Ducks 2007-08 AHL/ECHL season review

By Kevin Forbes

Anaheim’s three-year affiliation with the Portland Pirates ended in similar fashion to how it began: with a trip to the AHL conference finals. Although nothing has been officially announced, reports indicate that the two teams are ending their partnership and finding new affiliates for the upcoming 2008-09 season. Rumors point to the Ducks affiliating with Iowa, previously used by the Dallas Stars, while it appears the Buffalo Sabres will be the new NHL affiliate for Portland. Anaheim’s three-year deal with the Pirates resulted in a regular season record of 135-76-13-16 and two trips to the AHL conference finals.

Goaltenders

Although the majority of the goaltending duties in Portland were handled by journeyman netminder Mike McKenna and later by veteran J.S. Aubin, two Anaheim prospects did see time between the pipes for the Pirates.

Jean-Philippe Levasseur played in 10 games in his first professional year. He compiled a 4-5-1 record, with a 2.50 goals against average and a .886 save percentage. His most impressive performance came during a game at the end of January where he stopped 21 shots en route to his first AHL shutout. A product of the Quebec "goaltender factory", Levasseur is expected to challenge for more time at the AHL level in the upcoming season.

Gerald Coleman spent most of the season with the Pirates, but was kept to appearances in just 18 games, ending with a 2.91 GAA and a .896 save percentage. Although he posted a winning record of 8-7-1 with two shutouts, the Illinois native’s season was off kilter from the start. He suffered a concussion in the Pirates very first game of the season and the symptoms lingered throughout the season. Once healthy, his spot in the lineup appeared to have been stolen and so he also saw time in nine ECHL games with the Augusta Lynx, going 2-5 with a 2.64 GAA and a .902 save percentage. Although Coleman appeared to be healthy by the season’s end, one has to wonder if there will be long-term lasting effects from the injury. Certainly this has to be a question on the Ducks’ mind, as Coleman enters the off-season as a restricted free agent.

Defense

It was a year of change for the Portland blue line. Only two defensemen who ended the 2006-07 season with the Pirates (Eric Weinrich and Brian Salcido) were still playing for the squad at the end of their 2007-08 campaign. Trades and signings brought in veterans such as Jay Leach, Joe Callahan and the return of Bruno St. Jacques for another tour with the Pirates. These players were supplemented by up and coming prospects such as Brendan Mikkelson and Brett Festerling.

The true star of the show on the blue line was Brian Salcido. In his 71 games of AHL action, he not only led all Pirate defensemen, but came second in among all AHL defenders with 53 points. Salcido’s improved presence during the man advantage undoubtedly had much to do with Portland’s rise from 20th in the league for power-play efficiency in 2006-07 to ninth in 2007-08, with eight of his 11 goals and 27 of his points coming when Portland had the extra man. However, statistically, he was not as productive during the Pirates playoff run to the conference finals. In 18 playoff games, he contributed just six assists to the score sheet, third among Portland defensemen. Molding himself into a two-way force, Salcido is waiting for his first shot at NHL and will be entering an important training camp this fall in Anaheim.

Brendan Mikkelson and Brett Festerling did not make as much of a splash as Salcido. In their first year in the AHL, the two former junior teammates parlayed the emotional high of winning the Memorial Cup with the Vancouver Giants into a pair of solid and promising rookie campaigns.

Mikkelson, a smooth-skating two-way type, saw his role with the team grow as the year went on and as he grew more confident in his abilities. After suffering through a number of traumatic injuries during his junior career, Mikkelson missed 12 games of the 80-game schedule, mostly due to a wrist injury that saw him sit out all but three games in the month of February. In the 66 games he did play, the Saskatchewan native scored six goals and had 16 points, placing him fifth among the team’s defensemen in scoring. His play stepped up a notch during the postseason, where he appeared in 14 games and had two goals and eight points, placing him second on the team in defensive scoring. Mikkelson’s responsibilities should increase next season and he will be expected to take another step on his development path.

