Ducks Top 20 prospects, Spring 2010

By Kyle Kujawa

Just over a year into Bob Murray’s tenure as the team’s general manager, the Ducks’ system is in constant change. There have been a number of new additions via trade and free agency, adding more new faces than a typical organization sees in a year. The fact that Anaheim does not have its own AHL affiliate only adds to what has been a chaotic season for Duck prospects.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Luca Sbisa, D
2. Jake Gardiner, D
3. Matt Beleskey, LW
4. Kyle Palmieri, RW
5. Mark Mitera, D
6. Peter Holland, C
7. Brendan Mikkelson, D
8. Dan Sexton, RW
9. Brandon McMillan, LW
10. Nicolas Deschamps, C
11. Nick Bonino, C
12. Matt Clark, D
13. Igor Bobkov, G
14. Sami Vatanen, D
15. Timo Pielmeier, G
16. Mattias Modig, G
17. Radoslav Illo, C
18. Justin Schultz, D
19. MacGregor Sharp, C
20. Justin Pogge, G

1. (1) Luca Sbisa, D — 8.0B
6’2, 205 lbs
Acquired from Philadelphia
January 30, 1990

Sbisa has been keeping his suitcase packed this season, having worn the sweater for five different teams. Sbisa started the season in Anaheim, lasting eight games before he was sent back to the WHL so he could play a more expanded role. He played 17 games for Lethbridge, registering 13 points, before he was traded to Portland — a team actually in the playoff picture. He’s also had two stints internationally, playing for Switzerland at the World Junior Championships before an abdominal injury cut his tournament short. He’s back in action now, suiting up again for Switzerland at the Olympic games.

No matter the level, Sbisa has shown that he has all the tools to one day be a top-notch NHL defenseman. His strength lies in his effortless puck-moving style and elite skating ability. There were very few doubts by those in Anaheim that he would have trouble sticking in the NHL. However, as a young defenseman who at times made questionable decisions in his own zone, the decision was made to give him at least one more year of juniors where he would play upwards of 35-40 minutes a night.

2. (2) Jake Gardiner, D — 8.0C
6’2, 184 lbs
1st round, 17th overall, 2008
July 4, 1990

At this time last year, Gardiner was Anaheim’s top prospect. The offseason addition of Sbisa (drafted two picks later than Gardiner) pushed Gardiner off the top of the list, but Gardiner’s lack of production certainly hasn’t helped things. The sophomore has matched the three goals he put up as a freshman, but his four assists won’t match last year’s 18. Gardiner went over two months without a point before he notched two points in a game in late January.

However, those who watched capture him gold at the World Junior Championships saw a defenseman who gradually worked his way up from the bottom of the depth chart as the tournament progressed. They also saw a much improved defensive game out of a player drafted primarily for his elite skating ability and offensive skills. Gardiner is still on the right track, and he’s in a pretty good program for producing defensemen. He’s in a good position to log some major minutes for Wisconsin if juniors Brendan Smith (DET) and Ryan McDonagh (NYR) both turn pro after the season.

3. (7) Matt Beleskey, LW — 7.0B
6’0, 204 lbs
4th round, 112th overall, 2006
June 7, 1988

If Anaheim had their own AHL affiliate, there’s a good chance Beleskey could still be in the AHL. A second-year pro, Beleskey was assigned to San Antonio before being re-assigned to Toronto after Anaheim was unhappy with the ice time he was getting. He was in Toronto for all of three games before Anaheim recalled him. Forty games later, Beleskey is sitting comfortably with a regular spot in the lineup and six goals among 10 points.

Beleskey’s game is not purely offensive, but he did not look out of place in his brief stint on Anaheim’s top line. Beleskey’s crash and bang style can open up room for Anaheim’s top offensive players, and his touch around the net suggests he could become a fixture among Anaheim’s top-six forwards. For now, he’s mostly played a checking-line role, but his versatility has made it difficult to keep him out of the lineup.

4. (5) Kyle Palmieri, RW — 7.0C
5’11, 190 lbs
1st round, 26th overall, 2009
February 1, 1991

Despite being the second of Anaheim’s two first-round picks from this past June, Palmieri finds himself on top of that class due to a strong performance as a freshman. Despite a strong senior class, Palmieri is sitting second in Notre Dame scoring among freshmen with 14 points in 27 games. Most impressively, since returning from the World Juniors (where he produced nine points in seven games), he has registered a point in all but one of Notre Dame’s games.

