As the Dallas Eakins era begins, perhaps the biggest question mark facing the Anaheim Ducks is the defensive corps. Several articles have been published regarding the embarrassment of riches Anaheim once held at the rearguard position, but times have changed. After the top trio (Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson), which players are featured and how they will be deployed remains to be seen.
Some of last season felt like general system failure. Losing 17 of 19 games under Randy Carlyle wasn’t fun for anyone to watch and that stretch was shocking even to observers who expected the team to struggle. There are real uncertainties, particularly pertaining to the bottom pair. Even if one concedes that Josh Mahura will be sent to San Diego, with only six slots available on any given night there are choices to be made.
2018-2019 Stats: 76 GP, 6 G, 22 A, 49.74 CF%, 48.84 xGF%
Current Contract: Three years left at $5,205,556 AAV
Lindholm is entering his seventh NHL season at just 25 years of age. He posted a career worst 4.8% shooting percentage last season, with just one goal on the power play. By contrast, he converted 9.9% of shots the season prior and 6.6% over his career. Lindholm has reached double-digit goals in two seasons so far and once racked up 15 power play points in 2015-16. Still, his biggest strength remains playing shutdown defense. His expected goals for (xGF%) in 2018-19 led all defensemen who regularly played for the Ducks. In a generally dreadful season for the franchise as a whole, Lindholm stood out as a positive force. Just imagine if Lindholm receives enough puck luck to have another performance like the one from December 22, 2017 in Brooklyn.
2018-2019 Stats: 59 GP, 5 G, 18 A, 44.91 CF%, 39.80 xGF%
Current Contract: Seven years left at $6,500,000 AAV
Speaking of hat tricks, Fowler experienced his own last season before the season went off the rails. By doing so, he joined Lindholm and Lubomir Visnovsky in an exclusive club of Anaheim defensemen to notch hat tricks. Unfortunately for his team, Fowler missed two months with a facial injury after being struck by a puck off the stick of Nashville’s Craig Smith. Fowler would appear in only 59 contests which was the fewest in any of his non-lockout shortened seasons. When he returned, Fowler posted only two points combined in January and February before a stronger finish (two goals, nine assists from March through the end of the season). As with many Ducks players, his shot attempt percentage dropped sharply from 48.89% in 2017-18. Fortunately, Fowler has the skating skill and offensive aptitude to improve on that.
2018-2019 Stats: 74 GP, 3 G, 13 A, 46.69 CF%, 45.23 xGF%
Current Contract: Three years left at $4,100,000 AAV
Ducks fans were allowed a longer look into Manson’s off-ice life last season when he visited the NHL’s Media Day. He came off as a fun-loving guy relishing his chance in a bigger spotlight. Manson’s easy going personality seems to bely the fact that he has been one of Anaheim’s chief intimidating presences over the last few seasons. Even when he is throwing clean hits, you can end up with the play below that occurred against Nashville last November. The question is how much offense he can reliably be counted on to supply. Manson produced a career high seven goals and a whopping 30 assists two years ago without the benefit of the power play. Last season, his offense dipped in tandem with the Ducks’ overall scoring (196 goals for in 2018-19 compared to 231 in 2017-18). Manson is a trusted penalty killer and should continue to occupy that role.
Michael Del Zotto
2018-2019 Stats: 42 GP, 1 G, 9 A, 50.16 CF%, 48.49 xGF%
Current Contract: One year left at $750,000 AAV
Del Zotto began his NHL career with the New York Rangers a decade ago and burst onto the scene with 37 points, 22 of which were earned with the man advantage. Del Zotto got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues last season without appearing in a playoff game, but not before he donned Anaheim and Vancouver sweaters along the way. If you missed his previous stint in Orange County, nobody will fault you because he only logged 12 games in a forgettable portion of the campaign. Given the current roster composition, Del Zotto can contribute offensively and in man-advantage situations but may be limited to more sheltered third pairing minutes.
Michael del Zotto treats a nice young lady to a shot out of the Stanley Cup on her 81st birthday. pic.twitter.com/todj0mLHAX— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) July 11, 2019
2018-2019 Stats: 8 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 50.24 CF%, 43.91 xGF%
Current Contract: One year left at $697,500 AAV (RFA in 2020-2021)
General Manager Bob Murray acquired Guhle and a first round draft choice (Brayden Tracey) from the Buffalo Sabres last season in exchange for Brandon Montour. Guhle played six games for the Ducks and two for Buffalo in 2018-19, so the stats can only illustrate so much. In any event, Guhle has been turning heads with his preseason play. He registered a goal and an assist in Tuesday’s 4-1 exhibition victory against the San Jose Sharks. Even the Fox Sports broadcast team mentioned the “final three spots” on defense available and Guhle finds himself firmly in the mix.
As Guhle said in an interview: “It’s a good opportunity and it’s kind of up for grabs now. I’m trying to make my best impression and do the best I can.”
Over his final two seasons with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, he managed 13 goals and 40 assists in precisely 100 games. Eakins could really use that kind of offensive potential in the lineup. Guhle could be a candidate to play a part on the power play as well.
2018-2019 Stats: 49 GP, 0 G, 5 A, 47.63 CF%, 48.70 xGF%
Current Contract: One year left at $894,166 AAV (RFA in 2020-2021)
Larsson spent more than half of last season with the Ducks which is a tad longer than I would have guessed. He didn’t register any regular season tallies for the Ducks or Gulls. However, Larsson did contribute to San Diego’s playoff push with a tidy two goals and five assists over the course of the AHL postseason. As a 2015 first round pick, there is a sense that Larsson should be ready for primetime at this juncture and Eakins has made some positive comments about his game recently. He should be motivated to keep his slot in the lineup. As if we needed proof, Larsson’s first period slap shot generated a rebound for Adam Henrique to put home in Wednesday’s 2-0 exhibition win over the Los Angeles Kings.
2018-2019 Stats: 22 GP, 1 G, 3 A, 47.61 CF%, 49.17 xGF%
Current Contract: One year left at $850,000 AAV
The Ducks retained Holzer back in June after a wrist ailment cost him much of 2018-19. He spent 12 games in San Diego before returning to the Ducks in February.
Holzer explained: “For me, after that injury I had coming into the season I didn’t know what to expect. I think it’s just a reward for me, personally.”
Holzer has remained in the Anaheim organization since 2015, earning respect from the front office because he doesn’t sulk when he is designated as a healthy scratch. Holzer remains renowned in his native Germany for a game-winning goal over the United States during the 2016 IIHF World Championships. Max Jones fed Holzer for his lone goal in Anaheim’s final game last season.