The Anaheim Ducks have a prospect mix that is high on talent and beginning to find some balance across the board. This past season was defined largely by the addition of three Swedes, William Karlsson, Rikard Rakell, and Max Friberg, who captured a pair of awards here. The campaign was also marked by steady improvements and fluid adjustments by players who moved advanced stages in their development whether by role, level, or both. It was also defined in part by a significant loss, that of defenseman Justin Schultz who spurned the Ducks for free agency.
Prospect of the Year: Justin Schultz, D, University of Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
Schultz developed into two things, one that pleased the Ducks immensely and one that will be talked about for months if not years to come. To their delight, he completed his emergence as the nation's top defenseman, turning in another season of accolades, national leads and all-time bests at the Wisconsin program. To their chagrin, he took advantage of a CBA loophole that allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent July 1st. The most promising player with the most complete campaign in the Ducks organization will never play a game in their uniform as he inked a two-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers after fielding offers from all corners of the league. Outstanding in his achievements and vilified for his decision, Schultz was easily the most prominent Ducks prospect in 2011-12.
Welinski exploded offensively, thanks in part to his rocket from the point. A strong player in a relatively compact package, Welsinki can get good velocity without a full wind-up and can really deliver power when he can load up his stick fully with serious torque. As his confidence in both his reads and skill set improves, he should be able to utilize his powerful shot even more effectively.
Etem edged out Kyle Palmieri, who made big strides forward, for the award. Etem's prolific season saw his point totals climb 27 notches to 107 as he courted as a goal-per-game campaign. He fell just short of that mark, tallying 61 times in 65 games. In two AHL playoff games, he added another goal in his debut. Etem is most dangerous off the rush but has incrementally improved his play away from the puck as well. He can make tough plays at high speeds already, meaning he needs only to continue refining his hockey sense to become a complete goal-scoring threat.
Vatanen pushed a point-per-game pace, finishing with 42 points in 49 games this season. An increasingly prominent Finnish pro despite his age, Vatanen carries the puck with aplomb, handles it securely, passes creatively in all areas of the ice, and has not been any sort of defensive liability. His experience and excellence against mature pros in a top European league may mean a brief minor pro career if any for Vatanen, who has NHL level skills that he has matched with his performance. A bit of an adjustment period may be beneficial as far as acclimating to the North American ice surface and lifestyle, but the undersized yet explosive Vatanen may be in a position to help the undermanned Ducks immediately.
Fastest Skater: Sami Vatanen, D, JYP HT Jyvaskyla (SM-Liiga)
Vatanen may or may not be the fastest end-to-end skater in the Ducks organization, but he is certainly the most fluid and quickest accelerating player Anaheim has. Capable of reaching top speed with a couple of hard pushes, Vatanen needs just a little bit of initial space to create huge separation. Not only can he carry the puck straight ahead, his tremendous lateral agility makes him shifty, elusive and capable of excelling in traffic. His ability to exit the defensive zone, blow through the neutral zone, and handle the puck in the offensive zone makes him a true 200-foot threat.
Friberg handled the jump to the top level in Sweden effectively, notching five goals and five assists in 48 games in a tempered role with Timra. Against his peers, however, he was nothing short of brilliant, scoring 26 points in 20 games overall with Sweden's Under-20 team, including 11 points in six World Junior Championship contests. A 2011 fifth-rounder, Friberg drew attention away from more prominent prospects at the tournament and created a great deal of intrigue about his future. Originally projected as a role player with a bit of upside, Friberg has reformed opinions and increased expectations in a very short period of time.
Highest Risk/Highest Reward: Max Friberg, W, Timra (SEL)
Friberg was relatively anonymous, going 143rd overall in the 2011 Draft. His commitment, selflessness, work ethic, speed, and two-way play were all fairly well known. His physical maturity has improved and his offensive potential has blossomed in a major way since he was selected by Anaheim a year ago. Solid, shifty, relentless, and imaginative, Friberg has quickly developed into one of the more promising players in a talented crop of Ducks prospects.
Most Improved Prospect: Chris Wagner, C/W, Colgate University Raiders (ECAC)
Wagner nearly tripled his point total from last season, skyrocketing from 19 to 51 points as a sophomore despite playing in three fewer games. Not only did his offensive production see a massive jump, Wagner's total responsibility increased considerably. He drew tough defensive assignments consistently and was a rather reliable faceoff man as well. While the ECAC may not offer the prominence and reputation of some other developmental routes, those who saw Wagner were unanimously impressed. He could develop into the heady, comprehensive player that the Ducks covet at center, not unlike current number two center Saku Koivu.
Overachiever: John Gibson, G, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
Gibson's emergence this season was striking. He performed tremendously an OHL rookie on a team that brimmed with neither the talent nor stability it has in seasons past. Gibson played a role early on in stabilizing the team as it integrated other incoming players and dealt with injuries. He finished with a 21-10-0 record, a 2.75 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and a shutout, all of which bested the numbers of OHL vet and tandem partner Frank Palazzese. Gibson should figure in as a prominent part of Team USA and the Ducks organization, particularly since he jumped ahead of schedule in his development this year.
Schofield appeared to offer a promising boost to the Syracuse Crunch as an older AHL rookie with NCAA success in his past and a promising glimpse at the AHL level late last season. While Schofield stayed in the lineup as a regular, his 73-game campaign was largely underwhelming. He established himself as bottom-six forward in the AHL but showed little promise of ascending further, which does not bode well for his NHL future. Schofield does not project as a scorer and, looking at this season, one would be hard-pressed to think of a strong niche for him at the next level.
Most Perseverance: Matt Clark, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Two years ago, Clark and Mark Mitera were given loads of responsibility on the blue line, only to reward the Crunch with inconsistency, errors, a lack of offensive production, and overall disappointment. While Mitera has moved on from the organization, Clark has steadfastly committed himself to improving his game. Not only has he evened out his effort and results, he gained enough confidence from the organization to make his NHL debut late last season. He cut down his penalties, nearly broke even with his minus-one rating and was generally more consistent at the AHL level. In two NHL contests, he blended in decently and carried himself with poise.
Unsung Hero: Patrick Maroon, LW, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Another player who has persevered admirably, Maroon has been a very productive player since the Philadelphia Flyers cut ties with him two seasons ago. Shedding knocks on his conditioning and consistency, Maroon has been a veteran that has provided both stability and skill to the Crunch. After scoring 48 points in 57 games in a truncated debut season, he fell just shy of a point-per-game campaign with 74 points in 75 games this year. Maroon plays a power game with no shortage of grit that is complemented nicely by a soft pair of hands. He has shown the ability to be a dangerous player in front of the net. Like Clark, Maroon had a two-game stint with the big club in Anaheim this year. A big, skilled player who meandered a bit early in his career, Maroon has now put all his tools into one box and become a bankable asset for the Ducks organization.