Ducks AHL/ECHL prospects update

By Kevin Forbes

With a season as one of the AHL‘s best followed by another placing them outside of the playoff picture, the roller coaster ride that has been Anaheim’s affiliation with the Portland Pirates has been well documented. Now in their third year of partnership and rumors swirling that it may be their last, the Pirates find themselves in the middle between the extremes of the previous two seasons.

There has been almost continuous tweaking of the Pirates lineup with a handful of trades and a number of NHL call-ups resulting in 30 players lacing up the skates for Portland. Just as much attention should be given to the players who chose not to report, with Dan Lacouture, Mark Mowers and Maxim Kondratiev all balking at their AHL assignment after they wore out their welcome with the Anaheim Ducks. All three players have since found homes with European teams.

Goaltenders

As has been an almost yearly tradition with the Pirates, there have been numerous players answering the call to strap on the pads for Portland this year. So far, the team has seen four goaltenders with their current tandem of Gerald Coleman and Mike McKenna seeing the majority of the time.

Coleman missed the start of the season after getting hit in the first game of the season. He didn’t return to regular action until more than a month later, in the middle of November. Since then, he’s been decidedly inconsistent with a record of 7-7-1 and a 2.95 GAA to go along with two shutouts and a .894 save percentage.

Although Coleman has seen the majority of the action since he returned to regular play in November, Mike McKenna has been a solid stopgap when the situation required it. A former Nashville prospect, McKenna was a free agent pickup by the Pirates and has a 7-3 record with a 2.79 GAA and .907 save percentage.

Defense

The big name on the blue line this season has been Brian Salcido. Breaking out in his second season of professional hockey, the former Colorado College defender currently leads all AHL defensemen in scoring with 31 points in 31 games. The catalyst for the AHL‘s fourth best power play, seven of Salcido’s eight goals have come with the man advantage, in addition to 10 of his 23 assists. Second on the team in scoring, the California native is making a strong case to see some ice time back in his home state, namely for the Ducks.

After Salcido, the Portland blue line has been a bit of a mish mash. Trades led to defensemen Clay Wilson, Aaron Rome and Nathan Saunders leaving town, although in Wilson’s case, he played this season solely as a forward for the Pirates. A trade also brought Bruno St. Jacques back to the organization, with the two-way blue liner being acquired by the Pirates before he was also signed to an NHL deal by the Ducks.

St. Jacques along with Joe Callahan, Andy Schneider and especially Eric Weinrich bring a veteran influence for the Pirates defense corps. The remainder of Portland’s blue line is rounded out by two young rookies in Brett Festerling and Brendan Mikkelson.

Festerling, 21, was the captain of the Vancouver Giants when they won the Memorial Cup last spring. He finds himself in a smaller role with the Pirates, playing in 29 games with the Pirates, sitting out five games due to coach’s decision. Never known for his offensive abilities, the British Columbia native has two goals and four points.

Festerling’s teammate in junior, Brendan Mikkelson has also had his bumps while adjusting to his first season of professional hockey. So far for the Pirates, Mikkelson has tallied three goals and nine points. Especially of note is that he is the only defenseman on the team to play in all 34 games. That’s extremely good news for the 20-year-old who had significant trouble with injuries during his time in the WHL.

Forwards

Like Salcido on defense, the big story up front in a former college player. Andrew Ebbett was signed by the Ducks during the off-season and he’s currently leading the team in scoring with nine goals and 37 points in 34 games, good enough for sixth in the league. Like Salcido, Ebbett has been an important part of the Pirates power play, with three goals and 18 points coming with the extra man.

Supporting the 24-year-old Ebbett are a number of players who have seen time both at the NHL level as well as with the Pirates. Bobby Ryan started the season with the Ducks, before being sent down to work on his game in Portland. After ten goals and 24 points in 25 games, he’s now back in Anaheim, looking to stick in the big leagues. In nine NHL games, he has three goals and four points.

Ryan Carter is also currently playing with the Ducks, although the trip between Portland and Anaheim is one that is becoming rather familiar. In 13 games with the Pirates, Carter scored three goals and had five points as well as a hard-nosed 38 penalty minutes. Meanwhile, in 10 NHL games, he has a single assist, playing a checking line role.

Acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in November, Geoff Platt wasted no time making his case for a trip to Anaheim, with 16 points in his first eight games as a Pirate. This led to a five-game audition with the Ducks, in which he was held pointless. Despite this setback, the Ontario native has been on an absolute tear since the trade. Prior to the deal, Platt had seven points in 15 games for Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Meanwhile, his time with the Pirates has brought 23 points in 16 games for an overall total of 30 points in 31 AHL games.

Petteri Wirtanen is another player who had a small cup of coffee at the NHL level before returning to the Pirates. In 32 AHL games, he’s scored four goals and has 11 points, while in three NHL games he has a single goal to his name. A shutdown center, Wirtanen’s influence doesn’t seem to be helping the Pirates penalty killing, which is currently ranked 26th in the league.