Brett Festerling‘s style contrasts Mikkelson’s game dramatically. Whereas the younger Mikkelson relies on his skating ability to contribute at both ends of the ice, Festerling revels in keeping things under control in his own end and doesn’t back down from using his body to ensure that control is not disrupted. A physical defensive blue liner, Festerling saw time in 74 games, missing a handful during the first half of the year due to coach’s decision. Although he’ll never be confused for Salcido or even Mikkelson, he did pot three goals and finished the year with 14 points. Over the course of 15 playoff games, he scored another goal, a game winner against Hartford and had four points. Like Mikkelson, Festerling can expect larger responsibilities in the 2008-09 season, especially if the team chooses to not bring back some of their veterans on the back line.

In addition to this trio of Ducks prospects, two other Anaheim prospects saw a short amount of time with the Pirates. John deGray joined the team after the junior team he captained, the Brampton Battalion was eliminated from the OHL playoffs. He appeared in six regular-season games for the Pirates and also laced them up in another three playoff matchups, although he has yet to register on the score sheet at the AHL level. If those nine games were a tryout for something larger, then deGray must have passed with flying colors as he was rewarded with a three-year entry-level contract from the Ducks. deGray should play his rookie season of professional hockey with the Ducks AHL affiliate, wherever that may be. A defense-first blue liner, deGray should have a similar impact to Brett Festerling‘s rookie year in 2008-09.

Like deGray, Kyle Klubertanz joined the team after his season was done. However, the similarities end there. Though deGray is a stay-at-home defenseman from the OHL, Klubertanz is a two-way blueliner who has played the last four seasons with Wisconsin in the NCAA. He joined the Pirates at the beginning of April and appeared in the last five games of the regular season as well as a single postseason game. Like deGray, Klubertanz was also held scoreless, however the Wisconsin native has yet to be signed by the Ducks and some rumors point to him signing a deal with a team in Europe.

Forwards

Similar to the composition of the Pirates blue line, their forward corps was a medley of veteran AHL players and young prospects, all vying for time to make an impression. Leading the charge was a trio of Ducks prospects in Andrew Ebbett, Geoff Platt and Bobby Ryan.

Ebbett’s first season as a member of the Ducks proved to be nothing short of astounding, with the British Columbia native leading all Pirates in regular-season scoring with 72 points in 74 games. Lethal with the man advantage, 28 of Ebbett’s points came on the power play. All of this was enough for him to earn a quick look at the NHL level, with him appearing in three games for the Ducks. He continued to score at just a hair under a point-a-game pace when the playoffs rolled around, scoring six goals and having 17 points in 18 post-season games. Despite his size at 5’9, Ebbett will be challenging for an NHL spot when the Ducks camp opens in the fall.

Geoff Platt‘s impact on the Pirates was just as strong after he joined the team early on in the year. He finished the season with 65 points in 75 games, with 58 of those points coming in the 60 games he played for the Pirates. Like Ebbett, he fought through the negative stigma of being undersized at 5’9 and appeared in five games for the Ducks. Also like Ebbett, his production in the postseason near matched his regular season contributions of just a shade less than a point-per-game, with eight goals and 17 points in 18 playoff games. Already a veteran of 46 NHL games, he’ll be bidding for a full time role in the fall.

Bobby Ryan‘s story bears little resemblance to either Ebbett or Platt. Unlike the duo, who both were undrafted free agent signings, Ryan entered the 2007-08 season, his first as a professional hockey player, with plenty of expectations due to his high draft position, second overall in 2005. Bouncing between the AHL and the NHL, Ryan’s contributions at the AHL level were consistent throughout the year, finishing with 21 goals and 49 points in 48 games, placing him eighth amongst AHL rookies. Returned to the Pirates shortly into their playoff run, Ryan stepped up his game to lead the team with eight goals and 20 points in 16 games, which currently places him sixth in the AHL and second among AHL rookies, with a few games left to play in the Calder Cup final. A burgeoning power forward, Ryan expects to earn his way into a full-time role with the Ducks in 2008-09.

