Deep, talented minor-league system means bright future for Anaheim Ducks

By Andrew Knoll

Photo: Luca Sbisa is one of several Ducks players to split time between the AHL and NHL this season. Sbisa, along with 19-year-old Cam Fowler assure the Ducks will have a strong young group of defenders for years to come. (Photo courtesy of www.whl.ca)



AHL

Luca Sbisa, D, 20

Sbisa provided rare poise, skill and aggressiveness on the Syracuse blue line in a brief stint with the Crunch early in the season. He registered nine points in eight games including three multi-point games. Sbisa was easily the most stable presence on the blue line the Crunch had at any point this season. While he was sent down to improve his confidence at the NHL level, he demonstrated the ability to make plays with aplomb and access risks intelligently, resulting in a quick recall to the big club in Anaheim.

While Sbisa’s fluid skating stride and adept passing were what made him an appealing junior prospect, he has continued to get bigger, stronger and tougher as well. Sbisa shows no fear throwing his body around and even got into a preseason scrap with the Los Angeles KingsBrayden Schenn, a rematch from their WHL years in Lethbridge and Brandon respectively. Sbisa has demonstrated to coaches, fans, and journalists that he has the tools to become a complete rearguard at the NHL level with seasoning and experience.

The Swiss standout Sbisa had expressed some frustration about not being a fulltime roster player but Anaheim Ducks Head Coach Randy Carlyle believed his most recent stint in the AHL proved beneficial. Sbisa also said he was much calmer in dealing with adversity and that his newfound serenity has helped him vie for minutes on what has become an unexpectedly crowded depth chart on defense.

Though he is currently playing third-pairing minutes and has two points for the Ducks in 28 games. Sbisa is projected as a top-four defender in a young corps that also includes Calder Trophy candidate Cam Fowler.


Kyle Palmieri, RW, 19

Palmieri saw 10 games of action with Anaheim in November. In his NHL debut, Palmieri scored his first career goal, a late third-period equalizer that sent the Ducks onto an overtime win. His call-up came after an impressive start with Syracuse.

Early in the season, Palmieri’s aggressiveness in putting the puck on goal and driving the net stood out among Syracuse forwards. He has largely shed the agitator label this season and taken on more of a scoring role contributing 13 points in 20 games with a modest 17 penalty minutes. He has become a top-six regular and a fixture on the power play, establishing a high-motor, hard-skating game in which he utilizes a dangerous shot.

Palmieri has impressed with his attitude as well. Despite a bit of a slump when he returned to Syracuse, the 2009 first-round selection Palmieri has brought a high energy level, a much-needed natural scoring touch and the loose, fluid approach to the game that teams covet from young players.

Dan Sexton, RW, 23

Sexton’s stint in Syracuse was brief but productive, his six goals and four assists in eight games represent the best per-game production of any Crunch player this season. Sexton took a puck in the face, after which he persisted and prospered wearing a cage. The incident was a microcosm of Sexton’s career as he has surmounted the dreaded "undersized" label and his being undrafted to become a blossoming NHL regular.

With the Ducks, Sexton, Bonino and Brandon McMillan have formed a bottom-six line that has given the Ducks some much-needed energetic shifts. He has contributed two goals and two assists in 17 games. Ever introspective and always hard-working, Sexton appears to be a skilled, industrious forward and yet another example of a smaller player finding a place in the "new NHL."

Mark Mitera, D, 23

Mitera found himself a healthy scratch a handful of times this season with overall consistency and strong physical play lacking a bit from his game. While the defense and penalty kill have struggled in general for the Crunch this season, Mitera seems to have done little to separate himself from a pack of muddling blueliners. In 29 contests, he has seven points, 20 penalty minutes and has skated in the red at a minus-six.

The 2006 first rounder Mitera has yet to demonstrate the offensive-mindedness and scoring upside some believed him to have. Despite the lack of offensive results, Crunch Head Coach Mark Holick cited Mitera’s offensive focus and, more bluntly, his lack of battling and physical play as areas that needed improvement during a streak of healthy scratches.

