Top prospect Emerson Etem and other early round picks living up to the hype for Anaheim Ducks

By Jason Lewis

Sami Vatanen - Anaheim Ducks

Photo: Finnish defenseman Sami Vatanen made his North American debut in 2012-13 and ranked in the top five in points among AHL blueliners (courtesy of Bob Frid/Icon SMI)

Normally when you look at a team's top prospect list, the top end of it is a mixture of sleepers and blue chip prospects. There are players who live up to the hype, others who create it out of nowhere. Sometimes organizations struggle with top picks panning out, but that is not the case with the Anaheim Ducks.

The Ducks have drafted very well over the last several years in early round picks, with eight of their top 10 being second round or higher, and four of their top five being first round selections. It is this kind of drafting success that has landed the Ducks system in the upper half of the NHL. With forward Emerson Etem claiming the top spot this Spring, a wealth of other forwards, defenders, and goaltenders round out the top 10 and beyond.

The Ducks have had to overhaul their system in recent years, and scoring on the majority of their high end picks has certainly helped them to develop one of the more talented and exciting prospect lists in the league. With Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, the U.S. and even Denmark represented in the Ducks system, the spring Top 20 ranking looks like it might bring a bright future out to sunny southern California soon.

1. (2) Emerson Etem, RW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, in 2010

With the graduation of Kyle Palmieri to the NHL, right winger Emerson Etem takes over the top spot in the Ducks system. It might not be for too long though, as Etem has seemingly made a name for himself in a short time with the Anaheim Ducks and will likely graduate in the near future. Etem had a rough start to the year with Norfolk, netting just seven points in his first 26 games. It was not just the statistical aspect either, Etem was inconsistent shift to shift and game to game. However, around December he started to look more comfortable on a nightly basis. While the production was still somewhat limited Etem began to look comfortable and more up to speed with the professional game. In late February, he received a call up to the Ducks and did not look back.

Overall Etem has had a very positive progressing arc in his first year. His time at Norfolk started slow and became much better. His NHL career has looked the same as he started slow and in the first round of the playoffs with the Ducks was a force to be reckoned with. We are starting to see why Etem was a first round pick. No question Etem has the speed and defensive proficiency to play at the NHL level, and the scoring is looking like real untapped potential for the 20-year-old. Etem has the potential to be a great all-around top six forward.

2. (9) John Gibson, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 39th overall, in 2011

Gibson has been an OHL standout since he joined the league with the Kitchener Rangers in 2011-12. Before that he was a standout talent with the U.S. National Team Development Program. The Pittsburgh native has always been a winner, and has always had the confidence to go with it. One of the biggest aspects of Gibson’s game is his mental stability and calm and collected style.

His play was the main difference between Team USA and the rest of the field at the 2013 World Junior Championships, where the Gibson was named the tournament's MVP while leading the team to a gold medal. He did not get a shot a real shot at the AHL this year, playing just one game late in the season, but he did take part in the IIHF World Championships in May and earned bronze with the U.S. He posted a remarkable .951 save percentage on the tournament and showed the potential to be a force under high pressure games against NHL professionals, taking the reigns for Team USA after Ben Bishop struggled against Slovakia.

While not the most athletic of goaltenders, Gibson constantly has read the game well and plays such a positionally sound game he does not have to rely on athletics. Those strengths could make his adjustment to the pro level a smooth one, but goaltending is a volatile position and Gibson has some development ahead of him. That said, his standout play against his peers at the WJC and plenty of NHL-level talent at the WC was enough to place him among the best prospects in the Ducks system and among the elite goaltending prospects in the league.

3. (4) Rickard Rakell, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, in 2011

Much like Etem, Rakell has made a name for himself as a balanced forward who will be defensively responsible and may be a solid goal scorer at the top level. Rakell had a brief stay with the Ducks to start the year but was sent back to the OHL with the Plymouth Whalers after just four games. The Swede went on to have over a point-per-game pace with Plymouth and had a very strong point-per-game playoffs as well. His scoring may or may not translate at the top level, but Rakell has all the skills to succeed. His size and intelligence are enough to potentially make him a valuable top line forward and potential 20 goal, 30 assist player. He has concluded his final year of juniors and next year will take his first step into full time professional hockey. Whether he ends up with Norfolk or Anaheim will be decided at next year’s camp.