Stephen Dixon may not be scheduled to make his NHL debut, but he’s certainly shown the benefits that a change of scenery can bring. Acquired during the off-season from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dixon went from having only two points in his first nine games to eight goals and 19 points in 34 games. This is mostly thanks to a strong November and early December that saw him score at a point-per-game pace. Although he’s currently mired in a six-game slump without a point, Dixon has come a long way towards revitalizing his stock after being lost in the shuffle with the Penguins.

Michal Birner is another player looking for a fresh start. After requesting a trade out of Peoria, the St. Louis Blues draft pick was included in the Doug Weight deal and reported directly to the Pirates. So far, the Czech forward is still finding his place with Portland, with a goal and two assists in five games with the Pirates. When added to his totals with Peoria, Birner has three goals and ten points in 23 AHL games.

Another prospect finding his way, not just with Portland, but also with professional hockey in general is Ryan Dingle. A former standout with the University of Denver, Dingle had a four-game audition with the Pirates at the end of last season. This year, he has split time between the Augusta Lynx and the Portland Pirates. Currently playing with the Pirates, Dingle has a goal and five points in 15 AHL games. Meanwhile, during his 17 ECHL games, he scored six goals and had 17 points.

Meanwhile, Shane Hynes suffered a broken foot prior to the beginning of the AHL season and has yet to return to the ice. Hynes played the majority of the previous season with Augusta in the ECHL, where he was selected to play in the All Star Game. This isn’t the former Cornell star’s first problem with injuries, as his first professional year was marred by a knee injury that saw him miss all but 12 games.

Finally, Jason King is a 26-year-old winger who played in four games with the Ducks, being held scoreless. In 24 games of action with the Pirates, the former Vancouver prospect has 11 goals and 24 points. King is part of a core of players who are no longer considered prospects along with Matt Keith, Tyler Bouck, Brandon Segal, Mike Hoffman and Simon Ferguson.

ECHL

After 30 games, the Ducks affiliate in the ECHL, the Augusta Lynx, were in exactly the same place in the standings as they were at the end of the previous season: sixth overall in the American Conference.

Although five Anaheim prospects have played for the Lynx so far this season, by far the most compelling story has been a pair of rookie goaltenders. Both Bobby Goepfert and Jean-Philippe Levasseur are in their first season of professional hockey, but the similarities end there.

Goepfert, 24, has shown no lingering effects from the groin injury that led to him missing training camp and the beginning of the season. Although he has yet to play enough minutes to register among the league leaders between the pipes, his eye-popping 1.52 GAA and .940 save percentage easily place him as one of the top goaltenders in the ECHL, which immediately begs the question of how much longer he will remain in Augusta.

Levasseur, 20, is no slouch either with a 7-5-0-1 record and a 2.84 GAA placing him in the top 20 goaltenders in the ECHL. He has also posted a .900 save percentage and one shutout in 17 games of action, splitting duties with Goepfert since the college grad joined the team in late November. A former QMJHL standout, Levasseur should continue for the rest of the season with Augusta and will benefit from receiving as much experience as possible as he eases his way into professional hockey. Levasseur, in fact, started the season with the Pirates, playing in three games with a record of 1-2 and a 3.34 GAA and a .853 save percentage.

In addition to the goaltending tandem, a pair of Anaheim’s forward prospects has also played the majority of the year with the Lynx. Matt Auffrey and Bobby Bolt are both in their first season of professional hockey after playing last year in the Ontario Hockey League.

Auffrey, a former NCAA prospect before he made the jump to the CHL, is in fact without a contract with the Ducks due to a clause in the CBA that allows Anaheim to keep his rights until the summer of 2008 after the class he was drafted from graduates from university. With 11 goals and 24 points in 31 games, he’s making a strong case for that contract. His offensive prowess places him fourth on the Lynx and 16th among ECHL rookies, but his -11 plus/minus, the second worst on the team, is far less attractive. Auffrey, 21, is one of only three players with Augusta to appear in all 31 games so far this season and he’s a good bet to continue in the ECHL for the remainder of the year.

Bolt, 20, is having a bit of a rougher transition to the pro game. Missing the beginning of the season due to a broken hand suffered during the AHL’s preseason, Bolt has appeared in 25 games with the Lynx, tallying five goals and nine points.

Augusta also has featured a number of players who may be familiar to those who have followed the Ducks organization over the years. Prior to Goepfert’s assignment in November, former Anaheim prospects Nathan Marsters and David McKee tended the pipes in 11 games and one game, respectively. Meanwhile, up front, Igor Pohanka, a former New Jersey draft pick who spent time in Anaheim’s organization after the trade for Petr Sykora, has 15 points, while Matt Christie, a former Anaheim prospect when he played in the NCAA had 18 points in 19 games before being called up to the Pirates where he has six points in 11 games.