Forward talent headlines Anaheim Ducks prospect pool

By Andrew Knoll
Photo: Emerson Etem is one of the top two-way forwards in the CHL with 78 points and a plus-39 rating. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Anaheim Ducks have undergone a rapid transition from a team anchored by a pair of future hall of fame defensemen with a speedy shutdown line to a squad heavy on offensive skill and often reliant upon acrobatic goaltending. Their organizational depth remains relatively strong with promising players in junior, the NCAA, foreign pro leagues and, to a lesser extent, North American minor pro leagues. With aging veterans playing key roles for the big club, developing prospects could have major opportunities to step in and contribute in the near future. The just graduated Cam Fowler and young veteran Luca Sbisa have already assumed significant roles with the Ducks, while players like Medicine Hat’s Emerson Etem and the University of Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz are on pace to do the same in seasons to come.

1. (1) Cam Fowler, D, 8.5 B
Acquired: 1st round, 12th overall, 2010

Regarded by many as one of the three top players eligible for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Fowler slipped down to 12th overall. The agonizing drop was soothed by what Fowler felt was an outstanding fit in Anaheim for his development at the top level. Fowler’s assessment of the situation proved prophetic as he made the Ducks’ roster out of training camp and immediately became a significant player in their lineup.

Fowler has routinely played top-four minutes for the Ducks and even as a third-pairing player drawn tough assignments against top teams. He has also logged minutes in all situations. While his penalty-killing duty has been somewhat limited, he is among the top rookie point producers on the man-advantage. Fowler has shown a knack for the timely play as he scored an overtime game-winner against Calgary earlier in the season and on New Year’s Eve was instrumental in fending off a third-period rally by the Philadelphia Flyers, including a baseball-style deflection to avert a certain goal.

With a total of 32 points in 60 games, he has jockeyed with current leader Kevin Shattenkirk (COL) and P.K. Subban (MTL) for the lead in overall points for rookie defensemen this season. Those two players are three and two years his senior respectively. Fowler’s plus/minus rating has taken a dip over the course of the season. In the span of about two months, he’s gone from a minus-six to a minus-23, but a large part of that decline was the absence of the Swiss goaltending standout Jonas Hiller from the Ducks lineup. Fowler has proven he is a capable NHL defenseman at a very young age and has shown promise to be an offensive standout who also offers responsible defensive play.

2. (2) Emerson Etem, C/RW, 8.0 C
Acquired: 1st round, 29th overall, 2010

Etem was another falling stock on draft day 2010. Though opinions varied widely on his projected position, the room was abuzz when the hometown L.A. Kings moved up to 15th overall with many feeling like the Long Beach, Calif. native Etem was the man the Kings wanted. Instead, they choose defenseman Derek Forbort and Etem waited until the very end of the first day of the draft when he was selected 29th overall by Anaheim with a selection they acquired in the Chris Pronger trade.

Regarded as an explosive two-way forward with the ability to make plays at high speeds, Etem’s most recent campaign in with the WHL‘s Medicine Hat Tigers has strengthened his reputation in each of those areas. His 22 multi-point games demonstrate his game-breaking potential and his plus-39 rating stands as an indicator of his increasingly strong defensive play. He has also played in all situations, notching 15 power-play goals and a robust nine shorthanded tallies. Etem competed for the United States at the World Juniors in Buffalo, where he had to diffuse a bit of controversy with the local fans and media after some tweets about the tournament’s host city.

Etem’s explosive speed has been praised by his coaches and scouts alike. He has a compact, crouched style that may need some fine tuning but the results at the CHL level have been positive as he has already improved upon his totals in every major category from the season that made him a first-round selection. At the high end, he could be the sort of versatile weapon that Chicago’s Patrick Sharp has become. At a minimum, his wheels and penalty killing ability could make him a valuable top nine guy in the mold of Manny Malhotra.

