Entering the first full season with GM Bob Murray at the helm, the Anaheim Ducks are at a crossroads for their franchise going forward. The mark of Brian Burke is still very visible on this team, and it will remain so for the next few seasons. There are many players in the system that fit Burke’s trademarks of aggression, size, toughness, and some scoring.
However, once Murray took over last season, he was able to put his own flavor on the team through some deadline deals and high-profile offseason moves. Murray traded for highly-touted prospects in Luca Sbisa and Nick Bonino, and was also to grab some offense at the draft in Peter Holland and Nick Palmieri.
Anaheim is very strong on the blueline going forward. There isn’t as much depth up front or in goal, but there are several promising players at both positions who may be on the right track.
Matt Beleskey is the most promising prospect at this position. He’s one of just five players in Anaheim’s system to land a job in the s=”HFlinkstyle” id=”HFlink” href=”/teams/ahl”>AHL, on San Antonio. The lineup is very deep, but Beleskey has a great chance there to claim a scoring role for himself in a lineup that features three Phoenix first-round picks. He looks to be a good bet to land a checking role some day, but should have the tools to improve on the 11 goals he scored as an AHL rookie.
A former first-round pick himself, Logan MacMillan is beginning his pro career with the ECHL‘s Bakersfield Condors. Anaheim was not happy with MacMillan at training camp. He could have landed an AHL job, but may have ended up in Bakersfield so Anaheim could keep a closer eye on him. The task for MacMillan this season will be to land a top-six role with Bakersfield, who could be the deepest team in the ECHL with all of the Anaheim prospects playing there.
Brandon McMillan has seen his stock take off considerably, mostly due to a very impressive performance in the WHL playoffs and Memorial Cup with Kelowna. McMillan switched to defense during this time, where his speed made him effective. He’s back up front this season, with a summer invitation to Canada’s under-20 Development Camp. He’s joined by Josh Brittain, Anaheim’s third-round pick in 2008. Brittain was definitely a Burke-style pick at 6’4, but will need to improve on last season’s 28 goals to move up the depth chart.
A pair of prospects, Shawn Weller and Bobby Bolt, have also started the season with Bakersfield. Anaheim picked up Weller, who has two years of AHL experience, from Ottawa last month for prospect Jason Bailey. Bolt enters a third season in the ECHL, where injuries limited him to just 11 games last season. Both prospects have good size and have scored at lower levels, so they’ll be given an opportunity to emerge as pros on the deep Condors club.
Matt McCue, who’s played forward and defense but is currently a left winger, is a heavyweight enforcer currently playing for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. McCue was signed by Anaheim in December and turned pro this season after racking up 45 fighting majors in 247 career WHL games.
Justin Vaive, another winger with tremendous size at 6’4, is now a junior at Miami University (Ohio), but has not yet shown the offensive touch of his father Rick, a three-time 50-goal scorer in the NHL.
Anaheim added Peter Holland with the first of two first-round picks this past June. Holland is an offensive player who fits the Ducks’ style of size and strength. Holland has skill, and the ability to score goals from anywhere, but needs to improve upon his game-to-game intensity and defensive game. He has time to develop and certainly does have the ability to be a true top-six scorer, something that is currently lacking among Anaheim’s current prospects.
Petri Kontiola is a smaller, skilled center acquired from Chicago in the trade that also brought James Wisiniewski to Anaheim. He’s currently playing in the KHL after two strong years in the AHL and might be the victim of Anaheim not having their own AHL affiliate. Fellow Finn Petteri Wirtanen may be in the same boat, as he returned to the Finnish Elite League after three seasons in the AHL. Both remain Anaheim property.
Bonino was also acquired at the deadline, from San Jose, and was second in scoring as a sophomore for Boston University, who went on to win the national championship. He has size and great vision on the ice. He looks to be one of those players who the puck just follows around the ice, as he is always in the right place.
Nicolas Deschamps was the 35th overall pick in the 2008 draft, but did not improve on his offensive totals from his rookie season. Still a point-per-game player, Deschamps needs to emerge as a leader and set himself as one of the league’s top scorers to be considered a top prospect, as he as not as gifted defensively as offensively. He’s off to a good start with 14 points in 12 games.
A pair of rookies have started their professional careers in Bakersfield. MacGregor Sharp was signed this offseason as a free agent after a breakout season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he scored 50 points. At the other end of the spectrum, Maxime Macenauer is turning professional after an inconsistent QMJHL career. He was drafted early despite injuries limiting him to four points in 14 in his draft year. He scored 60 points the following season, but fell to just 40 last season.
Rounding out the list is 2009 fifth-round pick Radoslav Illo. Illo is a long-term project, entering his third season in the United States (second in the USHL) after developing in Slovakia. He scored 21 goals as a rookie with the Tri-City Storm and is looking to play college hockey next season.
Anaheim has no natural right wingers, but the excess at left wing and center will likely result in players being shifted around all season. Two prospects have already made the switch to start the season.
The first is Kyle Palmieri, who Anaheim took with its second of two first-round picks in 2009. At 5’10, Palmieri doesn’t fit the typical makeup of a Duck forward. However, he plays a game that will mesh very well within the system. He is a playmaking forward with an exceptional two-way game. After a rocky season with the US National Development Team, Palmieri is now a freshman at Notre Dame.
The second is another new prospect, free-agent winger Dan Sexton. Sexton was signed after leading Bowling Green State University, who finished last in the CCHA, in scoring with 39 points in 38 games. After not getting into opening weekend game action in San Antonio, was sent down to Bakersfield.
