In a low-scoring season that you might consider a struggle, the Norfolk Admirals and the Anaheim Ducks still have a lot to look forward to with several young and promising players suiting up for the team. Between a few solid goaltenders, some talented forwards, and at least one AHL All-rookie team defenseman, the Ducks can look at their AHL system with a promising eye. Many of the prospects are on the cusp of becoming NHL players, and as the AHL season has come to an end many of them have made noteworthy cases for being considered for a spot with the big club next season.
Igor Bobkov, G, 22
The 2009 third-round selection for the Anaheim Ducks has had a bit of a tough time this year, but the same could be said for the Norfolk Admirals in general, who just missed out on a playoff spot after winning the Calder Cup last season as the AHL affiliate of Tampa Bay. Bobkov played back-up most of the year to 23-year-old Frederik Andersen, posting average numbers. The .903 save percentage and the 3.13 goals against average leave a lot to be desired from the young Russian goaltender considering his competition, Andersen, had significantly better numbers.
Bobkov still shows flashes of the big goaltender that can play his positioning well enough to eat up the whole net. However he is going to have to really work on his reflexes and overall aggression if he wants to improve on the 11-17-0 record he had this season. At 6'5, Bobkov uses his size well and his lateral movement is very good, but this year, at times, he showed size is not everything. At just an inch shorter, Andersen showed what a difference solid technical ability can be coupled with size. Bobkov might be destined for the ECHL in the near future with John Gibson coming of age quickly.
Frederik Andersen, G, 23
Speaking on Andersen, formerly selected in 2010 by the Carolina Hurricanes and then redrafted in 2012 by the Ducks, he was a real surprise for the organization this season. While John Gibson is arguably the next hyped goaltender in the wings, Anderson quietly put up respectable numbers in the AHL and played the majority of games for Norfolk. With four shutouts, a .929 save percentage, and a very low 2.19 goals against average, the Dane held the Admirals in a lot of games. In fact, Andersen overall had the third best save percentage in the league as a rookie goaltender. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old, the Admirals were plagued with a painfully low-scoring offense.
Regardless, Andersen was a big surprise this season, further proving that the outstanding season he had last year in the Elitserien was no fluke. As John Gibson progresses towards the professional level it will be interesting to see how the minor league goalie battle pans out. While Gibson has a lot of well-earned hype, there is some real quality in the play of Andersen that makes you wonder if he could be a sleeper moving forward.
Marco Cousineau, G, 23
Cousineau played limited minutes for the ECHL Fort Wayne Komets this season appearing in just 11 games and posting a 3.55 goals against average and a .886 save percentage. Not much can be said on the future of Cousineau with the Ducks. Hampered by injury, he finished by far with the fewest games on the depth chart in Fort Wayne behind Jeff Deslauriers, journeyman minor league goalie Charlie Effinger, and former University of Minnesota-Duluth standout Ken Reiter. The reality is that Cousineau likely will not be able to beat out Bobkov, Gibson, or Andersen in the future.
Peter Holland, C, 22
Peter Holland, former first-round selection in 2009 and 2013 AHL All-Star, split time this season between Norfolk and Anaheim. Holland was on a torrid scoring pace with the Admirals, posting 39 points in 45 games. His stats through December were fantastic, and were part of the reason he was called up to the big league shortly thereafter. However, after more than a handful of games in the NHL of decent quality, Holland was returned now and again to Norfolk where his scoring pace slowed a tiny bit. His 29 points in 30 games through December were followed up by 10 points in his final 15 games, which is understandable since Holland was called up on three separate occasions from January to March making it somewhat difficult to find consistency.
Holland seems to be rounding out very well for the Ducks. He has a nasty edge, good size, and a scoring touch, all of which is coveted by the Ducks organization. He was the first on the ballot for call-ups almost the entire season, and it looks like he will be a mainstay next year for the team on the second or third line. If Holland can improve on his faceoffs and defensive zone play moving forward, the Ducks will have a nasty one-two punch at center with Ryan Getzlaf and Holland.
