Now five seasons removed from their Stanley Cup victory, the identity of the Anaheim Ducks has changed considerably. Last season they leaned heavily on highly skilled forwards and a veteran power-play quarterback to make a last-minute ascension to fourth place in the Western Conference.
Even so, the defensive fortitude and forward depth that made them champions was lacking and the Ducks were eliminated in the first round by the rugged Nashville Predators. This season, they have had plenty of opportunities to give developing players minutes as their start has been dismal enough to lead to a coaching change.
Anaheim’s organizational depth is heavy on skill and perhaps just a bit light on grit, similar to their big club’s roster. A pair of strong drafts in 2010 and 2011 have helped retool the lower levels of their organization as well as provided a couple of legitimate pros already.
At left wing, the Ducks have somewhat limited options even after making a pair of shrewd prospect acquisitions and an astute late-round selection.
Patrick Maroon ran into a dead end with the Flyers organization, which suited the Ducks just fine. A savvy trade sent him to Syracuse where he made an immediate impact for the Crunch. The hulking forward with soft hands has been a power-play asset and an experienced AHLer to help stabilize the squad. He had an extended stint in training camp with the Ducks but for now he figures prominently for the Crunch. Maroon has shot out to a brilliant start, notching 25 points in 23 games. He has been sound defensively and tough as well, skating at plsu-11 with 36 penalty minutes.
Rick Schofield was another astute move for the Ducks on left wing, he was signed as a free agent out of college and immediately looked at home at the AHL level. This season, he has slid behind some veteran players, cutting his time and limiting his consistency. Although he has a mere six points in 24 games, Schofield has impressed with his work ethic thus far and he was a steady riser through his entire NCAA career.
Max Friberg, a 2011 fifth-rounder, has established himself as a quietly promising prospect for the Ducks. A virtual unknown before 2010-11, his somewhat surprising selection to the Swedish World Junior roster and subsequent performance in Buffalo shot him up the scouting charts. Friberg is a heady, competitive player with a balanced skill-set and plenty of intrigue. He may not be physically imposing but plays a daring game with a bit of sandpaper to it. A player who could play in all situations, he has had a limited role thus far in the top Swedish pro league, recording three points in 28 games.
Nicolas Deschamps struggled to find form and finish in his rookie season in the AHL. He finished with a respectable but largely underwhelming 46 points after scoring 96 points in 64 games in his final season in the QMJHL. Deschamps has sputtered again early this season, posting a meager six points in 24 contests. While he is not yet a lost cause, he seems to have lost a bit of ground within the organization.
Josh Brittain split last season between the ECHL‘s Elmira Jackals and Syracuse, but this year he has been with the Crunch exclusively. Even so, he has dressed for just 11 games in which he has recorded a lone point. Despite the toughness he has shown at each level, his NHL future appears cloudy at this point in time.
Peter Holland got a long look in training camp and preseason. Along with Devante Smith-Pelly, Kyle Palmieri, and Maxime Macenauer, he was one of four newcomers to regularly earn high-profile preseason minutes. Although he was among the last round of drops from the Ducks roster, an injury to Nick Bonino opened up a spot for him. Holland hung around for four games, long enough to score his first NHL goal, before a waiver claim on winger Niklas Hagman sent him back to Syracuse. With the Crunch, Holland struggled initially to find his rhythm but has since come on strong, with 16 points through 20 games. He has a projectable frame and remarkable playmaking ability, but may need a bit more time at the AHL level to prepare for top-six minutes on the world’s grandest hockey stage.
Maxime Macenauer was a preseason go-to guy, particularly on the penalty kill. Former Head Coach Randy Carlyle praised his work ethic, competitiveness and mobility throughout the preseason and ultimately rewarded him with a roster spot. Although he has put up just three points in 27 games, Macenauer’s role was defined as a penalty killer and bottom-six sparkplug. He has skated with two other rookies in energy roles of late, Devante Smith-Pelly and Andrew Gordon, on a high-octane fourth line that is finding its way at the NHL level.
Nick Bonino has continued to be a favorite in the organization despite nagging injuries and underperformance that sent him back to Syracuse last season after 26 pointless appearances with Anaheim. This season he earned another shot at the big show, but once more it has been plagued by injuries. After just one game with the parent club, he recovered from injury and returned to Syracuse. There he has shouldered a heavy load and responded by producing over a point per game with 21 points in 18 contests.
William Karlsson has earned some decent ice time and posted 25 pts in 28 games in his first year of Swedish professional play at the Allesvasnkan level. A quick, shifty, creative playmaker with sound defensive instincts, Karlsson needs more reps against high-level opposition. If he were a bulkier or broader player, he may well have been an even more coveted prospect, but as it stands he will have to answer questions about his somewhat limited physique before he gets on track to reach the top level.
