Luca Sbisa still top prospect for Anaheim Ducks

By Kevin Forbes
Photo: Ducks top prospect Luca Sbisa will be expected to compete for an NHL spot out of training camp. (Photo courtesy of

After missing the playoffs for the first time since the lockout, the Anaheim Ducks have been taking steps to restock their prospect cupboard as their roster continues to change.
With star players like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Jonas Hiller all still on the roster, Anaheim is looking to reload in talent rather than a full blown rebuilding youth movement. Nevertheless, the Ducks have had four first round picks in the past two years and have once again dedicated themselves to finding hidden talents in the college free agent market. Compared to even a few short years ago, the Ducks prospect pipeline looks much more encouraging.

Top 20 at a glance:

1. (1) Luca Sbisa, D, 8.0B
2. (NR) Cam Fowler, D, 8.5D
3. (2) Jake Gardiner, D, 8.0C
4. (NR) Emerson Etem, RW, 7.5C
5. (3) Matt Beleskey, LW, 7.0B
6. (4) Kyle Palmieri, RW, 7.0C
7. (6) Peter Holland, C, 7.5D
8. (5) Mark Mitera, D, 7.0C
9. (14) Sami Vatanen, D, 7.5D
10. (7) Brendan Mikkelson, D, 6.5B
11. (8) Dan Sexton, RW, 7.0C
12. (11) Nick Bonino, C, 7.0C
13. (10) Nicolas Deschamps, C, 6.5B
14. (9) Brandon McMillan, LW, 6.5B
15. (12) Matt Clark, D, 7.0C
16. (NR) Devante Smith-Pelly, LW, 7.0C
17. (13) Igor Bobkov, G, 7.0C
18. (17) Justin Schultz, D, 7.0D
19. (NR) Jake Newton, D, 6.5C
20. (15) Timo Pielmeier, G, 6.5C

1. (1) Luca Sbisa, D, 20
Acquired via trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, 2009

One has to wonder if, at times during the 2009-10 season, Luca Sbisa had trouble knowing exactly where he was waking up each morning. After being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2009 offseason, the former 19th overall pick in 2008 bounced from team-to-team across a number of leagues. Starting the season with the Ducks, the Swiss blueliner was sent down to the WHL in late October after appearing in eight games with the Ducks. Joining the Lethbridge Hurricanes, he wasn’t long packing his bags again, first to play for Team Switzerland at the World Juniors tournament and then representing his country on the international stage again during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, his WHL rights were also dealt, landing him with the Portland WinterHawks. Hampered by some nagging injuries, including an abdominal injury that happened during the World Juniors that saw him miss a number of weeks, it was a broken foot that he suffered during the WHL playoffs that finally put an end to his rollercoaster of a season, despite initial plans for him to join the AHL‘s Manitoba Moose after the WinterHawks were eliminated.

Looking forward, stability might be the best word to describe what Sbisa has to be hoping for in 2010-11. With his junior hockey days are behind him, he now has a huge opportunity to join and perhaps stick in the NHL with the Ducks. Already in his last year of his entry-level contract, forcing his way into a full-time role with the Ducks would help his case considerably. Even if the two-way defender can not force his way into a permanent spot on Anaheim’s backend, the Ducks new full-time AHL affiliate in Syracuse should provide some day-to-day consistency, as well as plenty of ice time.

2. (NR) Cam Fowler, D, 18
Drafted 12th overall, 1st round, 2010

When future Hall-of-Famer Scott Niedermayer announced his retirement (and actually seemed committed to the idea this time), the Ducks were left with the unenviable task of trying to replace his contributions on the Anaheim back end. After Cam Fowler fell into their laps at the 2010 draft, Anaheim is now hoping that the Michigan native will one day be able to step up and fill a top pairing role with the club. While hoping for the next Niedermayer is an unfair burden to saddle on the 18-year-old, the Ducks have wasted no time signing their draft prize to a contract and are expected to give him a shot at breaking into their line-up this fall.