3. (4) Peter Holland, C, 7.5 C
Acquired: 1st round, 15th overall, 2009

Last year’s first-round selection for Anaheim has enjoyed another fine season in Guelph where the power-forward prospect has taken on a new role: power-play quarterback. Though the results have been mixed as part of an all-around inconsistent power play for the Storm, it has brought a fresh perspective for Holland from which to see the ice and move the puck.

The major knock against Holland has not been anything pertinent to talent or technique but rather regarding consistency and effort. This season his production has been consistent from month to month and game to game, although his overall numbers are not on pace to improve significantly.

Holland has been part of a three-headed monster for Guelph this season along with Taylor Beck (NAS) and Michael Latta (NAS). Each player has 88 points or more with the next highest scoring member of the Storm turning in 36 points. While the team will qualify as a lower seed in the OHL playoffs, it will more likely be Holland’s transition to the next level, probably the AHL, which will demonstrate how much of his potential he can realize.

4. (3) Kyle Palmieri, C/RW, 7.5 C
Acquired: 1st round, 26th overall, 2009

Anaheim’s other 2009 first-rounder has suffered setbacks in large part due to the instability, inexperience and inconsistency of the Syracuse Crunch team around him. His linemates have changed frequently at even strength and the power-play alignment has also been an ever-shifting entity since early in the season.

Palmieri has had some high points this season: an early Player of the Week nod, an all-star selection, competing for the United States in the World Juniors and a solid February–but he’s also had prolonged scoring droughts and an absence of the confidence one might expect from such a hot prospect. After his best month statistically in February, he had a slow start to March before coming on strong once again and earning his second AHL Player of the Week honor in a swing that typifies his persistence through the highs and lows of a losing season.

While it may be difficult to evaluate Palmieri’s progress amid a team performing poorly, scoring infrequently and lacking veteran leadership, he has hardly fallen off the radar. He is third in scoring for Syracuse and he enjoyed a ten-game cup of coffee with Anaheim during which he scored his first NHL goal. With some veteran players’ future in question with the big club, there could be some spots to compete for in the Anaheim lineup next year, otherwise a first-line gig with the Crunch will await Palmieri in his second AHL season.

5. (6) Sami Vatanen, D, 7.5 C
Acquired: 4th round, 106th overall, 2009

Vatanen remains shrouded from most NHL fans let alone those in the southwestern most corner of the United States, but he has offered brilliant glimpses at the freewheeling defenseman he may become at the NHL level. He competed in the World Juniors once again, where he previously impressed many with a highlight-reel goal and all-around dynamic play.

North American observers have been impressed with his international play as far as his ability to move the puck on the rush and his poise on the power play. Vatanen has wheels and he knows how to use them, he has been turned loose in what is otherwise generally a tight, conservative defense corps on his SM-Liga club this season. He has surpassed his totals from last year by a marginal figure already with a handful of games remaining on the schedule.

The main concern with Vatanen vis-à-vis the NHL remains his size. He is undersized even as undersized defensemen go and may have a hard time finding a consistent role at even strength in the NHL. Still, Vatanen is a teenager with loads of positives to be found in his game, so it may be a matter of seeing how much his body can develop as well as how many players close to his size can succeed in today’s faster-paced NHL.

6. (10) Devante Smith-Pelly, LW/C, 7.5 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2010

Smith-Pelly has been an imposing force for Mississauga in the OHL this season, packing all sorts of strength in a 5’11 frame that now exceeds 200 pounds. Whether creating space offensively or taking an opposing player out of the play defensively, Smith-Pelly makes his presence on the ice known in every inch of the playing surface.

While Smith-Pelly’s grit would be a welcome addition to an Anaheim team that has leaned heavily on its top scoring forwards this season, he does not lack offensive prowess of his own. Smith-Pelly is second in points (65) on the most dominant team in the OHL if not all of the CHL. Smith-Pellly not only scores goals, he scores big goals at critical moments. He has ten game-winning goals on the year, including a performance in which he netted both goals in a 2-1 win over Niagara.