Palmieri doesn’t fit the billing of a typical Duck forward, but his playmaking and work ethic more than make up for his below-average frame. Palmieri has showed off an excellent set of hands more than once this season and has emerged as one of the top freshman passers. He is certainly in line for a productive college career, should Anaheim keep him there.

5. (4) Mark Mitera, D — 7.0C
6’3, 215 lbs
1st round, 19th overall, 2006
October 22, 1987

Coming off a knee injury that kept him out of action for most of last year, Mitera had a slow start this season. With the exception of one short stint in San Antonio, Mitera spent most of the first three months of the season in the ECHL. Mitera’s production in Bakersfield was not what was expected out of a first-round pick who was trying to make his case in the AHL.

A strong January in which Mitera notched his first three professional goals, as well as five of his 10 assists on the year helped Mitera land a regular gig in the AHL. Calgary’s affiliate in Abbotsford had a roster spot open after Keith Aulie was traded to Toronto, and Anaheim was able to loan Mitera out. He’s played in eight games (totaling 13 in the AHL this season), notching one assist. For a player coming off such a serious injury on a team that is struggling to find regular playing time for any of its professional prospects, it’s safe to say that Mitera is still on the right track.

6. (3) Peter Holland, C — 7.5D
6’2, 195 pounds
1st round, 15th overall, 2009
January 14, 1991

Expected to be Guelph’s go-to offensive player to start this season, Holland saw a pair of third-round picks in Taylor Beck and Michael Latta (both property of Nashville) emerge as Guelph’s top threats early on in the season. In his first 27 games, Holland managed only 26 points — not nearly enough for a 15th overall pick.

Holland has since exploded, nearly doubling that mark in January alone with 22 points, adding another 11 in his first five games of February. Injuries played a factor in Holland’s slow start, but his play certainly didn’t answer any of the questions marks on his game from last season, mainly his work ethic. His -11 rating also leaves something to be desired.

7. (6) Brendan Mikkelson, D — 6.5B
6’2, 202 pounds
2nd round, 31st overall, 2005
June 22, 1987

Just nine games shy of officially graduating as a prospect, Mikkelson has been split this season in the NHL (22 games) and the AHL (36 games) where he plays with the Toronto Marlies. The third-year pro had a lengthy stint in the NHL due to injuries, further giving fans confidence in Anaheim’s defensive depth for the future.

Mikkelson is having a career year in the AHL, just two points shy of the career high of 16 he set in 2007-08 — in nearly twice the number of games. The quick-thinking mobile defenseman has been counted on for big minutes in Toronto, on a team sitting in the bottom of its division. Mikkelson’s offensive game has certainly made some progress, but to get a longer look in the NHL next year, he’ll need to prove that his -16 rating is more the result of his circumstance and not his own play.

8. (15) Dan Sexton, RW — 6.5B
5’10, 160 pounds
Signed as a free agent
April 29, 1987

Despite notching just over a point per game, there was not much fanfare when Anaheim signed the sophomore out of Bowling Green State University. A few months later, Sexton finds himself as one of the biggest risers on Anaheim’s depth chart.

Sexton started the season in the ECHL, where he quickly scored 26 points in 18 games. Injuries left Anaheim struggling to find offense, and they found their answer in a player who was never drafted. Sexton made an immediate impact on the scoresheet, and drew all-around great reviews from his style of play.

Before being demoted to the AHL, Sexton put up 18 points in 28 games. His speed and work ethic made him a valuable asset for Anaheim in all situations, and has given the club something to think about when assembling next year’s roster. Sexton has continued to produce, sitting at nine points in 10 games with the Manitoba Moose. As long as the team’s healthy, Sexton will likely continue in the AHL, where he still needs to work on adding some weight and adjusting to bigger competition.

