Training camp is well underway in Anaheim, although it may be lacking in the type of drama that one might have reasonably expected.
The injuries to Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen were already known going into camp, with their return date now set for early November. Already sooner than what was initially expected, Francois Beauchemin was brought back to town as a veteran insurance policy.
Beauchemin’s arrival insures that Anaheim’s blueline on opening night will be almost completely made up of NHL regulars. All of a sudden, the anxiety caused by both Lindholm and Vatanen’s absences dissipates in a hurry.
The report of Ryan Kesler’s injury early on in main camp, however, was a bombshell.
Anaheim’s go-to defensive pivot isn’t expected to be back anytime before December — the hope being that he can be back before Christmas. With the news of Kesler’s injury came the announcement that Rickard Rakell would begin the season at center, something that hasn’t been seen in over a year now.
Although Kesler’s injury certainly appears crippling at first glance, Rakell’s shift to center makes for a rather normal-looking Ducks’ forward group, even without the 2017 Selke finalist. Ryan Getzlaf is still the man in the middle on the first line, while Antoine Vermette will once again be called upon to win a truck-load of faceoffs.
All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t any battles left to watch in camp. Here are the two most realistic ones remaining, with a number of contestants in each.
Fourth Line Center
Rakell’s move back to center saved Anaheim from a rather unsavory group of centers to start the season. Even so, Kesler’s prolonged absence means that the fourth pivot spot is up for grabs, and there are a number of candidates in the running for it.
Dennis Rasmussen, Chris Wagner, and Logan Shaw all have experience at center. By the same token, none have been able to consistently stay in an NHL lineup, and all have been used interchangeably at the wing. Although it feels like their experience should give them the inside track, none of them should be considered locks for the position.
Another player in the running here collected a casual 131 points in 66 games in the WHL last year. His name is Sam Steel, you may have heard of him. Steel lit up “the dub” last year, and management certainly has to be intrigued to see what he looks like at the NHL level after three seasons of junior.
The Ducks can give Steel the customary nine-game trial for junior players without burning a year of his ELC, and without incurring much risk. Should he impress within that time frame, Anaheim can then keep him all the way to the 40-game mark without shaving off a year of his unrestricted free agency eligibility (think back to Leon Draisatil’s audition in Edmonton just a couple of seasons ago).
Steel will get every opportunity to earn that spot in camp. He’s looked good in both the white-versus-black scrimmage and the Prospect Showcase. Randy Carlyle has him skating with Corey Perry and Giovanni Fiore (who also looks good), so clearly there’s a desire to see what he can do on a top line. Don’t be surprised if the 19-year old is in a Ducks’ uniform come opening night.
Much like the race for the fourth-line center spot, Anaheim has a bevy of options for it’s sixth defenseman. The outcome in this race is far murkier, however.
Cam Fowler and Josh Manson seems like a good bet to be the first pairing. Beauchemin and Brandon Montour are then the logical fit for the second pairing — a young offensive talent safeguarded by a veteran stay-at-home guy. Naturally, Kevin Bieksa will be in the lineup on the right side, leaving the left side open on the third pairing.
Jacob Larsson got a taste of NHL action last season, and management would surely like to see what kind of progress he made in his year in the SHL. His countryman Marcus Pettersson could give him a run for his money, as he’s been impressive thus far. He combines a long reach with a smooth skating stride and passing ability.
Jaycob Megna was positive goal-impact player at 5v5 in San Diego last season, and he’s held his own among the litany of quality blueliners in camp. He’s a solid puck-mover, and could be an intriguing option thanks to his lanky 6 feet 6 inches tall frame.
Josh Mahura stood out in the Prospect Showcase thanks to his all-around play, but he’s a long-shot to make it thanks to his remaining junior ability, and the sheer fact that there are so many guys ahead of him. Andy Welinski’s name was also brought up before camp as a potential fit in Anaheim, but he’ll need to show more if he wants to claim a spot.
Last — but certainly not least — is the veteran Korbinian Holzer, who may beat everyone out when the dust settles. Carlyle didn’t mind deploying him next to Bieksa last season, even if it meant skating on his off-side. His contract was re-upped this summer, so clearly management thinks he belongs within a talented defense corps.
Fourth-line center and third-pairing defenseman aren’t exactly the positions that come to mind when thinking of high-profile training camp battles, but that’s the situation the Ducks currently find themselves in.
Whether they choose to give a high-profile prospect, a journey-man, or an established veteran a spot, the Ducks. Giving the youth a chance could be a smart long term play, but the dogfight that is the regular season could drive them away from that approach.