After his weakest month offensively in February, Smith-Pelly has rebounded nicely. He scored a hat trick against Brampton to anchor a fine start to the month of March and has now surpassed his goals and points totals from last season. Smith-Pelly offers no shortage of potential as either a second-line power forward along the lines of James Neal or a physical checker with leadership ability similar to the veteran Mike Grier.

7. (8) Brandon McMillan, LW/C, 7.0 C
Acquired: 3rd round, 85th overall, 2008

McMillan began the year in Syracuse where his two-way game offered a solid scoring forward and an excellent penalty killer to the Crunch. Other than Luca Sbisa on the blue line, no player’s absence was felt more than McMillan’s after his departure. McMillan was a player who made smart decisions and put forth a consistent effort for the Crunch.

These characteristics have carried over to his time with the big club, where he has rounded out what looked to be a paper-thin bottom six for the Ducks early in the NHL season. McMillan is fast and feisty. He plays bigger than he stands with speed and confidence in his play.

McMillan can play at any of the three forward positions and has continued to surprise with his offense. In 49 games with Anaheim, he has posted a respectable 19 points. He has seen limited duty in offensive situations to boot, although he has notched a pair of power-play goals this season.

8. (12) Justin Schultz, D, 7.5 D
Acquired: 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2008

Schultz has been the higher-scoring half of arguably the best defensive pairing in the nation this year at the University of Wisconsin. He and former Ducks prospect Jake Gardiner combined for 87 regular-season points this year and Schultz more than doubled his output from last season. Schultz’s 18 goals and 47 points led the nation among defensemen.

Further, he earned the respect of opposing coaches as he was named the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year. He became the fourth Wisconsin rearguard to receive the award and joined the likes of Brian Rafalski, a player to whom he has drawn comparisons. He chased the lead in goals all season and nearly became the first defenseman to lead the Badgers in scoring, also falling one short of the school record for goals by a defenseman in a season.

Schultz has easily been the fastest-rising player in the Ducks’ organization this year, which is quite a compliment as the team has had a handful of pleasant surprises. Highlights of his impressive season included the first hat trick by a Wisconsin defenseman in almost 20 seasons and scoring an overtime winner to give the Badgers their first OT win in 27 extra frames.

9. (6) Nick Bonino, C, 7.0 C
Acquired: Trade with San Jose Sharks, 2009

Bonino had a hot start to the AHL season (nine points in eight games) and then a 26-game stint with the Ducks in which he failed to register a point or earn significant ice time. Since his return to Syracuse, Bonino has been up and down in terms of his production. A major reason could be the style of Bonino’s game, as he is a play-maker on a team with very few finishers around him since the Ducks called up the likes of McMillan, Sbisa, and Dan Sexton to the big club.

Vision and passing ability remain the focal points of Bonino’s game, he is a skilled setup man with quickly-developing instincts. He has also been an energetic, persistent player whose enthusiasm has only been dulled slightly by some personal setbacks as well as the well-documented struggles of the Crunch.

Bonino should have every opportunity to earn a full-time roster spot in the NHL next season. With his addition and that of Patrick Maroon the Crunch may be able to get their offense back to a more respectable level before this AHL season is out. Unfortunately, these players will not have Calder Cup playoff experience this season.

10. (11) Igor Bobkov, G, 7.5 D
Acquired: 3rd round, 76th overall, 2009

Bobkov’s transition to North America with the London Knights has been less than smooth as he has posted numbers and performances difficult to shine with even the priciest polish. Yet his performance in international competitive has left intriguing upside to the budding Russian netminder.

First he posted the best numbers of the three Russian goalies who bested CHL stars in the Subway Super Series. He had what was easily the best individual goaltending performance of the tournament in a loss to the OHL Stars, which portended big things in big games to come. Like Jack Campbell (DAL) last year, Bobkov was thrust into relief of a struggling starter against Canada in the World Juniors final.Trailing 3-0, Bobkov blanked the Canadian powerhouse as his teammates went into high offensive gear, scoring five straight goals to send the Russians onto gold.

