Camp Breeds Hope for Anaheim

By Martin Dittman
If first impressions mean anything, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim have a very bright future. Then again, the Ducks are traditional optimists who often over analyze the future. Going into this season’s training camp, that tradition continued. Maxim Balmochnykh, J-S Giguere and Marc Chouinard were just a few of the several young guns the Ducks were counting on for this season. As the Ducks had hoped, the first week of camp has been a step up for the young guns, causing the usual euphoria over the future.

The early scrimmages have shown the usual. The Ducks are a fast team which we already knew. This off season was extremely quiet which left many with questions about the Ducks. Will they finally have a true second line? Are Balmo and Alexei major league busts? Are the Ducks still pretenders? So far, some of these questions have been answered while others are still left up in the air.

Answering the question of the second line, Jonas Ronnqvist has been extremly feisty in the first week of camp and may have supplanted Matt Cullen as a second line player. Ronnqvist has been largely paired with German Titov and Mike Leclerc, a group of hard working speedy forwards. Titov brings most of the skill although neither Leclerc nor Ronnqvist has looked out of place. They are very skillful on their own. The bad news is Leclerc and Ronnqvist are unproven as second liners thus leaving Anaheim in the same predicament as in the past.
As expected, Vitaly Vishnevski is off to a strong camp and has solidified his spot on the NHL roster especially with Oleg Tverdovsky missing from camp along with an injured Ruslan Salei. While Vish is proving he’s NHL caliber, the same can’t be said for Maxim Balmochnykh. Balmo has been lectured much of camp from the coaching staff, but in typical Balmo fashion he shows the flashes of a bright star only to dim into a faded memory. It has become clear that Balmo still needs to work on his game although the exhibition games will be his true test. He has yet to prove he deserves a spot on the NHL roster.

Alexei Smirnov will be in camp for about a week until he heads back for Russia to resume his development. As expected, Smirnov is playing as a center, not the wing position he has in the past. Like Balmo, he shows enormous promise but he is still very untested and it is too soon to evaluate what the future holds for him. However, first impressions show a kid that would fit like a glove with Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne as their center in the upcoming years.

Are the Ducks still pretenders? That remains to be seen but judging by the first week of camp, there is no doubt the trend continues. The usual fringe players are battling for roster spots, but few will bring the team into contender mode. The obvious hope is that some hungry young players add a dose of energy to an usually sour group of journeymen and underachievers.

So, where are the postives from this year’s camp? Goaltending has been one. J-S Giguere has had strong scrimmages although he is yet to see some actual game action. All signs point to him as supplanting Dominic Roussel as the backup goaltender this season while Gregg Naumenko is fightin to keep himself in the mix as well. Naumenko has been largely overshadowed by Giguere’s arrival but he should not be discounted. He will probably battle Giguere for the starting job several years down the line.

A surprisingly strong duo of forwards have cropped up. Hobey Baker award finalist Andy McDonald is off to a strong start scoring several goals in scrimmages and may have pushed his way into a job on the roster depending on his exhibition game performances. McDonald was expected to be in Cincinnati for at least one season but that thought may go out the window if his strong play continues. Unsigned draft pick Maxim Rybin is also having a strong camp after his rookie OHL season. Rybin is considered one of Anaheim’s top offensive prospects but his small frame has made most scouts write him off. This early performance may end that thought and Rybin may finally be considered NHL material.

On the disappointing side, Marc Chouinard and Jay Legault were expected to battle for roster spots but so far, they have been extremely quiet. Neither has made much of a bid for a job so far although its expected that Chouinard will look better in exhibition play. Legualt will probably spend a small part of the year as an injury replacement but will probably end up in the AHL most of the year. Roster hopeful Kevin Sawyer is yet to take to the ice competively as he is battling a nagging inujury.

Overall, it appears this season will be the usual for Anaheim. Eternal optimism with an eye on the future is the Anaheim tradition. It’s safe the say, this year’s camp will have that same effect.