Radislav Illo, a Slovak import in his fourth North American campaign, has seen his role expanded as a sophomore at Bemidji State University. With more ice time, he has had a chance to display the swift release and accurate shot that made him a USHL All-Star prior to his arrival at the NCAA level. Illo had an admittedly steep learning curve, which he seems to be surmounting bit by bit on North American ice. With eight points in 15 games to date, the coaching staff at BSU seems pleased with his progress, although a stint in the NHL still appears to be off in the distance.
Andreas Dahlstrom earned a reputation as a creative playmaker but his health, physique, and conditioning have all been roadblocks in his young career. This year, he was loaned early in the season to Almtuna of the lower-division Swedish Allsvenskan, where he has potted a lonely goal and a single assist in 26 contests. At this point, it seems hard to envision Dahlstrom making his way to the NHL, although he continues to receive opportunities to make his mark in Sweden.
Palmieri had his share of ups and downs in 2010-11, but his strong finish to the season reinvigorated the high hopes Anaheim had for him. Palmieri earned significant duty during training camp and preseason, but was returned to Syracuse. There he carried the momentum from last season forward to a hot start, cranking out eight goals and two assists in his first six games before he sustained a groin injury. After a brief and quiet recovery period, he has since returned and started to heat up.
Etem may well be Anaheim’s most promising long-term prospect. He spent time training and playing with the Ducks before heading back to Medicine Hat for what will be his final season in the WHL. Etem broke strong with a sizzling opening month that included three hat tricks and over a two points-per-game average. He has since maintained a similar pace and remained atop the WHL‘s goal-scoring leaderboard. Blessed with speed, agility, determination, and a quick release, Etem is a committed defender who needs only to add strength and become a better player without the puck to reach the NHL level.
Smith-Pelly has proven to be a competitive, physically strong winger who plays within himself. He managed to secure a nine-game trial with the Ducks, after which they decided to keep him up with the big club. Although he had just one point in those nine games, the Ducks have kept him on the roster all season. A stout forward with a knack for making simple, direct play, Smith-Pelly is clearly still feeling his way in the NHL. Even so, his arrival was well ahead of schedule and he may soon be the highlight of the Ducks bottom six with his mix of grit, skill, and leadership. Already, he has seen his responsibility not only in terms of minutes but the diversity thereof, earning time on the penalty kill and power play of late.
Smith-Pelly, a standout in Team Canada’s offseason camp, was invited to compete in this year’s World Juniors. Anaheim has agreed to loan him, so he will compete this Winter in Alberta for Canada
Rakell silently rose up the draft boards after his first North American season. Now he has returned to the OHL‘s Plymouth Whalers for a sophomore campaign with high expectations. To date, Rakell has elevated his production dropping 36 points in 31 games. Rakell has nice hands and plays effectively in heavy traffic. His work ethic has led him to make strides in his defensive game and physical conditioning during his brief time in North America, leading many to believe a shot at the NHL may be in the not-so-distant future.
Brett Perlini emerged as a goal-scoring talent last season at Michigan State, however as a senior he has been more comfortable in the set-up role. Seeking to reach the point-per-game plateau for the first time in his NCAA career, he has recorded five goals and 10 assists in 18 games to date. He has also contributed to an outstanding penalty kill and been involved heavily on the Spartans power play.
Christopher Wagner has advanced from potential to production as a sophomore at Colgate. In 16 games for the Raiders, he has already surpassed his point totals from last season with 20 to date. His emergence has helped their club get off to a hot start and a national ranking after an abysmal campaign last year. While Wagner remains likely to complete his career at the NCAA level, his progress to this point has to encourage the Ducks. He is a heady player with toughness (49 penalty minutes already this season), decent athletic ability and a knack for winning puck battles.
Matt Kennedy has brought some size and toughness to the Crunch lineup, establishing himself as a regularly dressed skater since his arrival in Syracuse. While he has NHL size, the jury will be out for a while on whether or not he has NHL skill to go with it.
On defense, the Ducks are anchored by a pair of skilled, speedy, undersized rearguards. They will continue to diversify their defensive depth. It remains to be seen if Notre Dame’s Kevin Lind, 2011 third-round selection, Andy Welinski, or any other prospect will emerge as the tough-to-play-against defenseman the Ducks lack. However, Anaheim is developing a pair of outstanding offensive-minded defensemen to complement the young Cam Fowler and stock under some aging veterans.