9. (NR) Brandon McMillan, LW — 6.5B
5’11, 190 pounds
3rd round, 85th overall, 2008
March 22, 1990

McMillan has stepped up this season on a Kelowna team that lost a lot of offense after their run to the Memorial Cup final. His blazing speed and versatility has helped him to what looks like a career year, with 47 points in 43 games. McMillan has not yet earned a professional contract, but it seems very likely he will get one after the season.

The highlight of the season came while representing Canada at the World Junior Championship. McMillan was hardly a lock for the team heading into camp, but he cracked the lineup and finished fifth in team scoring with eight points in six games. His versatility and work ethic drew rave reviews, as he literally played in all situations — from top-six winger to defense, when injuries called for it.

10. (13) Nicolas Deschamps, C — 7.0C
6’2, 195 pounds
2nd round, 35th overall, 2008
January 6, 1990

If any Duck prospect needed to have a breakout season to stay on the radar, it was Deschamps. A second-round pick, his second-year numbers in the QMJHL weren’t quite up to snuff. He started strong with Chicoutimi this season, with 44 points in 31 games, but it was a midseason trade to Moncton that has really helped him find his game. He is scoring nearly two points per game, with 39 in the 21 games since the trade.

As he‘s already signed his entry-level deal, Deschamps is finally showing signs of progress, meaning he’s a safe bet to turn professional next season. Deschamps’ offensive game coming around gives Anaheim the complete player they thought he could be when they drafted him. Deschamps had already made strides in becoming a better player in his own end, and adding strength to his once lanky frame.

11. (14) Nick Bonino, C — 7.0C
6’1, 190 pounds
Acquired from San Jose
April 20, 1988

After posting an impressive 50 points as a sophomore en route to capturing an NCAA title with Boston University, Bonino was expected to lead this season. Like the rest of the Terriers, he struggled mightily out of the gate, not leading the offensive charge as expected. However, Bonino has found his game recently, notching points in all but one of his past 14 games, putting him back in the team scoring lead.

The junior is a good bet to come out a year early and start his professional career, having racked up 106 points in his collegiate career. He has all the offensive tools of a top point producer at the NCAA level, but still needs to improve more on his skating to find the same success at the professional level.

12. (9) Matt Clark, D — 7.0C
6’4, 218 pounds
2nd round, 37th overall, 2009
October 17, 1990

Last year’s second-round pick has had a strong season for a Brampton team that was built to win for last year. Now just a middle of the pack team, Clark logs major minutes and plays in all different situations. The physical defenseman has chipped in four goals and 14 assists on the season.

The new look of the team has played a factor in why Clark’s +21 rating from last year has fallen to a -2. He is still regarded as one of the best shut-down defensemen in the league, and a -2 rating isn’t terrible when his competition every night is the other team’s best line. The big decision on Clark comes this offseason when Anaheim will decide to either leave him for an overage season in the OHL, or put him in the AHL after just two OHL seasons.

13. (16) Igor Bobkov, G — 7.0C
6’4, 192 pounds
3rd round, 76th overall, 2009
January 2, 1991

Taking over as the top goaltending prospect in the organization is Bobkov, fresh off a strong performance at the World Junior Championship. Bobkov led the tournament in save percentage, turning away 93 percent of the shots he faced. Back in Russia, Bobkov is playing for the Steel Foxes of the MHL, the new junior league that feeds into the KHL.

Bobkov has all the tools to be a good goalie at the next level. His size is his strongest attribute, but he also boasts deceptive quickness. He proved in the WJC that, while he can look a bit unorthodox, he doesn’t give up on a play. Rebound control will need to be improved to ever make an impact at the NHL level.

14. (NR) Sami Vatanen, D — 7.0D
5’9, 159 pounds
4th round, 106th overall, 2009
June 3, 1991

When it comes to pure skill among the defensemen in the pipeline, no one has Vatanen beat. Vatanen has stormed into the top league in Finland, putting up 25 points in 44 games. He’s considered a good bet to win rookie of the year, having stepped in as an 18-year-old to log major ice time. His time on the under-20 team gave fans a taste of his finesse game, as he pulled off several highlight-reel rushes and demonstrated an ability to score clutch goals.

However, he also showed at times that he’s easily pushed around, which is not surprising given his size. His skillset makes him an interesting project pick for the Ducks, if he’s able to succeed professionally despite his size. Early indications point to yes, as he’s had no problem playing against men in Finland.