The 23-year-old Mitera seems to still be experiencing major adjustments in terms of his mental game and reliability. He appears discombobulated at times and his less-than-dependable positioning has cost his teams goals. On a team with little in the way of reliable defense and goaltending, Mitera has done little to widen Syracuse’s margin for error.


Nick Bonino, C, 22

Bonino, like Dan Sexton, did not spend a great deal of time in Syracuse, though he made an impact in his tenure there. He skated even and produced nine points and 10 penalty minutes in eight games. The 2007 San Jose sixth-rounder possesses a projectable frame and soft hands that make him a solid value selection for the Ducks.

An alumnus of Boston University, Bonino was an accomplished collegian whose stock failed to rise further largely because of concerns about his speed and skating. On a line flanked by Kyle Palmieri and Nicolas Deschamps, Bonino provided both physical and mental exuberance. Bonino demonstrated above average speed at the AHL level but his offensive creativity and boundless enthusiasm were even greater assets to the line.

At the NHL level, Bonino has not looked out of place at the top level. He has moved the puck effectively and made an effort to be responsible defensively. While there will be no shortage of competition in the years to come given some of the quality prospects the Ducks have in the CHL and NCAA, Bonino appears to be on track to stick as a roster playe
r in the NHL.

Nicolas Deschamps, LW, 20

Deschamps opened the year on the top line with Nick Bonino and Kyle Palmieri but since Bonino’s promotion and the commencement of the lineup juggling in Syracuse, Deschamps has seen a drop in his production if not a bit of confusion.

The 2008 second-round selection Deschamps is a sound skater with a hard shot but has not displayed the level of offensive aggressiveness the Crunch have needed from him this year. His pass-first mentality and an inconsistent group of linemates have hurt his game considerably.

While this season has seen its share of adjustments for Deschamps, the Crunch will likely continue to play him in offensive situations hoping he finds his groove at the AHL level. An accomplished scorer in the QMJHL, Deschamps turned in a spectacular offensive campaign split between Chicoutimi and Moncton last season. His 96 points were enough to make him a second-team all-star selection in the Q. It remains to be seen how tough, consistent and hungry Deschamps will get but his offensive potential makes him a player worth watching, especially on a pretty thin Crunch roster.

Brandon McMillan, LW, 20

McMillan is yet another Crunch forward who earned a promotion. In his case, it was largely through speed, effort and versatility. In search of an energetic forward for their bottom six, McMillan was a natural choice as a player who played with good velocity in a variety of situations and had a bit of sandpaper to his game.

Though he is a bit undersized, his speed, aggressiveness and compete level make McMillan a projectable checking forward who can spark a team by creating chances, shutting down plays and agitating opponents. A third-rounder in 2008, McMillan surpassed a point-per-game in the WHL last season. This year in Syracuse he chipped in six points and 10 penalty minutes before his call-up to Anaheim where he has contributed two goals and two assists in 16 games.

Not only versatile in terms of his ability to play in all situations, McMillan has also gained experience at a multitude of positions. With Kelowna of the WHL, McMillan logged minutes at wing, center and even on defense. A heady player with wheels, McMillan could be vital to reconstructing an effective back end of the forward rotation like the one Anaheim enjoyed with Sami Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Todd Marchant.

Matt Clark, D, 20

Clark has been a regular in the Syracuse lineup this year but that has not translated to his carving a strong identity for himself with the club. Though he has not endured any stretch of scratches, Clark’s season has been much like Mark Mitera‘s. Clark has not really distinguished himself at either end of the ice. He has eight points in 36 games with 42 penalty minutes, playing a bit of a physical role but nothing overwhelming and certainly not contributing a great deal to the Crunch’s offensive flow.