Bobkov has shown that he is a gamer, a battler, a very coachable player and an attractive project in net with plenty of size. What he has not shown is the ability to compete in the OHL with any sort of consistency, as teams continue to mark him as a goalie to pepper first and ask questions about later. Still, few if any European goalies can boast the sort of high points he has had to an otherwise tumultuous transitional season, making him a player to watch in the near future.

11. (NR) Patrick Maroon, LW, 7.0 C
Acquired: Trade with Philadelphia Flyers, 2010

Maroon has been a welcome addition to a struggling Syracuse squad. Maroon’s 31 points in 46 games may not sound overwhelming but they are comparable with Palmieri’s numbers and proportionately better than leading scorer Nicolas Deschamp’s.

Shedding concerns about weight and conditioning, Maroon has only overeaten minutes if anything in Syracuse. He has become a force on the power play as he has worked the left side proficiently between the high slot and the front of the net.

At 6’4 and over 225 pounds, Maroon has the sort of size that the Ducks have coveted among their skilled forwards in recent years as well. He also boasts a soft pair of hands which he may use to climb up the rungs of the Ducks organization before long if there are veteran departures in the forward corps.

12. (7) Nicolas Deschamps, LW, 6.5 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 35th overall, 2008

Deschamps has had the peaks and valleys of an AHL rookie this year, which have been exacerbated by the struggles around him. He had a hot start then a woeful stretch and, recently a bit of a resurgence to take over the team lead in points. Through it all, he has remained active and demonstrated solid instincts.

Though he has yet to reassert the dominant level of offensive play he saw in the QMJHL last season, Deschamps seems to find the puck on his stick and position himself effectively. He has had no shortage of chances although his 12-goal total correctly indicates that his finishing ability has simply not been there at the AHL level.

Like many Crunch rookies, Deschamps had been part of a sort of Lord of the Flies phenomenon where young players have had to find their own way on a recently-established affiliate lacking veterans. He seems almost certain to have another crack at the AHL next year when a season of experience and a summer of training may better round out his promising offensive game.

13. (NR) Scott Valentine, D, 6.5 C
Acquired: 6th round, 166th overall, 2009

Valentine has been part of a successful squad with a deep defense core in Oshawa this season. His 36 points already stand as a career high for the rugged rearguard, who is one of three generals with over 100 penalty minutes this year.

With solid size and no shortage of aggressiveness, Valentine’s development into a serviceable offensive defenseman would bode very well for his chances as a professional. He trails only the Islanders prospect Calvin de Haan for points among Oshawa defensemen.

Valentine continues to shoulder plenty of defensive responsibility and mix a little intimidation into his game as well. As the 166th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Valentine was a low-risk investment that is beginning to pay dividends for the Ducks.

14. (9) Matt Clark, D, 6.5 C

Acquired: 2nd round, 37th overall, 2009

Clark has logged plenty of minutes and seen some time on the powerplay for the Crunch this season. His struggles this season have been similar to Mark Mitera‘s although, they may be easier to understand as Clark is an AHL rookie.

Turnovers and poor decision-making have plagued Clark’s campaign from start to finish with limited if any improvement coming over the course of the season. Clark has skated at a team-low minus-22, showing neither the offensive acumen nor physical play that attracted pro scouts to the big defender.

With such defensive flux around him, generally weak goaltending behind him and underwhelming scoring in front of him, Clark’s firmest evaluation may have to wait until season. His current campaign has created little cause for excitement.

15. (5) Mark Mitera, D, 6.5 D
Acquired: 1st round, 19th overall, 2006

Mitera’s stock has sunk like Homer Simpson into a plush couch, plummeting from promising first-rounder to marginal AHLer. It has taken him 50 more games to double Luca Sbisa‘s total from early in the season despite Mitera essentially moving into Sbisa’s role following his promotion to Anaheim.

Defensively, the former University of Michigan standout has struggled. Mental lapses, losses in physical battles, poor decisions, weak positioning, turnovers and an overall lack of confidence have all marred his play.