Offensively talented with an impressive resume of accomplishments, Fowler still has plenty of room to grow and improve. After being thought of as a possible top-three talent at one point leading up to the draft, the smooth skating defender is believed to have dropped to the Ducks in part due to the holes in his game. Anaheim is believed to have a few open spots on their blue line this season and Fowler will be given as good a chance as anyone to try to crack the line-up, but his long-term growth may be better served with another season in junior.

3. (2) Jake Gardiner, D, 20
Drafted 17th overall, 1st round, 2008

Briefly flirting with the idea of turning pro prior to the upcoming season, it appears that Jake Gardiner will instead be returning to the University of Wisconsin for his junior year. After an impressive freshman debut with the Badgers, Gardiner’s point totals dropped in his sophomore year. But that may not be as much of a cause for concern as it appears to be at first glance. The Minnesota native spent the 2009-10 season rounding out his game and was one of the top defensemen playing for the gold-medal winning Team USA at the World Juniors.

With that
experience under his belt, Gardiner is returning to a very different Wisconsin defense corps. Three of his teammates have made the decision to jump to professional hockey and Gardiner will be one of just three returning starters. Expected to fill a big role for Wisconsin, Gardiner’s choice to hold off chasing his own dream in the big leagues may end up paying off for him in the end.

4. (NR) Emerson Etem, RW, 18
Drafted 29th overall, 1st round, 2010

It was almost like something from a storybook when the Anaheim Ducks selected California native Emerson Etem at the end of the first round this summer. But the draft selection was far from a novelty. With 37 goals in the 72 regular season games last year as well as another seven goals in 12 playoff matches, Etem should be one of the top returning goal-scorers in the WHL for the 2010-11 season.

A speedy skater with a nose to the net, the Ducks have no need to rush the hard working forward. Etem still has a number of things to work on, including his physical play and his play away from the puck, but his dedication to improve is an oft-repeated attribute. It shouldn’t be long until the next chapter is penned for Etem: the local boy stepping onto the ice for the Anaheim Ducks.

5. (3) Matt Beleskey, LW, 22
Drafted 112th overall, 4th round, 2006

Appearing in 60 games last season with the Ducks, Matt Beleskey is almost a sure bet to start the 2010-11 campaign in Anaheim. This is, in part, due to the 22-year-old’s flexibility to fill different roles in the line-up. From helping out on a scoring line, to grinding it out on a checking line, to providing an energy boost, this former OHL star has arrived.

Although he may never replicate his scoring prowess with the Belleville Bulls that saw him post almost 1.5 points per game in his final season of junior hockey, it is thought that Beleskey still has some untapped offensive ability. No matter what the future holds, the Ontario native’s versatility should lead to a long future in the NHL.

6. (4) Kyle Palmieri, C, 19

Drafted 26th overall, 1st round, 2009

The Anaheim Ducks selection of Kyle Palmieri in the first round of 2009 has been derided by some outsiders ever since. First, there was the issues that led to him being dropped by Team USA’s Under-18 team prior to the draft, that was followed by an arrest last season for an off-ice incident. To their credit, Anaheim appears to be standing by both their selection and their player and made moves this off season to help get the New York native back on track.

By signing an entry-level deal with the Ducks, Palmieri leaves Notre Dame University after just a single season. Although he could have transitioned to the OHL and join fellow Ducks first rounder Peter Holland on the Guelph Storm, it is expected that Palmieri will make the jump directly to pro hockey. As a 19-year-old in the AHL, Palmieri will be one of the younger players in the entire league, but he’ll benefit from being directly under the watchful eye of Anaheim’s staff. A bit of a gym rat with two-way ability, Palmieri will need more time developing before he is ready to knock on the NHL’s door.

