defenseman for the start of the season. This will be a big opportunity for Manson to prove that he can be as successful away from Lindholm as he was with him. This is also a contract year for Manson, so if he turns in a great season expect him to get paid. Hopefully it’s by us.

Brandon Montour:

Montour only played 27 games last regular season with the Ducks, putting up only 6 points over that span. But, the young blueliner really impressed in the playoffs, putting up 7 points in 17 games. He showed his skating ability in the postseason as well as his potential to be a dynamic player moving forward. He was below 50% in CF% and HDCF%, at 50% in SCF%, and well above 50% in GF% during the regular season, and was above 50% in all categories in the playoffs. Seeing this makes me think he can become a very strong player at transitioning the puck from the D-zone to the O-zone and allowing his team to create chances. The only issue with him is sample size. These numbers are from 27 regular season games and 17 playoff games.

What to expect: He will definitely start the season with the Ducks and will either quarterback the first or second powerplay. He will probably be paired with Beauchemin, which is both a good and a bad thing. Beauch can provide a stay-at-home presence and impart some wisdom and experience on the young defenseman, but Montour will need to skate a lot in order to make up for some of Beauch’s mistakes. I expect an up-and-down season from him, where some fans will anoint him the greatest D-man on the team and then a month later want him in the minors. That being said, I do believe by the end of the season he will be an important piece of the team’s success. Also, if the Ducks view him as a Vatanen replacement, this first month could be important for him to prove if that assessment is correct.

Kevin Bieksa:

Ummmmm... do I really have to do this for Bieksa?? [Ed. Note: Sadly, yes. -JC] Can I just pass? [Ed. Note #2: I wish... -JC] Ugh, fine. I guess I will do it. Kevin “Traffic Cone on Skates” Bieksa played 81 games last season (that one game without him was glorious) and put up 14 points. Wait, he really put up 14 points and scored 3 goals? I am actually slightly impressed. Well then, moving on. Juice was below 50% in all of CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and SCF% last season (And there is the Kevin Bieksa we all know). He has definitely lost a step and constantly finds himself out of position. He does provide some leadership and #gritz if that matters a lot to you, but it doesn’t to me.

What to expect: Bieksa is probably going to be over-utilized for the beginning of the season. Ideally, once everyone is healthy, he will be the 6/7 D-man. Bieksa is simply not good anymore, but I guess we could do worse for a 6th defenseman, just not sure how much worse.

Francois Beauchemin:

Francois Beachemin was below 50% in CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and GF% during his ‘16-’17 campaign with Colorado and was bought back to Anaheim over summer. That is not exactly the type of blueliner you want to pick up, but his HDCF% and GF% relative to his teammates was positive, meaning the main issue was the lackluster roster around Beauch and not the man himself. Once you add in the feels that Beauch can now retire as a Duck and I have now talked myself into not hating the deal.

What to expect: Beauchemin, like Bieksa, will probably get way more ice time than he should to start the season, but once everyone is healthy should settle into the 7th defenseman role quite nicely.

The Rest:

Korbinian Holzer was brought back to be the same trusty foot soldier he was the past two seasons with the Ducks. He is not the best defenseman in the world, but he is making $900k so I can’t complain too much. He will probably be the 6th or 7th d man for the first month of the season. Once everyone is healthy he might be put on waivers to get some playing time with the Gulls, but it would not shock me if we kept him as the 8th d man on the roster. He has shown the ability to fill this role without complaining over the last two seasons.

Jacob Larsson came into camp in pole position to make the Ducks roster to start the year, but the former 1st round pick didn’t have the most stellar showing in camp/preseason. There is a chance he is bumped off the lineup by a veteran defenseman but I would not be shocked if he is in the lineup October 5th. He is eligible to go to the Gulls without requiring waivers, so I expect him to be up and down throughout the season just like Theodore was last season.

Marcus Petterson turned a lot of heads with his performance in the rookie tournament, training camp, and the preseason games. He will start the season with Gulls, but don’t be shocked if he gets a call up at some point during the season.

Jaycob Megna is currently still on the Ducks training camp roster and has really impressed this preseason. If the 24-year-old is going to make the jump to the NHL, now is the time. I have to admit to not knowing a whole lot about his game, but he is starting to hit the age where he needs to show the organization he can hang in the NHL or the Ducks will cut him loose.

It probably does not need to be stated, but in order for the Ducks to be successful this season, their blueline will need to be really good and I certainly believe this will be the case. Once everyone is healthy, a top 5 D of Fowler, Lindholm, Vatanen, Manson, and Montour will rival any teams defense even if you add in an anchor like Bieksa or Beauchemin. Even if Bob Murray trades one of the 5 D man to address scoring issues, the Ducks have talent waiting in the wings that can step in and attempt to soften the blow. I have mentioned it a few times, but Anaheim’s play in October could be a key to this season. Will this Ducks defense sink or swim missing both Vatanen and Lindholm? I am inclined to believe they will swim like Ducks and be fine, but part of the fun is not knowing.

*All stats, except for points, are at ES. All stats are from Naturalstattrick.com and Hockeyreference.com. Opinions on Neutral Zone play formed from Sportsnets Article on Neutral Zone Play from the playoffs.