4. (5) Peter Holland, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, in 2009

Holland came into the AHL in 2011-12 after several seasons of success with the Guelph Storm in the OHL, and quickly made an impact with then-Ducks affiliate Syracuse Crunch. With the lockout shortening the season for the 2012-13 NHL season, Holland played the first half of the year with Norfolk, Anaheim's new affiliate, and continued his AHL success with 39 points in 44 games. Once the CBA was sorted out, Holland was immediately called up to the Ducks. He has filled in here and there as the team’s fourth line center, and ended up playing 21 games on the year. Holland showed he has all the skills, size, and intelligence to be an NHL player. Consistency could be an issue but that will be sorted out with more playing time and an increase in ice time. He has seemed to embrace the NHL style and could be a potential second or third line center with the organization, continuing the organization's prowess at drafting potential top end two-way talents.

5. (7) Hampus Lindholm, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 6th overall, in 2012

The Ducks are certainly building a backbone for the future with the majority of their selections, and one of the members of that backbone is key defensive selection Hampus Lindholm. The big 6'2 Swede took his first jump into North American hockey this season and you could say it has been a relative success. While 11 points in 43 games does not seem like a giant statistical value, the 19-year-old was poised in his AHL rookie season. His plus-six rating is impressive for a first year professional, and Lindholm really looked much older than 19. He is poised with the puck, his breakouts are solid, and most importantly, he did not falter under the physical nature of North American hockey. Lindholm does not have the flashy offensive game, but his jump in the rankings is based a lot on the comfort level, maturity, and responsibility he has shown at every level he has competed in thus far. Moving forward, it is hard to believe he would not carry the same style into the NHL.

6. (3) Sami Vatanen, D, 7.5C
Drafted 4th round, 106th overall, in 2009

The first prospect selected outside of the first round to make the list for the Ducks is Finnish defenseman Sami Vatanen. Vatanen is a bit of a mixed package overall, his limited size at 5'10 has made him vulnerable to the physical game of the AHL, but his tremendous playmaking ability and vision makes him a threat to any opposing team. He had a tremendous 2012-13 season and was an AHL First All-Star team member and the Norfolk Admiral’s top defensive scorer. However, despite his fantastic 45 points in 62 games he was an even plus-minus. That is going to be the story with Vatanen, at least for now. He will bring you tremendous breakouts and puck moving but his defensive game is always going to be a knock. With Vatanen though, if he can put up numbers like this in the NHL, he will certainly be above the hockey “Mendoza Line” so to speak.

7. (10) Nicolas Kerdiles, C, 7.0C

Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, in 2012

What started out as a tumultuous and potentially devastating situation to his development with the NCAA penalties, Kerdiles went on to have a solid season in his first year with the University of Wisconsin Badgers. Kerdiles was second on the team in scoring with 33 points, just three points behind leading scorer Michael Mersch (LAK), despite sitting out the first 10 games of the season due to suspension. The center really put together a good season after such a rough offseason, and furthered the word that he is a very naturally gifted offensive player. At just 19 years of age, Kerdiles will have a solid couple of years as the main guy at Wisconsin. His stock is already fairly high but it has the potential to skyrocket if he stands up to the pressure of being a top gun with his current squad.

8. (8) William Karlsson, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, in 2011

Karlsson took a step up this season  from the Allsvenskan of Sweden to the Elitserien, and his first season at the top level in Sweden was very promising as Karlsson was named the league's Rookie of the Year. A crafty and quick-skating center, Karlsson had a 28-point rookie season for HV71 and accumulated 24 assists. His speed and playmaking make him a very big threat in the offensive zone, and he is strong in his own end too. Karlsson holds steady in the Ducks rankings, but the sheer fact that he succeeded in his first year of the Swedish Elite League is very promising. A good amount of NHL talent has translated over from the SEL to the NHL, and if Karlsson can continue to improve and get stronger physically, he will be a solid all-around addition to the Ducks.