7. (6) Peter Holland, C, 19
Drafted 15th overall, 1st round, 2009

The other half of Anaheim’s pair of first round selections in 2009, Peter Holland was selected before Kyle Palmieri but has had a bumpy ride since then. A mixture of injuries and inconsistency led to a disappointing first half to his 2009-10 season, but the Ontario native rebounded to score at over a 1.6 point-per-game rate in the last 32 games of the season and was rewarded with a contract by the Ducks.

Although his stated goal is to try and crack the Ducks roster this season, Holland is much more likely set to return to the OHL to continue to work on his game. An intriguing combination of offensive talent and size, Holland needs to show that he can consistently put it all together on the ice to succeed. He has the tools to be a solid contributor at the NHL level, but he has a long way to go.

8. (5) Mark Mitera, D, 22
Drafted 19th overall, 1st round, 2006

Slightly forgotten among all the new first round selections joining the organization, Mark Mitera might be flying under the radar at the moment, but that isn’t to say he couldn’t surprise in the near future. Mitera spent the 2009-10 season bouncing between the AHL and the ECHL after playing in just 13 games the previous year due to a serious knee injury. In total, he played 36 games in the ECHL and 32 games in the AHL, followed by another 13 AHL playoff matches.

Still finding his form and getting his game back on track after such a significant injury, getting regular ice time and opportunity is the only way Mitera will be able to show he still has the same potential that led Anaheim to select 19th overall in the first place. He should benefit from Anaheim’s new arrangement with the Syracuse Crunch. While he’ll never be mistaken for an offensive defenseman, some strong play by the Michigan native should help him climb the depth chart.

9. (14) Sami Vatanen, D, 19
Drafted 106th overall, 4th round, 2009

Perhaps one of the more intriguing prospects in Anaheim’s pipeline, every news report out of Finland on Sami Vatanen has been nothing short of impressive. Breaking SM-Liiga rookie scoring records for defensemen in both the regular season and the playoffs, Vatanen played a regular role on JYP, the regular season champions. He also represented Finland at both the World Juniors and the World Championships, playing in the IIHF championship as an 18-year-old.

Opting to re-sign with JYP for another two years, the Ducks will have to wait before they can lure their former fourth-round selection in 2009 over to North America. Although diminutive in size, Vatanen has the skills to one day quarterback the power play in Anaheim. But for now, playing a regular role in the Finnish league can only help his development.

10. (7) Brendan Mikkelson, D, 23
Drafted 31st overall, 2nd round, 2005

Appearing in 62 games over the past two seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, Brendan Mikkelson can scarcely be considered a prospect at this point. But that isn’t to say there is an NHL spot with his name on it entering this season. After playing in 28 games last season for the Ducks, the pressure is on for the Saskatchewan native. Mikkelson signed a one-year deal to return to the Ducks this season and needs to prove his worth if he hopes to garner a longer commitment from the team.

With significant turnover among Anaheim defensemen over the past two seasons, Mikkelson has yet to latch on to a permanent role with the club. Heading into training camp, he’ll face significant competition from fellow prospects like Sbisa and Fowler, who are both pushing for full time roles as well.

11. (8) Dan Sexton, RW, 23
Signed as a free agent, 2009

Shuttling between the NHL, the AHL and the ECHL for most of the season, Dan Sexton‘s 18 points during a 28 game span with the Ducks left most ready to anoint him as the next shrewd college signing by Anaheim’s David McNab. But that coronation may have been a bit premature, as after a brief stop in the AHL, Sexton returned to the Ducks for another 13 games to finish the season and was only able to add a single assist.

Despite these problems with consistency, Sexton spent his rookie season showcasing his ability to score no matter what the league. This could bode well for his immediate future. With veteran sniper Joffrey Lupul expected to miss the start of the season, Sexton might have the edge to replace him in the line-up on opening night.