15. (18) Timo Pielmeier, G — 6.5C
6’0, 165 pounds
Acquired from San Jose
July 7, 1989

Pielmeier is tied for first in the league with 19 wins despite being in his first year as a professional.

On a team that’s had an above-average number of NHL prospects all season, Pielmeier’s 3.09 GAA (15th in the league) and .886 save percentage leave a little to be desired. He’s probably benefited from playing a heavier schedule as the starter in the ECHL, instead of backing up a more veteran goalie if Anaheim had their own affiliate.

16. (10) Mattias Modig, G — 6.5C
6’1, 179 pounds
4th round, 121st overall, 2007
April 1, 1987

Modig was Anaheim’s top goaltending prospect heading into this season, but he’s taken a step back this year. He was Lulea’s unquestioned starter last season, but has lost playing time this year to a younger prospect in Anders Nilsson (NYI). They’ve played about an equal amount of games, but Modig’s 2.66 GAA and .894 save percentage are steps down from last year.

It’s unclear where Modig fits into Anaheim’s future plans, but for now, he’s facing strong competition in the SEL. He has the ability to be a starting goaltender in the SEL, but could be hurting his development if he continues in the platoon system.

17. (NR) Radoslav Illo, C — 6.5D
6’0, 185 pounds
5th round, 136th overall, 2009
January 21, 1990

The third prospect to debut on this list is Anaheim’s second to last pick in this past draft. Illo has become a legitimate scoring threat. He was one of the bright spots for Slovakia at the 2010 World Junior Championship. He also recently committed to Bemidji State, who he’ll suit up for next season after two successful years in the USHL.

“It’s not the biggest school,” Illo recently told Hockey’s Future. “It‘s a really good hockey team this season, and they‘re going to the WCHA next season.”

Illo has improved upon his offensive numbers from last season with the Tri-City Americans, and his plus/minus rating is also improving.

“We’re a better team this season, we’re not losing as much as last season. I don’t have that many minuses because we’re not giving up that many goals,” Illo said.

18. (20) Justin Schultz, D — 6.0C
6’2, 170 pounds
2nd round, 43rd overall, 2008
July 6, 1990

On a team loaded with experienced defensemen, including Gardiner, it comes as a surprise to some that Schultz is having the success that he’s had. A scoring star in Junior A, Schultz has been able to make a positive impact as a freshman at Wisconsin. He’s even outscoring Gardiner, with 13 points in 29 games.

Schultz is poised to move up the charts over the next few years. While lacking the skills to be considered an elite prospect, Schultz is a very strong skater and puckmover, with all the makings of a power-play specialist. He will need to improve in his own zone in order to make the jump to the next level, which he’ll have plenty of time to do at a school known for producing quality defensemen.

19. (19) MacGregor Sharp, C — 6.0C
6’1, 185 pounds
Signed as a free agent
October 1, 1985

Like Sexton, Sharp has made an impression despite a low profile. Sharp started the season in the ECHL, scoring almost a point per game in 15 games with Bakersfield. He enjoyed an eight-game NHL stint in late November, averaging only a few minutes of ice time since Anaheim was decimated with injuries.

Sharp has also played 25 games in the AHL, with Phoenix’s affiliate in San Antonio. He’s put up four goals and 13 points. Despite being 24 years old, Sharp has shown signs that he is a late bloomer who might one day be fit for a fourth-line role.

20. (12) Justin Pogge, G — 6.0C
6’3, 204 pounds
Acquired from Toronto
April 22, 1986

When Anaheim acquired Pogge from Toronto in the summer, there was some question about where he fit in. He added depth to a system with no proven assets in the AHL. However, it was tough for Anaheim to find playing time for him early on in the season, raising questions to whether or not Anaheim was concerned about his development. He did appear in nine games for Bakersfield, and is currently in San Antonio, where he’s notched 18 games.

Pogge is doing his best to get noticed, with a .931 save percentage in San Antonio, recently named the AHL Player of the Week. He hasn’t seen any NHL time this season, but with Vesa Toskala’s contract expiring in the summer, he could have an outside chance at the vacant backup spot for next season.

Holly Gunning contributed to this article.