Turnovers in hockey have an intoxicating effect on perception. They leave a lasting visual in the mind of the observer, serving as a final tipping point for unbridled rage towards a struggling team or player.
A turnover by Kevin Bieksa on Feburary 13th, 2018, may have left a visual that tipped Anaheim Ducks’ general manager Bob Murray’s perception of his own team. Already vocally frustrated with his club’s play beforehand, the tape-to-tape turnover to set up a Dylan Larkin goal in a loss to the hapless Detroit Red Wings may have had Murray seeing Detroit red the rest of the night. Much like it may have been a tipping point in Murray’s mind, it also became a tipping point in Anaheim’s season, and maybe in Brandon Montour’s career.
Bieksa would be a healthy scratch the very next game. The Ducks’ coaching staff would roll out a brand new set of defense pairings that Friday night in Chicago. Josh Manson would buoy along the freshly called-up Marcus Pettersson, while Montour and Cam Fowler skated alongside one another the entire night. While Manson would eventually re-join Hampus Lindholm in the games to come, Montour and Fowler became a fixture on the Anaheim back end.
Up to that point in the season, Montour struggled at five-on-five next to the veteran Francois Beauchemin. Together for nearly three quarters of the year, the two never meshed. The Ducks were badly out-chanced with them at five-on-five, exposing Montour’s inexperience in the defensive zone. He never seemed comfortable, far too often settling for simply chipping the puck out instead of making a play. No one was writing him off quite yet, but the jury was firmly out.
The Fowler partnership propelled Montour in a positive direction. Next to the high-flying Fowler, Montour seemed more comfortable using his skills to break the puck out of the defensive zone. Perhaps too afraid to make mistakes next to the conservative Beauchemin, the 24-year old appeared to have struck a balance between cautious and creative. The numbers certainly reflected the positive change, as he enjoyed a spike in both his on-ice shot and chance control numbers.
Montour's deal is worth $3.25M in 2018-19 and $3.525M in 2019-20. AAV of $3,387,500.— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) July 24, 2018
A successful pairing with Fowler is not easy to come by in Anaheim. The former 12th overall pick has never had a Manson to his Lindholm throughout his career. With names like Andreas Lilja, Francois Beauchemin, Kevin Bieksa, and Ben Lovejoy on the list, it’s not hard to understand why. So for him to thrive on this new pairing is no small thing for Anaheim, and makes the two-year $6.8 million extension that Montour received this Tuesday all the more valuable.
The Ducks will ice two very capable defense pairings in 2018-19. It’s unclear if that would be the case without Montour’s ascension. Carlyle will be able to ride his top-four, something he just wasn’t able to do last season with Bieksa and Beauchemin’s presence in the lineup. The result should be vastly improved underlying numbers at five-on-five, something that hasn’t been commonplace in recent years.
Montour’s ripple effect alone could justify his new contract, but there’s room for growth as well. Anaheim’s power play was rough to watch last year, as Murray made perfectly clear in a recent interview. Steve Konowalchuk, who ran that show before, got canned as a result. Part of optimizing that man advantage will be optimizing Montour’s most obvious strength: his shot.
Although not an imposing guy, he connects on one-timers with a heaviness that’s just not all that commonplace on this roster. The Ducks actually looked like they had a modern power play when the right-handed Ryan Getzlaf was seamlessly feeding pucks to the also right-handed Montour in the left circle. That’s how most of the good units are built these days, so it’s no surprise that the Ducks had some of their highest expected goal numbers at five-on-four when Montour was on the ice.
Clearly, there’s room for growth when it comes to Montour. He will be 26 when his new deal expires, and he could command a much bigger payday by then. Or he might not. The two-year term is a reasonable bet for Anaheim, definitely showing faith in what Montour accomplished late in 2017-18, but also not backing up the Brink’s truck either. In a word: sensible. Although all of this may have started with a ghastly turnover in February, Tuesday’s deal assures there won’t be much turnover on Anaheim’s blueline for at least the next two years.