Anaheim’s 2007 Stanley Cup victory came at a cost to Ducks organizational pipeline. With the focus on ‘winning now’, the team traded prospects and draft picks for additions that could immediately contribute. Now, three years later, Anaheim’s system is rebounding well. Although there is still a definite lack of top flight talent (thanks in part to strong on-ice results over the past five years, excluding last season), the organization boasts a number of intriguing prospects on the blue line, as well as a significant allotment of two-way forwards and depth between the pipes.
Headlining Anaheim’s depth on the left side is a pair of two-way players currently in their rookie pro season with the Syracuse Crunch. Although Nicolas Deschamps and Brandon McMillan may initially seem comparable due to their age, their speed, their versatility and their successful junior careers, the pair has many differences as well. Deschamps, the bigger of the two at 6’1 and 182 pounds, is also thought to be more talented offensively, having tied for the scoring title in the QMJHL last year and starting strongly with Syracuse on their top line. Meanwhile, McMillan at 5’11 makes up for the size difference with an aggressive nature and a willingness to take on any challenge. No slouch offensively in his own right, McMillan has played mostly on the Crunch’s second line. With both players in their first year of pro hockey, it’s hard to say if they’ll get a shot at the NHL this season, but history has shown that the Ducks are never one to hold back a top performing prospect.
Another Syracuse rookie is Josh Brittain. Listed at 6’5, the big forward plays a physical game and although he has yet to have an impact on the scoreboard with the Crunch, he has definitely had an impact on opposing players, tied for the team lead in penalty minutes. Formerly a power forward in junior, Brittain’s hockey future may rely more on using his physical tools if his offensive skills don’t make the jump to pro hockey.
Next on the list is a pair of former New York Rangers prospects. Acquired in separate deals over the offseason, both Ryan Hillier and Tomas Zaborsky are looking to get their careers back on track. Currently with the Elmira Jackals in the ECHL, Hillier has struggled with injuries after a promising rookie debut two years ago. An offensively talented winger with a knack of agitating, since joining the Ducks organization, he has yet to score a single point, which doesn’t bode well for his future. Meanwhile, Zaborsky also finds himself at crossroads. Opting to return to SM-Liiga’s Assat Pori in Finland for the second year in a row instead of playing in the ECHL, Zaborsky’s future in North America is in question. Showcasing plenty of scoring ability with Assat, Zaborsky might have run out of chances on this side of the Atlantic.
Following the professional players is the OHL‘s Devante Smith-Pelley, Anaheim’s second round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft. A hard-hitting forward with a nose for the net, Smith-Pelley fits the stereotype of Ducks hockey, harkening back to former GM Brian Burke’s vision of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. Still a few years away from competing for an NHL role, Smith-Pelley’s future could go any number of directions. Even if his offensive skills do not continue to develop, his skating and physical play could still ensure he has a successful pro career.
Rounding out the list is Justin Vaive, son of former NHLer Rick Vaive. In his fourth year at Miami University in the NCAA, it would be unfair to compare Vaive to his father when it comes to scoring ability, the same way it is unfair to compare the senior Vaive to his son when it comes to size. Listed at 6’6, Vaive has shown a willingness to use his frame to his advantage on the ice, but lacks the offensive talents of his father. Needing to be signed by next August to stay in the Ducks system, his future in hockey is far from assured.
Currently with the Anaheim Ducks, Nick Bonino will likely spend most of this season bouncing between California and Syracuse as injuries and needs require. A former San Jose Sharks draft pick, Bonino’s offensive abilities have the Ducks hoping that he could one day be a top six forward in the NHL. Failing that, the former Boston University star is no slouch in his own end, which means he could also find a role on a checking line. In what is his first full season at the pro level, Bonino has already established himself as one of the Ducks first call-ups.
Another player who should challenge for a spot on an NHL checking line in the near future is Maxime Macenauer. One of the last cuts at the Ducks training camp this fall, Macenauer has bounced back from injuries over both his junior career and his first year of pro hockey. Currently with the Syracuse Crunch, Macenauer might not have offensive talent like Bonino, but his defensive play and persistent checking will be the key to his pro future.