A 2009 second rounder, Clark, like Mitera, is a player that the Ducks have invested enough in to continue giving regular minutes. It also helps his cause that the overall quality of the Syracuse and Elmira Jackals (ECHL) defense corps has been unimpressive. He is continuing to fill out an impressive frame and may simply be going through a big transition period.

In the OHL, Clark was a shutdown defenseman who routinely faced the opposing top line. As he becomes more confident and adjusts to the larger size and faster speed of his competition, Clark may well bloom into a respectable defensive defenseman though thus far has been part of a befuddled bunch on the Crunch blue line.

Jake Newton, D, 22

Regarded as one of the better offensive talents on the back line in the Anaheim system, Newton has yet to pay dividends this season producing an underwhelming four points in 34 games. He spent last season at Northeastern University where he scored 22 points in 34 games as a freshman.

The Ducks inked an entry-level deal with the undrafted Newton, a California product who was billed as a nifty acquisition without the use of a draft pick. Like Mitera and Clark, Newton has logged plenty of ice time. They have proven to be mostly empty minutes to this point, however, as Newton has been part of a beige-line defense that could be best summarized with a resigned, spiritless "bleh" this season.

Similarly, Newton is still a big defenseman with a solid stride who may just be need of a bit of experience and a player or two to solidify the defense beside him. The absence of Luca Sbisa has not aided the Crunch defense and given his performance as a teenage rookie it appears as though there is almost no chance Cam Fowler will ever skate for Syracuse. That reality leaves this group with little choice but to struggle and ultimately grow together.

Timo Pielmeier, G, 21

The German-born Pielmeier was handed the keys to the Crunch bus this season but has wound up sharing more duty than planned with Jean-Philippe Levasseur. This represents a disappointment to the Ducks’ organization who retained Levasseur as a safety valve hoping Pielmeier would make a big splash as an AHL rookie.

In 21 games, Pielmeier has posted an .903 save percentage with a 3.35 to earn a 9-10-1 record. Though he has remained confident and resilient from game to game, he has not always responded to setbacks within games well. He has been pulled several times this season and has struggled to find a rhythm. After an early stretch in which he put together three consecutive wins and very respectable numbers, Pielmeier has been all over the map in terms of his performance.

Stylistically, Pielmeier is a battler whose technique could best be described as a hybrid style. He is athletic with decent reflexes and a quick glove but he does not take up much of the net and has already shown some signs of wear to his slight frame this season despite a smaller-than-expected workload. The Crunch have not made life easy for the rookie netminder Pielmeier as they have been consistently outshot in games and have the fourth-worst scoring numbers in the AHL in addition to having a struggling defense and power play. While he has not stolen any games, Pielmier is still a very young goalie in a difficult situation at the moment.

Jean-Philippe Levasseur, G, 23

Levasseur was on the bubble in terms of his return but with limited depth in the organization and a relatively unknown commodity in Timo Pielmeier starting, Levasseur returned. He has posted better numbers than the goalie in front of him as his 5-9-2 record, .910 save percentage, 2.96 goals-against-ave
rage and two shutouts all surpass Pielmeier’s numbers.

That his statistical production has not translated into more playing time or an ascension to the starting job may say a good deal about what the Ducks organization sees in terms of these two goalies’ respective futures. While Levasseur is not ideally seasoned or talented to be a veteran stopgap, his modest success as a safe option would likely lead to a reevaluation of his role if he were destined for bigger things.

The former seventh-rounder Levasseur plays a butterfly style and while his athleticism is not overpowering he has developed into a playable option at the AHL level.

Josh Brittain, LW, 20

Brittain has been billed as a gritty player with fighting ability and power forward potential. The development curve is typically steep with such players and this season Brittain has proven anything but an exception to that trend. Brittain was a healthy scratch at times in Syracuse but put in 10 games of work, mostly on the third line. He recorded one assist and 43 penalty minutes before he was demoted to the ECHL‘s Elmira Jackals.

He has yet to carve a niche for himself, contributing little offensively. He also took a number of minor penalties that contributed significantly to his demotion.