Emerson Etem, RW, 20
The much anticipated California native Emerson Etem had a tale of two seasons this year. Early on in his first season in the AHL, Etem had just six goals and seven points in his first 26 games in the AHL. Those are respectable numbers for a 20-year-old rookie, but he was a man on fire in Medicine Hat in 2011-12 and people probably expected more. While he was scoring, he seemed somewhat ill-adjusted to the pace of the AHL and was inconsistent shift-to-shift. However, Etem, like most young and highly-touted junior players started to show more consistency and adjustment in mid-December. While the point production stayed relatively the same, he became a more comfortable looking player, and like Holland, it made him a first choice call-up for the Ducks.
After a partial season with Norfolk that saw him net 16 points (13 of which were goals) through 45 games, Etem was called up for good in mid-February to the Ducks where he seems to maybe have turned a corner. His shot was a proven commodity all year in the AHL, even though his game still had habits of the junior days. The AHL is a much different beast than the WHL in which he dominated but Etem progressed considerably from start of the year to the last third. While he is not wowing with goal-scoring yet, he has progressed in all the little things coaches love seeing like back-checking, consistency shift-to-shift, and assertiveness. With confidence high heading into the NHL playoffs, Etem is looking like a contender for the teams opening day roster already for next season.
Chris Wagner, C, 21
After an all-star caliber year in the NCAA at Colgate University in 2011-12, center Chris Wagner began his journey into the professional realm with Norfolk in 2012-13. Wagner, who was considered somewhat of a sleeper in 2010 when he was drafted in the fifth round, but he had a season that you could come to expect from a player of his skill set. First of all, Wagner is highly-touted as a defensive specialist and a considerable force at the faceoff dot. In 2012-13 he had 21 points in 70 AHL games with one of the team’s best plus/minus ratings at plus-five. At 5'11 Wagner also was not shy about the physical aspect of the game. There are no surprises with the Massachusetts boy; he is a hard-working, two-way center who you can count on for key faceoffs and responsible hockey. While he needs to cut down on his penalty minutes and stay out of the box, considering he is a good penalty killer, Wagner had a very good 2012-13 and showed why many are considering him a very solid pick for a fifth-round selection.
Devante Smith-Pelly, LW, 20
Safe to say that in 2011-2012 Smith-Pelly was a big surprise making the team out of camp. His season overall was a bit mixed, while the team liked his physical presence and he showed he could score, his defensive game was messy at times. In 2012-13, Smith-Pelly got to spend the majority of his time in the minors refining his game and getting more playing time. Maybe by virtue of a precarious NHL off-season, Smith-Pelly started the year jumping out the gate with points in each of the first six games of the year, but then having eight points in his following 38 games and more concerning a staggering minus-20.
While Smith-Pelly finished the year very strong in production with 16 points in the finals two months, his overall minus-20 rating is a concerning stat, as is his defensive play. The young forward has a projected use as a bottom-six forward, and one thing teams look for with bottom line forwards is responsibility. Smith-Pelly is still very young and the concern should not be too great, however he has to clean up his defensive end if he wants to be a factor at the NHL level.
Luca Caputi, LW, 24
Now with his third organization, Luca Caputi is still struggling to find the consistency to keep himself above water in the AHL. Caputi, who played 35 games with the Admirals this year and registered 18 points is on the tail-end of the depth chart and was relegated to the ECHL mid-season where he played 15 games for Fort Wayne. Caputi is at a point in his career where his future is a bit in question. While he is a physically gifted player, too often he floats and takes little advantage of his size which again was the case in 2012-13. While his production has been up for the first time in several years Caputi is going to need a big turnaround and consistency if he wants to stay relevant in the Ducks system.
Josh Brittain, LW, 23
Big Josh Brittain started the year in Fort Wayne of the ECHL where he had a great start at a point-per-game pace. His performance was solid enough that in December he got his call up to the Norfolk Admirals where he continued his useful utilization as a heavy-hitting, third-line forward. Not known for his hands, Brittain has put up a respectable 24 goals between his time in the AHL and the ECHL and has proven to be an imposing player. Brittain has done well in playing a responsible game for the Admirals this year, and has chipped in 11 goals. The goals come as a considerable surprise as up until this point Brittain was relied upon mainly as a fourth line grinder who will drop the gloves. The addition of an offensive element certainly bumps Brittain's usage up to a third-line player at best. Overall a good step was taken by the former Plymouth Whaler in 2012-13.
