At the NHL All-Star break, the Anaheim Ducks not only have one of the league’s best records (30-12-8) but they also boast the second best point-producing defense in all of the NHL. The Ducks defense has accounted for 26 goals and 133 points, just two points behind the top point producing blue line in the NHL, the Ottawa Senators.
While there is no denying that former Norris trophy winners Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger have contributed a great deal to Anaheim’s blue line success, the Ducks have also seen big contributions from prospect Shane O’Brien.
The 6’2, 228-pound defenseman ranks fourth among all rookie defensemen in points scored with 13, and is ranked second among rookies with a plus/minus of seven. While O’Brien’s 13 points may seem a bit meager when compared alongside Niedermayer or Pronger’s numbers, the Port Hope, Ontario native has scored when the Ducks needed it most with two game-winning goals.
The 23-year-old has also added an extra element of toughness on the ice. The Ducks eighth-round draft pick in 2003 hasn’t been afraid to drop the gloves and leads the team with 122 penalty minutes in just 50 games played.
“He’s stepped in and has really participated in a lot of areas of our game,” said Niedermayer, the Ducks team captain and a four-time All-Star. “He’s been on the power play, killed a few penalties. He’s a big guy, a physical guy. Obviously fought a few times but at the same time he’s a great skater and he does everything well.”
While O’Brien is immediately recognizable as just another one of the Ducks hefty crop of young stars, the young defenseman spent three seasons toiling in the AHL to earn that recognition. Over the course of three seasons at the American League level, O’Brien steadily increased his offensive production. He went from 10 points in his first year to 25 points in his second year. Last season, in his third year, O’Brien had a career season. He amassed 41 points in 77 regular season games and led all AHL defensemen during the post season with 6 goals and 22 points.
Last year’s success at the AHL level has undoubtedly helped O’Brien to successfully transition to the NHL. Now at the NHL level, O’Brien admits that playing on a team with three former Norris trophy winners and with a very real chance at the Stanley Cup has been worth all the hard work.
“I’ve said all along it’s unbelievable for a young guy to come up to this team with Prongs, Niedermayer and Randy [Carlyle] all winning Norris trophies. It’s a pretty good [situation] so I’ve just got to keep working hard and get better,” said O’Brien.
This season, O’Brien has routinely changed defensive partners and has averaged of 14:29 minutes per game. The Ducks recent injuries to defensemen Francois Beauchemin and Chris Pronger have resulted in O’Brien logging an extra 10 minutes of ice time per game, but the blueliner has taken it all in stride.
“You can’t replace Pronger and Beauchemin is a big loss as well. So we’ve just got to, as six guys, do a better job,” said O’ Brien.
While many would expect that the team’s recent slide (2-6-2) would have the Ducks brass scrambling, they have in fact welcomed the adversity.
“Times like this are actually good for your hockey team because as management and coaches you get to learn about your players,” said Ducks Senior VP of Hockey Operations Bob Murray. “People are moved up into positions that they don’t normally play in like a fifth or sixth defenseman becomes a third or fourth defenseman and for us to learn who can handle these things and who can’t.”
While the injuries have allowed O’Brien to step into a higher profile role with the team, the extra time on the ice has shed light on some areas of his game that need improvement.
“We think [he’s] done a fairly effective job,” said Ducks Head Coach Randy Carlyle. “Obviously the minutes that [he’s] playing now are far more than [he’s] ever played at this level and there’s more opportunity for success and there’s more opportunity for failure when you get into those situations. I’d like to see some improvement in the areas of making some better decisions with the puck and moving the puck up the ice as opposed to east-west. We’d like to play north-south.”
Despite lapses in O’Brien’s game, the Ducks have been extremely pleased with the progress of the young defenseman.
“He has all the talent in the world,” said Murray enthusiastically. “I tell him all the time ‘you have all the talent in the world. You can play 15 years if you want to but you have to pay attention to detail.’ He’s learning…it’s coming.”
While the Ducks have been pleased with his progress, O’Brien still sees himself as a work in progress.
“I’m just trying to think about everyday getting better and trying to help this team win,” he said. “Right now, we’re not winning so it’s not working out so we’ll go to practice and try to get back on track.”
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.