12. (11) Nick Bonino, C, 22
Acquired in a trade with the San Jose Sharks, 2009

After three years at Boston University, Nick Bonino opted to turn pro last spring and even managed to make his NHL debut before season’s end. Recording his first NHL goal in his second game, Bonino appeared in nine games and finished with a goal and an assist.

Looking forward, Bonino will be another player in the mix to challenge for a roster spot and perhaps help replace the lost offense while Joffrey Lupul continues to recover from back injury. According to some reports, Bonino had considered turning pro a season early, but chose not to, in part due to the fact that the Ducks lacked an AHL affiliate. Should Bonino be unable to crack the Anaheim’s line-up, he should spend his first full season of pro hockey as an offensive threat with the Syracuse Crunch. Touted as a pure goal scorer, Bonino will only get better as he continues to improve his skating and conditioning. Due to his NHL debut, Bonino’s entry-level deal will in fact expire at the end of the upcoming season.

13. (10) Nicolas Deschamps, C, 20

Drafted 35th overall, 2nd round, 2008

After a pair of statistically similar campaigns to start his junior hockey career, Nicolas Deschamps broke out in his final season in the QMJHL. Finishing the season tied for the league scoring lead with 96 points, Deschamps was traded at the mid-season point to the Moncton Wildcats. Although the Wildcats would go on to win the President’s Cup as the league champions, an ankle injury limited his effectiveness in the playoffs and left him unable to compete in the Memorial Cup.

Now making the jump to professional hockey, Nicolas Deschamps is penciled in to begin his pro career in the AHL with Syracuse. Although listed as a center, Deschamps spent most of last season playing on the left side and moving forward, his game may be better suited for lining up on the wing. A speedy forward who can help out at both ends of the ice, the real question is how much of Deschamps’ offensive ability will make the jump to pro hockey with him.

14. (9) Brandon McMillan, LW, 20
Drafted 85th overall, 3rd round, 2008

The definition of versatility, Brandon McMillan is good bet to fill some sort of future role in Anaheim, even if it ends up being as an usher. His career to date has seen him line up at all three forward position as well as spending some time as a defenseman. While Anaheim will likely continue developing him as a winger, the 20-year-old’s speed and two-way play makes him a valuable tool to slot in the line-up in a myriad of different situations.

A member of Canada’s World Junior squad last year, McMillan’s WHL stats were improved by more than .5 points-per-game over the previous season’s efforts. Now making the leap to pro hockey, McMillan may not have the pure offensive ability to make an immediate impact on the score sheet, but his quick feet and never-quit attitude should be a solid contribution to the line-up nonetheless. McMillan should be penciled in to start in Syracuse this season.

15. (12) Matt Clark, D, 19
Drafted 37th overall, 2nd round, 2009

In his two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, Matt Clark has appeared in 129 regular season games and has notched 46 points; similarly he’s seen 28 playoff matches and tallied just 11 points. It’s safe to say that Clark isn’t known primarily for his offensive skills. While he’s no slouch in that regard (all seven of his goals last season with the Brampton Battalion came on the power play), the Ontario native makes a name for himself by playing a smart, physical brand of hockey in his own end.

Clark, who won’t turn 20 until the middle of October, is expected to make the full time jump to pro hockey this season. His late birthday allows him to move to pro a bit earlier than some of his fellow 2009 draft selections. But that isn’t to say this is his pro hockey debut. Clark already appeared in seven games (six of them being playoff matches) with the Manitoba Moose at the end of last season. Now expected to join the Syracuse Crunch, Clark should have some healthy competition from players like Mitera, Jake Newton, John de Gray and others for ice time.

16. (NR) Devante Smith-Pelly, RW, 18

Drafted 42nd overall, 2nd round, 2010

A rough-and-tumble forward out of the Ontario Hockey League, it shouldn’t take long for Devante Smith-Pelly to establish himself as a fan favorite for Ducks fans. An energy forward with a nose for loose pucks around the net, the 18-year-old’s 29 goals more than doubled his totals from his rookie season and his 62 points with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors tied him for the team lead. He didn’t skip a beat when the playoffs rolled around, leading the team with eight goals and 14 poi
nts in 16 games.

