While Jakob Silfverberg, Devante Smith-Pelly, Rickard Rakell and Emerson Etem have all seemingly passed through the AHL and have landed in Anaheim full-time, the Ducks organization is still developing the next crop of talented forwards poised to make a name for themselves in the NHL.
One of those forwards is the Norfolk Admirals’ representative in this year’s AHL All-Star Classic, third-year pro Chris Wagner, who made his NHL debut with Anaheim in the Ducks’ regular season home debut earlier this season. It was his hot start in the AHL – a hat trick on opening night and his fourth goal of the season two nights later – that got him his first taste of NHL action.
“I had a good first weekend there and a few guys got hurt,” Wagner recalled of his first NHL call-up. “I kind of had the idea that I might get the call, but I didn’t imagine that I’d play in the home opener which was real special. It was awesome.”
Wagner has seen his role as well as his offensive output with the Admirals increase, including wearing an alternate captain’s “A” on his jersey, but he’s built his game around being solid defensively.
“What I was focusing on the first two years was my reads defensively,” Wagner said. “Coaches trust you more so you can get on the ice and then you worry about the offensive part. I’m not going to be a first- or second-line guy up there, so I have to work on good checking skills, PK and face-offs.”
After a 21-point rookie season in 2012-13, Wagner tallied 14 goals and 14 assists appearing in all 76 regular season games for Norfolk last season. So far this season, he’s tallied 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in 25 AHL games. The former Colgate standout’s continued improvement from season to season has warranted his receiving more ice time from his coaches.
“We’ve asked him to play a little more on the offensive side, playing our power play, but he sticks to his foundation of being a good penalty killer and a hard-nosed player to play against,” Admirals head coach Jarrod Skalde said of Wagner. “As long as he sticks to his identity, he’s a good player.”
Skalde also noted, having seen Wagner develop in each of his first two-and-a-half seasons in the organization, that his comfort level on the ice is rising steadily.
“A lot more confidence, Skalde said of Wagner, adding, “Confidence with the puck. Ability to make plays. He’s a lot stronger and stronger on pucks. All his details have gotten better, so much better over the last couple years and that confidence of getting up to the NHL sure helps, too.”
Another promising forward with the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Norfolk is rookie Nic Kerdiles, who currently leads the Admirals in scoring – one point ahead of Wagner – with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) through 38 games this season.
“I’m playing a 76-game schedule here, compared to my first year in college playing 32 games,” Kerdiles said of playing at the pro-level. “Last year I played 28 games. It’s going to be a long season for me and I just have to be ready to play every game.”
While he leads the Admirals offensively, Kerdiles is still going through the normal growing pains a rookie in professional hockey goes through while adjusting to the pro-game.
“I think it’s been up and down,” Kerdiles said of his rookie campaign so far. “I think I’ve had some good spurts where I’ve showed up and played, but it’s about being consistent and playing every game to the best of my ability.”
Skalde mirrored Kerdiles thoughts on the former University of Wisconsin standout who played for Team USA an the 2014 World Junior Championship last year.
“I thought tonight was one of his better games in a long time,” Skalde said of Kerdiles after the Admirals’ January 9th win. “I think Nick has gone through some ups and downs this year like every young guy does. He’s had some great moments and moments that have been tough for him with ice time and maybe not getting in on the offense but I think this was a big step for Nic moving forward.”
Despite starting the season in the NHL with Anaheim and being subsequently re-assigned to Norfolk, 22-year-old Swedish-born forward William Karlsson possesses “extreme talent and a very high hockey IQ” according to Skalde.
“It’s been fun,” Karlsson said of his first full season of pro hockey in North America and first stint in the NHL. “Even though I got sent down I’ve been playing a lot down here. It gives you a lot of confidence and I just want to be back. They want me to play a lot and obviously there was a lot of forwards up there so someone had to be sent down. I just try to stay on the positive side, just try to suck up all the ice time and do my best.”
Skalde is certainly high on Karlsson as a forward prospect, but as is the case with most young players coming into the pro ranks, he needs to work on his play away from the puck to round out his game.
“I think his battle level needs to be higher,” Skalde said of Karlsson’s play at this point in the season. “To play at the highest level you have to have a consistent battle level and I think with William, bringing that consistency every night and winning battles and protecting pucks is going to be something he needs to improve on to get back into the NHL.”
Even yet, Karlsson understands with his skill set that he’s likely to earn his next NHL recall when he rounds out his game and gains more confidence with puck.
“I haven’t put up so many points up there so it’s been kind of frustrating,” admitted Karlsson. “I’ve been creating chances and all that but I haven’t really put any in. I’d just like to try to get a few points and get all the confidence back, that’s the main thing I think.”
With players like Wagner, Kerdiles, and Karlsson in the pipeline, it’s safe to say the Ducks still have depth at the forward position, with several prospects looking to make it to the NHL in the near future.
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