Harry Zolnierczyk, LW, 25
In a minor trade at the deadline which sent Jay Rosehill to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Ducks in turn acquired bottom line energy forward Harry Zolnierczyk. With already several seasons under his belt with the Adirondack Phantoms and about half of a season of NHL experience with the Flyers, Zolnierczyk was a decent depth acquisition for the Admirals, who lost several forwards during the year to injuries and call-ups. Playing the majority of the season with Adirondack in the AHL, the former Brown University player accumulated a total of 19 points in 61 AHL games between his two stops. He also appeared in seven games with the Flyers this season. His pesky style of play is somewhat edgy and agitating, but at the same time Zolniercyk has shown the occasional nose for the net at both the AHL and NHL level. With nine goals under his belt this season, he added a little bit of sandpaper to the Admirals and could potentially be a similar factor with the Ducks moving forward.
John Kurtz, LW, 23
Kurtz was a roster mainstay with the Admirals this season after being an ECHL visitor his last two years. There are no surprises with Kurtz, who is a fourth line grinder/fighter who makes his living agitating and providing energy for his team. His total of eight points this season is a quality contribution from a guy who plays extremely limited minutes most nights.
Hampus Lindholm, D, 19
Hampus Lindholm has made his name in the hockey world as a two-way defenseman who is impressive with his puck skills, deceptively intelligent, and reads the game well. At 19 and in his rookie season, Lindholm showed just that as his transition from Sweden to the AHL went rather smoothly. While your stat watchers will look at 11 points and see little production, Lindholm has never been a high-scoring defenseman. His reads are phenomenal though, and you can tell that Lindholm is a very cognitive player. His willingness to join the rush was somewhat under-utilized this season, and as Lindholm is a solid skater, he should be commended for playing a game that is less risky and more responsible. The plus-five speaks to that defensive responsibility.
Moving forward the Ducks will probably look for Lindholm to utilize his skating more to chip in offensively and also put more shots on net. Overall though Lindholm had a very impressive rookie season, and he plays with the presence of a veteran player.
Sami Vatanen, D, 21
If Lindholm is considered the anvil of the European defensive duo in the Ducks system, then Vatanen is the hammer. The Finnish league standout put together a 45-point season in which he was named to the AHL All-Rookie team and the AHL All-Star team. While Vatanen has always been an offensive producer, many have questioned his physical makeup in terms of a future NHL player. This was part of the reason why he was a fourth round selection. Vatanen however, at 5'10, has showed signs of the physical aspect of the game getting him out of sorts as he has progressed into the AHL. His defensive zone reads are not always the best, and he allows his small stature dictate how he plays opposing forwards.
That being said these are things that as Vatanen moves forward will come to embrace and learn to play with. He has too much quality and threat as an offensive juggernaut and puck-mover to allow defensive miscues to get the better of him. Considering this was his first year in the much more physical AHL, Vatanen held his own. While he leaves much more to be desired defensively, that part of his game will round out. As far as his capability as a puck-mover, he is incredibly talented.
Mat Clark, D, 22
Solid defensive-defensemen are often a long term project in development, as their game is much more reliant on an ability to read the game and position oneself well. Clark, taken in the second round of the 2009 NHL Draft, is a meat-and-potatoes defenseman and he who will not really pop up on a post-game report unless he has done something wrong. While the minus-13 is obviously something Clark will want to clean up, he is progressing in a slow but steady manner. His reads defensively are getting better, as is his body positioning and his physical play. Clark might be a little ways away from the NHL, but an aging Toni Lydman and Bryan Allen on the blue line for the Ducks makes the possibility for Clark to make the NHL a little more plausible in the near future. Slow and steady is the name of the game for Clark.
Matt Kennedy, RW, 24
Kennedy started the year with the ECHL Fort Wayne Comets. He played in eleven games with the Comets overall before being sent to Norfolk in January where he played nine games and was a healthy scratch for a considerable amount of time. Kennedy is your typical fourth line energy forward who played limited minutes this season and dropped the gloves a few times in an effort to spark his team.