9. (6) Devante Smith-Pelly, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, in 2010

The surprise of last season for the Ducks has seen the shine come off just a little bit. While Smith-Pelly still has a solid opportunity as a bottom-line grinder in the Ducks organization, the biggest step he has to take is being more defensively responsible. Despite all the good things Smith-Pelly did last season like getting in the dirty areas of the ice and throwing the body around, his defensive zone play was a step behind. He went into Norfolk this season looking to improve on that but came away with an ominous minus-17 rating. Granted, plus-minus is not the best indicator, but Smith-Pelly still does have a long way to go defensively if he wants to be a mainstay in the NHL. He improved in his offensive game a bit and continues to be a nuisance to opposing teams in front of and behind the net but hockey is not a one zone sport, and the former Mississauga Major is quickly finding that out.

10. (NR) Antoine Laganiere, C, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent in April, 2013

The surprise team of the Frozen Four, Yale University, was not even done celebrating their 4-0 win in the National Championship game over top-seeded Quinnipiac when Antoine Laganiere signed as a free agent with Anaheim. Widely considered one of the best free agent NCAA players on the market, Laganiere is a power forward who had 29 points in 37 games with the Bulldogs in 2012-13 and helped launch the team to an unforgettable tournament. He uses his size well and plays a very big game. His puck possession is solid as well as his willingness to get involved in the physical aspect of the game. He mixes in the offense nicely and has shown a good amount of scoring touch as well as willingness to crash the net. Next season will be big for Laganiere as he embarks on his professional career and will be watched very closely in Norfolk.

11. (NR) Steven Whitney, C, 7.5D
Signed as a free agent in April, 2013

Whitney, this year’s Walter Brown Award winner as the best American-born hockey player in New England, was a target on many team’s radars after the senior’s Boston College Eagles were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The highly-skilled forward has been a standout with BC these last two seasons and was the team’s second leading scorer behind Hockey East Player of the Year John Gaudreau (CGY). While undersized, which is the biggest concern with Whitney, he has a fantastic offensive skill set and is not shy of any sort of physical play. Whitney gets in on the forecheck quickly and is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice despite only being 5'7. There is little risk in the Ducks acquisition of Whitney, if he pans out and can handle the physical nature of the AHL and NHL he has a tremendous offensive upside and could add firepower to any power play. If not, he will likely be one of the many undersized players who excel at the AHL level but make it no further. Regardless, Whitney is one of the more offensively gifted centers in the Ducks system now.

12. (11) Max Friberg, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 143rd overall, in 2011

Another Swedish import, Friberg has been honing his skills in the junior levels of Sweden since his draft, but this year was finally able to crack into the Elitserien. Friberg took the important step from playing against junior players to matching up against grown men. While his numbers were not exactly impressive, with 16 points and a minus-10 rating in 55 games, Friberg took a step in a good direction. He joined up with Norfolk of the AHL at the end of the year, and that is likely where he will be next season. Next year will be big for the 5'10 Swede as his first taste of North American hockey could make his stock rise or fall significantly.

13. (12) Andy Welinski, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, in 2011

After big names like Vatanen and Lindholm, 20-year-old Andy Welinski is the next best thing the Ducks system has on defense. Welinski was playing for University of Minnesota-Duluth this year, which was his first year up from the USHL Green Bay Gamblers. While his offensive numbers look solid with 18 points in 38 games, Welinski struggled to keep up defensively at times. That is of course expected of a first year college player and he will get better moving forward. He has the tools to be a solid defender with grit, skating, and puck moving abilities, but his adjustment to the speed of the game will be a decisive factor in his future.

14. (18) Kevin Roy, C, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 97th overall, in 2012

The USHL standout for the Lincoln Stars took his first step into the NCAA this year, and he passed the test successfully. In 2012-13 with Northeastern University, Roy had 34 points in 29 games and was named to the NCAA Hockey East All-Rookie Team. He is not the biggest guy at 5'10 and 170 pounds, but he has tremendous offensive flair, stickhandling, vision, and creativity. While his size is less than desirable, Roy is showing that he can make a significant impact in spite of that. His defensive game could use some work, but his stock is definitely on the rise after a very impressive rookie season with the Huskies. If he can build on that moving forward Roy could definitely turn into a steal as a fourth round selection.