Drew Miller is another player who will be looking for a longer stay in the NHL in 2008-09, after playing in 26 games there during the recently ended season. A two-way winger with an NCAA pedigree, the New Jersey native appeared in 31 regular-season games for the Pirates, scoring 16 goals and finishing with 36 points. Hampered with a high-ankle sprain for most of the second half of the year, Miller’s offensive abilities were dimmed when the playoffs rolled around. His sole goal and eight points in 16 postseason games were well off his regular season pace.

Injuries and missing time were not a problem for Stephen Dixon. In his three years of AHL hockey, he has yet to miss a single regular-season game. This year represented his most productive so far, sniping 17 goals and finishing with 45 points in a perfect 80-game year. Like most of his teammates, he raised his game to another level in the playoffs, scoring six goals including two game winners and finishing with 10 points in 18 games. With many of the players ahead of him on the depth chart expected to challenge to move up, Dixon can only reap the benefits of increased ice time and a larger role next season.

Petteri Wirtanen has already had a taste of the NHL, but he’s far from purchasing any property in the California area. In his second season in North America, the Finnish forward has a strong year with ten goals and 37 points in 78 games, all improvements of his efforts during his rookie year. Unfortunately, the playoffs were not as prosperous and the defensive minded pivot was held pointless all through the Pirates’ 18-game playoff run.

Michal Birner‘s rough spot wasn’t exclusively localized to the playoffs. After a strong rookie campaign as a member of the Peoria Rivermen, the St. Louis Blues draft pick was dealt to Anaheim partway through the season. His nine goals and 20 points in 58 games represent decreases across the board and his two goals and three points in the 15 games during the postseason don’t inspire confidence. A high-scoring forward in his home country of the Czech Republic as well as in the OHL, Birner’s scoring touch appears to have been lost somewhere along the way.

ECHL

Along the same lines as situation with the Pirates, the Ducks are also ending their relationship with the ECHL Augusta Lynx. In this case, Anaheim’s new affiliate is known, with Ducks prospects set to play for the Bakersfield Condors, located in California, during the 2008-09 season.

Augusta squeaked into the playoffs as the seventh seed in the South Division and it took South Carolina the full five-game series to eliminate them in the first round. Five Anaheim prospects played with the Lynx during the 2007-08 season.

Bobby Goepfert was the most noticeable addition to the Lynx. A former NCAA standout goaltender, Goepfert filled the role of starting goaltender for Augusta, appearing in 33 regular season games with a record of 16-15-1, including three shutouts. His 2.60 GAA and .912 save percentage led the team, who used five netminders over the course of the season. However, he could not stop the team from faltering in the playoffs, finishing with a 2-2 record and a solid 2.39 GAA and a .932 save percentage.

Jean-Philippe Levasseur spent the majority of his season with the Lynx, sharing time with Goepfert. In 29 regular season games, he finished with a record of 10-11-0-2, with a 2.99 GAA and a .900 save percentage. He also appeared in a single playoff game, a loss.

Up front, Matt Auffrey was the most notable Ducks prospect. Fighting for a contract, Auffrey remained Ducks property due to his early departure from college and subsequent time in the OHL. Although it appears that he was not signed by the June 1 deadline, Auffrey’s 25 goals and 50 points in 72 games were good enough for second on the Lynx in scoring. In the playoffs, he had a pair of goals and four points in five playoff games.

Ryan Dingle split his first professional season between the Pirates and the Lynx, but spent the majority of his time with the Lynx. A sniper for Denver in the NCAA, Dingle garnered only 10 goals and 27 points in 50 ECHL games. Meanwhile, he had just a single goal and six points in 19 AHL games with the Pirates. With just a single assist in the five ECHL playoff games and the same result in a pair of AHL playoff games, more is expected from the Colorado native who the Ducks signed as a free agent.

Bobby Bolt parlayed a strong season in the OHL into an NHL contract, but struggled in his first season of pro hockey. Seeing action almost exclusively in the ECHL with the Lynx, Bolt finished the year with 15 goals and 26 points in 62 games. Despite his lumbering build on the ice, he proved to be a shorthanded threat, leading the team with three shorthanded markers. Hampered by a hand injury at the beginning of the season, Bolt did get the chance to move up and see action in four AHL games with the Pirates in March but was unable to crack the score sheet. In five playoff games for the Lynx, he had a single goal.