The former third-round selection Brittain has four points in 11 games to go with 15 penalty minutes for the Jackals. He should get the opportunity to play more regularly and in more offensive situations. While his form has been mixed at best, it is encouraging that Brittain is filling out his large frame and gaining experience as a pugilist.

Stefan Chaput, C, 22

Chaput came from the Charlotte Checkers and in a short time in Syracuse he has increased his production. With Charlotte he had three assists, 31 shots on goal and a minus-four rating. Since coming to the Crunch, he has had two goals, three assists, and he has skated even.

Used as a two-way player who plays high in the forward rotation and kills penalties, Chaput has been a welcome addition for Syracuse. His defense has been an asset in the absence of Brandon McMillan. He lacks the grit of McMillan but has speed to spare and a decent defensive acumen.

Chaput has not quite put his offense together, like many of the Crunch forwards he is not a natural creator and as a result there have not been too many opportunities for him to finish. Injuries are also a bit of a concern, two seasons ago he missed significant time with an injury and some nagging injuries have limited him a bit this season.

Matt Kennedy, RW, 21

Kennedy is yet another player who has good size, decent skating, plenty of energy and some aggressiveness but does not distinguish himself strongly. He has been used primarily as a third liner and penalty killer

While he does not shy away from puck battles and physical play, he has not been an imposing defender. His offense has been a total non-factor, contributing two assists in 16 games and skating at a minus-two. Kennedy also came from Charlotte where he added an assist in eight games.

Kennedy was a physical force in the OHL last year where he played as an over-ager but thus far he has not recaptured that power, playing against bigger, faster, more experienced players. Kennedy has developed well physically and may use his filled-out frame to make an impact somewhere down the line.

Maxime Macenauer, C, 21

As one of the last remaining forwards in Anaheim training camp to be sent down, Macenauer entered the season with plenty of promise. He has not realized much of that potential, however, contributing just 12 points in 36 games with 46 penalty minutes and a minus-eight rating.

His stout build is an asset as he skates powerfully and can mix it up in all situations. Similar to Deschamps, he has seen his level of play, offensive involvement, and consistency diminish over the course of the season.

Macenauer, a 2007 third rounder, is another player with good size and respectable speed but little else to hang his hat on to this point in his career. In his only full season of play in the QMJHL, he had his finest scoring season notching 60 points in 67 games. Time will tell if he can recapture that form now three seasons removed from that solid campaign with Rouyn-Noranda.

Patrick Maroon, LW, 22

After the Philadelphia Flyers cut ties with Maroon, the Ducks pounced on the young left winger. Derided by some for his conditioning and work ethic, Maroon has played big minutes in terms of both volume and importance since his arrival in Syracuse.

A powerful man with a solid stride, Maroon is a rare commodity in Syracuse as a player with a nose for the net, a big body, an eagerness to initiate contact, and soft hands. He has been a first-unit power play winger who works between the high slot and the goal-mouth.

Maroon recorded eight points in nine games for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms, and has added 10 points in 17 games with the Crunch. His size, hands and instincts make him an intriguing prospect in a league where screens and deflections seem to gain importance with each passing season.

MacGregor Sharp, C, 25

Sharp is approaching the end of his prospect eligibility. After four years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he is now an AHL veteran as Syracuse is his third team at this level. Similar to Macanaeur and Deshcamps, he can skate well but his speed, acceleration and balance do not translate too offense.

In 32 games this year, Sharp has posted three goals and six assists. This production is a marked drop from his nearly half-a-point-per-game pace last season when he was loaned to the Phoenix Coyotes‘ affiliate the San Antonio Rampage. Sharp, like so many Crunch players, logs loads of unremarkable minutes in both offensive and defensive situations. At 25, one has to imagine his minor-league career has hit a bit of a lull.

Sharp has logged top-six minutes for much of this season and had a brief stint with the Ducks at the NHL level last season. It seems unclear what Sharp’s future holds, he has continued to put in effort training and gain strength but it has not translated to any success on the ice despite plenty of opportunities.