15. (19) Frederik Andersen, G, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall, in 2012

With John Gibson making headlines across the hockey world right now, the Ducks have another goaltender who has put up a tremendous 2012-13 in the AHL in Danish netminder Frederik Andersen. Originally drafted by Carolina in 2010, Anderson was the Admirals number-one goalie this year after coming over from Sweden and essentially beating out Igor Bobkov for the job. When looking at the Admirals season, in which they missed the playoffs, Andersen gave them quality starts almost every night and kept the Admirals in a ton of games. He did not get very much offensive support, as his 24-18-1 records is coupled with an outstanding 2.19 goals against average and a .929 save percentage. There will definitely be an interesting battle in goal when Gibson arrives, as Andersen has proven to be an outstanding AHL-caliber starter.

16. (17) Joseph Cramarossa, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, in 2011

While 16th in the rankings might seem low after Cramarossa had such a fantastic year this year, it is only because of a stacked group of prospects in front of him. The Markham, Ontario native took a giant step forward this year, going from a 30-40 point average player in the OHL to a near point per game player. He had 63 points with the Belleville Bulls and continued to bring a nasty physical edge to his game as well. In his last year of juniors, Cramarossa tallied his best point total ever, and had a deep tournament run with Belleville. He is in a good place mentally to jump into the AHL and see if he can be an effective third line player who can chip in offensively.

17. (NR) Charles Sarault, C, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent in March, 2013

You could not expect a 100-plus point season from Charles Sarault when he started his OHL career. His first two years of hockey in the OHL saw him average about a point every third game or so. However in a complete turnaround, Sarault was the OHL’s second leading scorer with 108 points in his overage season with the Sarnia Sting, as well as the league's top assist man with 86. Sarault is not just all about the offense either, he is a 200-foot player who has taken great strides in his defensive zone as well. Passed up in the NHL draft, Sarault was the best overage player in the OHL this year at 21. He has jumped into the Duck top 20, but he will be tested moving into the AHL now. Whether his late OHL career accolades translate is yet to be seen, but he does certainly have all the tools to play multiple roles in an NHL or AHL roster.

18. (14) Chris Wagner, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 122nd overall, in 2010

After a good solid season at Colgate University, Chris Wagner jumped into the AHL for the first time this season. While Wagner was not a standout by any means, he was a decent addition to the Admirals. With 21 points in 69 games, Wagner was a useful bottom line forward and proved to be responsible in his own end. His stock is quickly falling though as prospects with more potential are starting to pile up in front of him. Wagner is going to have to find a niche and really start to excel at it if he wants to stay relevant. Still, it was his rookie season and Wagner could take off in the coming years as a new wave of talent comes in to support the Admirals.

19. (13) Igor Bobkov, G, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, in 2009

It was a rough year overall for Igor Bobkov. After biding his time and finishing up his career in the OHL as an overager, the jump to Norfolk was made and it looked as though he would be penciled in as the Admirals starter. However, Frederik Andersen completely stole the job from Bobkov out of camp. Bobkov, now a backup, started out well getting starts here and there but fell into a six-game losing streak in November which ultimately defined his season. He could put up tremendous efforts and steal games with his athleticism, but too often a quality start was followed up with an absolute howler. It is going to be real tough sledding going into into next season for Bobkov. He stands as the backup as of right now behind a very poised Frederik Andersen, but they will have to contend with an incoming potential superstar in John Gibson next season. Unless a major change is made to his mentality or his game, Bobkov could be looking at potential ECHL duty in the future.

20. (20) Andrew O'Brien, D, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 108th overall, in 2012

Holding down the final spot in the Ducks’ Spring Top 20 is big, bruising defenseman Andrew O’Brien. O’Brien is a simple defensive defenseman, and is learning to play a more responsible game while still imposing himself physically. You cannot teach size, and at 6'3 and 200 pounds, O’Brien certainly has that to his advantage. He had over 100 penalty minutes with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL this year along with plenty of fights and a plus-19 rating. He does not have the biggest upside given his limited offensive skill set, but at best O’Brien could be a fifth or sixth defenseman who clears the crease and makes opponents pay for admiring passes or not keeping their heads up. He has certainly brought that to the table thus far in his career and he will likely continue that into the AHL.