Justin Schultz had a spectacular sophomore season at Wisconsin and has sought to pick up where he left off this season. So far he has done exactly that with 28 points in 18 games, all while providing leadership as an upper-classman. Schultz has worked hard to round out his game and gain strength, two areas where he will need to keep pushing hard if his smashing success is to translate to the NHL level.
Sami Vatanen has established himself as a truly dynamic defenseman with impressive speed and puck-moving ability. Although Vatanen has played in Finland‘s top pro league against men, projections of his size linger as the lone major doubt about Vatanen’s NHL future. This season his JYP squad has not been the juggernaut it was for much of last year, but Vatanen’s individual production has remained consistent with 20 points in 32 appearances. He has recovered fully from a late-season injured and remains one of the most prominent blueliners in SM-Liiga.
Welinski garnered loads of attention last year in the USHL for his impressive pound-for-pound strength as well as his untapped offensive potential. This year, he has realized much of that potential, raising his average from a quarter-point-per-game to nearly a full point-per-game from the blue line. He will head to the NCAA next season where his physical development and training will escalate even further. Welinski has demonstrated outstanding potential as a physical, two-way defenseman to this point, although he is still a very early stage of his development. He has also impressed observers with his maturity and presence on the ice as well as away from it.
Lind returned to a Notre Dame squad with a high ranking and even higher expectations coming off a Frozen Four appearance. While he has made little offensive impact for the Irish, Lind has remained a valuable shutdown defenseman in South Bend. Lind already possesses formidable size, strength and competitiveness.
Mathieu Carle may be on the verge of becoming a career AHLer, although he certainly has the ability to stick at that level. He is a deft puck-mover with the ability to log quality minutes on the power play. However, his offensive production has not been robust enough to overlook other deficiencies in his game, such as poor positioning, unnecessary penalties and overall inconsistency. Thus far he is second in defensive scoring for Syracuse with 13 points in 23 games, trailing only another veteran, Bryan Rodney.
Clark has picked up the pace offensively a bit this season-seven points in 24 games-but has yet to establish consistency or identity to his game. He has NHL size, a respectable shot and other attributes that individually seem promising, but observers will need to see a more complete picture before making a positive proclamation about his NHL future.
Tim Heed dropped down a level in the Swedish pro system last season but he found his scoring touch in doing so. For Vaxjo, he registered 23 points in 29 games. He remained at the Allesvanskan level with Malmo this year, posting similar totals to date with 23 points in 29 games. Heed shows all the composure, agility, speed and puck skills one might expect from a converted forward. What he needs to show next are the defensive instincts and size one might expect from a defenseman if he wants to continue moving up the pro hockey ladder.
Ryan Hegarty finds himself in a leadership role as a senior at Maine. With emotional maturity has come physical development, as Hegarty now weighs over 200 pounds. A strong competitor with an active stick and the ability to win key puck battles, Hegarty may still have a long road ahead of him before he debuts in an NHL arena.
Nick Pryor has established himself as a regular for the University of Maine. While he has been more or less a mainstay in the Black Bears lineup, it took him several games to get his offense going. Pryor will have to show more at the NCAA level and continue adding to his 185-pound frame to establish a strong trajectory toward the NHL.
Sean Zimmerman has kicked around the minors quite a bit between being traded and battling injuries since his first full AHL season with San Antonio. With the addition of some veterans to what had been a woeful blue line, Zimmerman has not an abundance of opportunities with the Crunch. However, he has produced four points in a dozen games with Syracuse.
In net, the Ducks have number one goalie Jonas Hiller back, but they scrambled a bit to hedge their bets after his battle with vertigo symptoms last season. Talented yet largely untested goalies like John Gibson and Igor Bobkov headline their goaltending stable.
John Gibson opted for the OHL over the NCAA and the University of Michigan. The coveted amateur goaltender has gone 14-6 with a .933 save percentage thus far. Gibson was one of three promising goalies taken in the second round this season, getting plenty of seasoning in the U.S. development program. Thus far, he has made a fluid transition to the CHL, making his Kitchener Rangers one of the hottest teams in the league to start their campaign.
Igor Bobkov returned to the OHL as an overage import as the Kingston Frontenacs turned to him to stop the bleeding between their pipes. While Bobkov has turned in a decent .902 save percentage and a shutout in 28 appearances, his 8-16-3 record indicates how tough of a season it’s been for Kingston. Bobkov possesses prototypical size and battles hard both mentally and physically. He played well in a brief AHL stint last year and it may take a long look in Syracuse next season to accurately assess his potential.
With the addition of Gibson and the acquisition of Jeff Deslauriers and Iiro Tarkki, the future of Marco Cousineau may be in a bit of doubt. Cousineau has toiled briefly in the ECHL and CHL this season.