Nigel Williams, D, 22

In 20 games, Williams has posted a meager two points and skated well into the red at minus-six. While numerous defensemen have struggled for the Crunch, Williams seems to have exasperated the coaching staff more quickly as he had multiple healthy-scratch games this year.

Touted for his puck-handling skills and imposing size, Williams has demonstrated little of either attribute this season. The Crunch have sought a power-play quarterback anywhere they can find it and he has not assumed that role with his overall numbers speaking (softly) for themselves.
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Williams has offered little in the way of a strong defensive game or physical play. He has been equally ineffective in two settings as he started the season with the Hartford before moving onto Syracuse. The 2006 second-round selection Williams was a respectable offensive player in the OHL but this year is on pace to fall well short of the modest 20 points per game he averaged in two AHL seasons.

ECHL

John de Gray , D, 22

The 2006 third-rounder de Gray spent four games with Syracuse in which he skated at minus-four before heading back to Elmira where he has nine points and 32 penalty minutes in 22 games. Like several other Anaheim defenders, he is a big man who does not play an overly physical game.

Though he has a long reach and sound positioning, de Gray is not a particularly fast or fluid skater. He has continued to get more looks in offensive situations than he would at a higher level, which may help his development in the long run.

Currently slated as a depth player for the Crunch, de Gray may see more action at the AHL level if their struggles continue or they sustain injuries on the blue line. Still a work in progress, de Gray is another big kid who has been another big project.


Marco Cousineau
, G, 21

Cousineau has backstopped a pretty successful season for Elmira. His 3.41 goals against average and .885 save percentage would not be the stuff of a winning 9-5-4 record if not for sound offensive support. After a recent loss 5-4 loss to the Trenton Devils, Cousineau was taken to task by Jackals Head Coach Malcolm Cameron who blamed the loss squarely on Cousineau.

Cameron handed the starting job to the recently acquired Darren Machesney who has started all three contests since. Cousineau performed well earlier in the season when Elmira beat the same Trenton squad 7-2 behind 43 saves from Cousineau. He also played well in a 3-2 win over a streaking Cincinnati Cyclones club but neither win was enough to keep Cameron from making the switch after several horrendous outings.

Ryan Hillier, C/RW, 22

Hillier played one game with Syracuse and spent a brief stint there as a depth forward. He has turned in 18 games in Elmira scoring two goals and adding four assists.

A sound skater with good puck-handling ability and respectable hockey sense, Hillier has kicked around a bit since being a point-per-game guy in his final season with Halifax of the QMJHL. Hillier has been played in various situations this year but has not been a high priority in terms of ice time in offensive situations.

Though the Ducks currently have young stars on the marquee of their main club and a fairly deep array of prospects elsewhere in their system, Hillier is a well-rounded player who has a chance to advance. He needs to get stronger and he may need to specialize in a particular area to make the jump to the NHL level.

Eric Regan, D, 22

Regan was sent down from Syracuse early in the year as his defensive zone play was not up to par and his power-play skills failed to impress. In Elmira, he has posted solid numbers with 18 points in 28 games.

The 22-year-old Regan was undrafted after spending four seasons in the OHL. He had a similar season last year in Bakersfield when he notched 50 points in 59 games. Regan passes effectively on the breakout and in the offensive zone. His defensive play has been respectable at the ECHL level as well.

Underlying his success at the ECHL level are serious questions about his ability to move upward. Last year he had a brief, five-game stint in San Antonio that was not fruitful. He had an even shorter stint in Syracuse, not lasting past training camp. Perhaps the greatest indictment of the confidence the organization has in him is that he has not been promoted again despite the Crunch’s gaping need for a power-play quarterback and puck-moving defensemen. Still, with the main roster having some age on defense (five roster defensemen are over 30) and several prospects demonstrating mixed form, there should be ample opportunity going forward for Regan to establish himself.

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