A physical forward listed at 6’0 and 211 pounds, Smith-Pelly’s hard-nosed play will be an asset in the future, regardless of how his development continues to progress. But for now, the Scarborough, Ontario native is set to return to St. Mike’s and take another step forward. Though the Majors are considered to be a defensively focused squad, a modest improvement on the previous year’s totals should still be expected from Smith-Pelly.

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

Playing as a backup in the Russia‘s MHL, Igor Bobkov did not get much of an opportunity to showcase his skills during the 2009-10 season. Appearing in only seven games over the season, the towering goaltender is now slated to fill a new role in North America. Selected by the London Knights in the CHL’s Import Draft, Bobkov’s transfer to the OHL is expected to be finalized before the league begins regular season play later this month.

Listed at 6’4, Bobkov naturally covers plenty of the net by simply skating in front of the crease, but his speed and athleticism help set him apart. His path to the NHL will benefit from joining London and seeing more ice time, although at this point in time, it appears he won’t simply be handed the starting duties. His competition will be 17-year-old Michael Houser, who just recently participated in the US world junior summer evaluation camp. A star playing for Russia at the World Juniors last season, Bobkov will need to prove himself to get the starts.

18. (17) Justin Schultz, D, 20
Drafted 43rd overall, 2nd round, 2008

Originally drafted in 2008, Justin Schultz made his long-awaited NCAA debut last season and while the Ducks don’t necessarily have to sign him for another three seasons, he should make the jump to pro hockey much sooner. As a 19-year-old, Schultz stepped into the line-up for the University of Wisconsin and made an immediate impact. His 22 points placed him second among Badger defensemen and was named to the WCHA All-Rookie team at the end of the season. The British Columbia native even outscored fellow Ducks prospect Jake Gardiner, who was selected 26 spots ahead of him in 2008.

With a number of Wisconsin’s defensemen making the move to pro hockey, both Schultz and Gardiner will be among a handful of returning blueliners for the team. In Schultz’s case, this means more responsibility and steadier play. While he should still see plenty of power play time, Schultz will likely see some time alongside a freshman partner and will need to adjust his game accordingly. Anaheim can afford to think long-term with Schultz.

19. (NR) Jake Newton, D, 21
Signed as a free agent, 2010

Is Jake Newton the next in Anaheim’s impressive line of college free agent finds? That’s the question that the California native will be tasked with answering as he enters his first season of pro hockey. Signed after an impressive freshman debut with Northeastern University, the 21-year-old was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team after leading all Huskies defensemen in scoring.

A strong skating defenseman with good size and plenty of offensive skill, Newton is expected to start his pro career as a member of the Syracuse Crunch. Although still raw, it will help his case significantly if he can adapt early, especially considering the number of high profile prospects that Anaheim boasts on the back end.

20. (15) Timo Pielmeier, G,
Acquired via trade with the San Jose Sharks, 2009

After a standout career in the QMJHL, Timo Pielmeier made the best of an uncomfortable situation when he leapt to join the professional ranks last season. With Anaheim lacking a full AHL affiliate, the German goalie was sent instead to the ECHL, where he carried the load for the Bakersfield Condors. Pielmeier played behind a changing cast of players as Anaheim shuffled their prospects from the ECHL, to various teams across the AHL and then up to the NHL level. Pielmeier’s 27 wins were second in the league, although that might have had just as much to do with his 57 appearances as it did with his own play.

Pielmeier started the season strong enough behind a stacked Condors roster and even appeared in the ECHL All-Star Game, but his play faded down the stretch and only played in four of Bakersfield’s ten playoff games. Now that Anaheim has a deal with the Syracuse Crunch for upcoming season, Pielmeier figures to make his AHL debut, although it is still unclear on what role the 21-year-old will play.