MacGregor Sharp and Rob Bordson round out Syracuse’s pivot players. Sharp has already seen some time in the NHL with an eight-game debut last season. This year, his challenge is to distinguish himself among a number of other two-way forwards with checking ability that dot the Ducks organization. Seeing time on both the wing and as a centre, Sharp will get chances higher in the line-up thanks to Anaheim’s injuries and the subsequent call-ups. Like Sharp, Rob Bordson has also seen time on the wing as well as down the middle. Another rookie for the Crunch, Bordson earned a contract after a breakout junior year with the University of Michigan Duluth last season. A playmaker with size, Bordson is a long term project at this point.
Switching gears to look at junior hockey, Peter Holland is perhaps Anaheim’s most promising prospect up front. A talented pivot with size and offensive ability, Holland stars for the Guelph Storm, averaging over a point-per-game thus far. Playing in his last season of junior, the Ducks hope that the Ontario-native will one day line up behind Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim’s depth chart.
If Holland has the highest potential, then Andreas Dahlstrom might be considered the biggest dark horse. Selected in the sixth round at last year’s draft, Dahlstrom has struggled with injury in recent years, but when healthy has shown offensive talent and great hockey sense. Currently sidelined with a knee injury, if Dahlstrom’s luck ever changed, he could surprise.
Finally there is Radoslav Illo, a talented Slovakian who played the last two seasons in the USHL and this year plays for Bemidji State in the NCAA. A long-term project at this point, Illo has shown scoring ability in the past and played for Slovakia at the World Juniors, but will require further development at the college level before the Ducks even consider offering him a contract.
A first round draft pick in 2009, the decision for Kyle Palmieri to leave college and join the pro ranks after just a single season in the NCAA has already paid off in dividends for both Palmieri and the Ducks. After an impressive start to the season with the Syracuse Crunch, including being named AHL Player of the Week, Palmieri is currently playing with the Ducks and not looking out of place. Scoring in his NHL debut, the New York native could make it difficult for the Ducks to return him to the AHL when their missing players come back from injury.
One of those injured players is Dan Sexton. A diminutive scoring forward, Sexton first garnered attention with a strong debut last season. But inconsistency reared its ugly head and he finished his rookie season on a considerable scoring drought. Starting the season with the Ducks, Sexton has yet to score this year and is currently recovering from a broken nose.
Emerson Etem is another scoring forward who struggles initially to start the season. A first round pick in 2010, Etem began the season with just three points in his first seven games, but now is approaching the point-per-game pace. A goal scorer, Etem’s numbers are skewed heavily to lighting the lamp himself rather than setting up his teammates. Although he still has plenty of work to do before he’s ready to step on the ice for the Ducks, Etem has extra motivation: he’s originally from California.
Rounding off the Ducks prospects on the right side are a pair of NCAA prospects, both selected at the 2010 Draft. Anaheim traded Mike Brown to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the draft for the chance to draft Chris Wagner, now playing for Colgate University as a freshman. So far, the Massachusetts native has three points in six games. Meanwhile Brett Perlini already had two seasons with Michigan State University under his belt by the time the Ducks selected him in the seventh round. Thus far, Perlini is averaging over a point-per-game with the Spartans.
Cam Fowler was thought to be one of the top talents available in the 2010 draft for most of last season, but fell to the Ducks position at 12th overall where they were more than happy to select him. A surprise to crack the Ducks lineup, Fowler provides a much needed addition of talent to a blue line that has seen much changed over the past year. Although currently recovering from a broken nose, the Michigan native will be spending the year with the Ducks.
Luca Sbisa is another defenseman who got his NHL start immediately after being drafted. But in the Swiss blueliner’s case, that was two years ago and with another NHL organization. Now on the final year of his entry-level contract, Sbisa has 49 games of NHL experience under his belt, but is still searching for a full time role. Currently playing in Syracuse after starting the season in Anaheim, the 20-year-old has provided an offensive boost to the Crunch blue line.
Joining Sbisa on the Crunch blue line is Mark Mitera, Matt Clark, Jake Newton and Stu Bickel. A former first round pick, Mitera struggled adapting in his first pro season last year after a knee injury hijacked his final year of college. A 23-year-old stay-at-home defender, Mitera has even been a healthy scratch thus far this year in Syracuse. Clark is also a stay-at-home blueliner, but at 20-years-old, the rookie pro needs continued seasoning before he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Jake Newton bucks the trend as an offensive defenseman, but hasn’t had the chance to show that element of his game to date in Syracuse. Being held without a point in a dozen AHL games, the California native is still adjusting to the pro game after spending last season with Northeastern University in the NCAA.