While offensive depth is improving, but still spotty, defensive depth has never looked stronger in Anaheim. They have enough young defensemen to keep the defensive corps solid for years to come. They have several defensemen that look like sure bets for the top six some day, and a strong enough group after that where it’s likely they’ll find another one or two for depth down the road.
One of the biggest offseason moves was the trade that sent Chris Pronger to Philadelphia. Coming back to Anaheim was Luca Sbisa, who is currently the team’s best prospect. The 2008 draft brought on several defensemen who made the NHL at the age of 18, and many forget that Sbisa was among that group. He was sent back to the WHL after 39 games, but picked up where he left off, making Anaheim out of camp as a second-year player. Sbisa’s game is not flashy, but he does have some offensive ability. Patience is key, as while he doesn’t look out of place in the NHL at all, it could be a few seasons until he evolves into the top-four mainstay he was viewed as when he was drafted.
Further down the road is last year’s first-round pick, Jake Gardiner. Now a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Gardiner has all the tools to be Anaheim’s top power-play quarterback in a few years. Right now the focus is getting stronger and staying consistent, but he’s already got a big role on a Badger defensive corps that boasts a lineup full of NHL draft picks.
Mark Mitera is a third first-round pick in the system who has finally turned pro after a four-year career at Michigan. Drafted in 2006, he was progressing as planned until an injury forced him to sit out for nearly his entire senior season. Mitera is now in the AHL playing with San Antonio, and could push for an NHL roster spot as soon as next year.
Filling up the top group of prospects are two players who have already made an impact in the NHL. Brendan Mikkelson played 34 games last season, but started this one with Toronto in the AHL. He’s been called up already to fill in for the injured James Wisniewski, but could end up sticking around depending on the health of other defenders. Brett Festerling has started in San Antonio, but played 40 games for the Ducks last year and did not look out of place as a bottom-pairing defender.
Atop the second tier group of defenders is Matt Clark, a 2009 draftee from the OHL‘s Brampton Battalion. He had 23 points as a rookie, but he’s more of a physical, defensive defenseman. He’s got the size and skating ability to get to the NHL some day, and just needs to stay consistent and healthy to get there. He is the most physical of Anaheim’s top defensive prospects.
One of the biggest projects in the system is a teammate of Gardiner, Badger freshman Justin Schultz. Schultz is a lanky defenseman with great speed and offensive ability — evidenced by his 50 points in 49 games in the BCHL this season. Now as a newcomer on a deep team, he will fight for ice time and work on getting stronger for the future.
In the professional ranks, Stu Bickel and John de Gray are both second-year players who find themselves in the ECHL after spending last season in the AHL. Bickel was signed by Anaheim after one season with the University of Minnesota, but only played 21 games last season, all with the Iowa Chops, and is now in Bakersfield. de Gray appeared in 62, but is likewise starting the season in the ECHL. The challenge for both will be to improve confidence and emerge as top defenders in Bakersfield, to be as ready as possible to stick in the AHL whenever they get the chance.
In addition to Clark, Anaheim took a pair of long-term projects in this past draft. Sami Vatanen came out of the under-18 World Championships as a big riser, and Anaheim landed him in the fourth round. Vatanen is small at 5’9, but he is effective with his stick on defense and he is an excellent puck-mover. He has debuted in the Finnish Elite League with six points in 13 games. Anaheim landed the physical Scott Valentine int he sixth round. Valentine is a defensive defensemen with good size, but needs to work on skating and puck skills for the next level.
Ryan Hegarty and Nick Pryor are teammates for a second time now at the University of Maine, after both being drafted from US National Development Team in 2008. Hegarty is a sophomore, but was limited to just 24 games as a freshman. He is not flashy, so he needs to stay consistent and get a little stronger to be the steady, reliable defenseman the Black Bears need him to be. Pryor spent last season in the USHL, putting up 24 points in 43 games. His skating ability and big shot will be an asset to the offensively-starved Black Bears.
Rounding out the list are Steven Kampfer, Stefan Warg, and Eric Regan. Kampfer is now a senior at the University of Michigan and is a regular in the lineup, having his junior season limited by two injuries. Warg is entering his second season with Seattle as a hard-working defensive defenseman. Eric Regan was signed as a free agent by Anaheim last season after an impressive rookie season with Iowa, but now finds himself in Bakersfield.
Anaheim boasts a large number of goaltending prospects, but there is no clear favorite in this group. None look like the long-term answer in goal.
Right now, the highest on the depth chart is Justin Pogge, with several years of AHL experience under his belt in Toronto’s system. He was acquired in the offseason by Anaheim, and started with Bakersfield before recently being called up to Anaheim due to injury.
Intriguing is Mattias Modig of Lulea in the Swedish Elite League. He played in 40 games and posted strong numbers as a first-year starter last season, but so far this season has only seen three games as he has lost the starting job to Islanders prospect Anders Nilsson.
Next up are Igor Bobkov, Timo Pielmeier, and Marco Cousineau. Bobkov was drafted this summer after winning the Best Goaltender award at the under-18 World Championships. He has good size, but poor technique and a weak glove hand. Pielmeier is in Bakersfield now after two years in the QMJHL, where he went 30-9 last season. He was acquired from San Jose alongside Bonino, but has a ways to climb up the depth chart before he sees any NHL time. Cousineau had an average regular season before starring for Drummondville at the Memorial Cup, as the best goaltender in the tournament.
Sebastian Stefaniszin served as the backup for Iserlohn in the DEL last season, with a 3.34 GAA and a .903 save percentage. Due to the lack of an AHL affiliate, Jean-Philippe Levasseur finds himself starting the season in the Central Hockey League after playing about half of Iowa’s games last season.