Perhaps lost in the defensive shuffle in Syracuse is Stu Bickel. A defensive defenseman, Bickel has only seen time in a fraction of the Crunch’s games so far this year and has even played some shifts as a forward.
Eric Regan and John de Gray are a pair of defenders who find themselves playing for the Elmira Jackals due to the number of blueliners in the Ducks system. Regan is building off of his breakout offensive campaign last season with the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors. He currently is challenging for the ECHL’s scoring lead among defensemen. Meanwhile, de Gray is more of a stay-at-home defensive type and despite playing admirably for the second half of the year with the Rochester Americans, he needs to find a way to distinguish himself in his third year of pro hockey.
With Fowler sticking in Anaheim, Scott Valentine is the Ducks sole defensive prospect in junior hockey. Playing in his third full season in the OHL, the Oshawa General stalwart is a physical blue liner, but he’ll face quite the competition for ice time and opportunity if he makes the jump to the pro game next season.
In the college ranks, the Ducks have a bevy of offensive blueliners being led by Jake Gardiner. A first round pick in 2008, Gardiner is playing his junior year with the University of Wisconsin and is averaging nearly a point-per-game for the Badgers. He’s expected to make the jump to pro hockey next season. Gardiner’s teammate, Justin Schultz is also a Ducks prospect and also an offensive blueliner. After honing his skills in the BCHL, Schultz is now a sophomore with the Badgers and has been a dangerous weapon on the Wisconsin power play.
Kevin Lind is playing well in his freshman year with the University of Notre Dame. After two seasons in the USHL, Lind was selected by the Ducks at last summer’s draft and has a great combination of size and offensive ability. He could be a long-term surprise for the Ducks.
Nick Pryor and Ryan Hegarty round out the Ducks defensive prospects playing the college game, both playing for the University of Maine Black Bears. Pryor is an offensive blueliner in his sophomore season, but has struggled with injuries. Hegarty is a defensive type in his junior year.
Rounding out the Ducks depth on the blue line is a trio of players currently in Europe. Most notable is Sami Vatanen. Although diminutive in size, the Finnish Vatanen is big on talent and has excelled both at the international level as well as with his club team, JyP. Continuing his strong play in his second season in SM-Liiga, Vatanen could be challenging for an NHL spot as early as next year.
While not as proficient offensively thus far, Anaheim is hoping that Swedish defensemen Tim Heed follows a similar career trajectory to Vatanen. Selected in last year’s draft, Heed has shown scoring skill both with Sodertalje’s junior squad as well as in Sweden‘s second-tier league, Allsvenskan but so far, has been unable to stick with Sodertalje’s main team in the Swedish Elite League.
Stefan Warg is the final Ducks prospect on the blue line. After being drafted in 2008, the big Swede played two seasons in the WHL. Not being able to reach a contract agreement with the Ducks, Warg opted to return to Europe and currently plays for Orebro in Sweden‘s second-tier league. Although the Ducks still hold his rights, it is unlikely he’ll be brought back to North America.
Should the Ducks have an injury to one of their NHL goaltenders, their first call may be to Timo Pielmeier. In just his second year of pro hockey, Pielmeier is quickly establishing himself as Anaheim’s number three goaltender. While the former San Jose Sharks prospect may never challenge Jonas Hiller for the starting role in Anaheim, his play thus far has been promising. After a season in the ECHL, Pielmeier is splitting the starting duties in Syracuse with Jean-Philippe Levasseur. Levasseur is in his fourth year of professional hockey and he joins his seventh pro club in Syracuse. With more than 60 games of AHL experience under his belt prior to this year, Levasseur fills the role of a steady option until Anaheim’s more promising prospects are ready to challenge for time.
One of those prospects might be Marco Cousineau, a rookie starting his pro career with the Elmira Jackals. Cousineau had a roller coaster of a junior career, and thus far his pro experiences have been equally tumultuous.
Physically, Igor Bobkov is the most imposing prospect that the Ducks have between the pipes. Standing at 6’4, the big Russian covers plenty of the net simply by being in position. Joining the London Knights of the OHL this season as an Import player, Bobkov has struggled adapting to the smaller ice surface in North America and has played in just a fraction of the Knights games so far.
Finally there is Sebastian Stefaniszin, a 23-year-old German net minder playing for Nurnberg Ice Tigers in the DEL. Although the Ducks previously showed some interest in bringing the goaltender over to North America, but his struggles over the past few years have diminished his value.