Where Smith-Pelly may elevate a reasonably high level of play in big situations, Mitera frequently manages to drop a relatively low level in important spots. Mitera continues to log lots of minutes but he also continues to lag behind opponents. Concerns about his lack of speed and the want of overall definition to his game may become grave if he does not show improvement next season.

16. (NR) Kevin Lind, D, 6.0 C
Acquired: 6th round, 177th overall, 2010

Lind, like Valentine was a sixth-round selection of the Ducks. In the months since the 2010 draft, he has emerged as a mature, stout presence on the blue line for Notre Dame. Lind excels in one-on-one battles for both the puck and position.

The keys to his success are his smooth skating stride and his sharp instincts. On the offensive side of the game, he appears less polished and confident. Even so, he has posted respectable offensive totals as a freshman (11 points in 30 games). He likely needs the basics all young defensemen needs– repetition and confidence.

One thing Lind has plenty of that cannot be taught is size and lots of it. Listed between 6’3 and 6’4 and well over 200 pounds, Lind projects as a big man with shutdown ability. While he may not be overly physical, he does not play small. Unlike some other stay-at-home prospects he may possess untapped offensive potential that may be cultivated in the years of development to follow.

17. (NR) Maxime Macenauer, C, 6.0 C
Acquired: 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2007

Macenauer One of the was one of the last forwards to be sent to Syracuse from Ducks training camp. His season in Syracuse has not really followed suit however, as he has posted relatively meager totals with 23 points in 67 games.

Like Deschamps, Macenauer is an active player with solid hockey sense but he simply has not shown any finish this season. He is a smooth, confident skater even if he is not blazing fast, an asset that serves him well in regular penalty-killing duty.

Unlike Deschamps, Macenauer does not have loads of offensive success at lower levels to fall back on during slumps. Macenauer logs a similar, high number of minutes and has produced at an even lower level than Deschamps thus far. While he may eventually find his niche, Macenauer does not project clearly as a pro given his lack of offense and only average athletic ability at the defensive end.

18. (14) Timo Pielmeier, G, 6.0 C
Acquired: Trade with San Jose Sharks, 2009

Pielmeier has seen the brunt of the Crunch’s defensive struggles this season and, to his credit, remained upbeat in his attitude and meticulous in his preparation. A battling, hybrid goalie, he fights hard to make stops and bounce back from road blocks.

The negative side of his campaign is that his setbacks are numerous. Pielmeier has left the starting door open all season. J.P. Lavasseur has played considerably more than anticipated as a result. In fact, when the Ducks needed an emergency backup behind Curtis McElhinney after an injury to starter Jonas Hiller, they called up Pielmeier to fill out a sweater and left Lavasseur behind to pick up the starts. What appeared to be a promotion or a reward was actually a castigation as Pielmeier sat every minute in Anaheim behind the woefully ineffective McElhinney save for one game in which he received mop-up duty.

The young goaltender will need to improve his play next season as he is signed through one more year and will have to battle with fellow netminders Igor Bobkov and Marco Cousineau for ice time at the minor-league level.

19. (NR) Radoslav Illo, C, 7.0 D
Acquired: 5th round, 136th overall, 2009

Illo competed in last year’s World Juniors for Slovakia and was tied for third on the team in points. Illo has been in North America for three seasons competing in the USHL in each of the past two years. He came from a solid pedigree and a prominent club’s developmental system in Slovakia. Illo wanted to adapt to the faster, more physical North American style as well as break away from the politics of Slovak hockey.

After notching 76 points in 97 games for the Tri-City Storm, Illo was recruited by several colleges. He finished his primary schooling in Slovakia and now attends Bemidji State University, where this season has been one of transition for the 21-year-old Illo. He totaled five points in 36 games of somewhat limited duty but figures to play a more prominent role next season. Though he was also recruited by CHL clubs, the opportunity to get an education and take a slower approach to development appealed to Illo.

Though he has a scorer’s touch and plenty of upside, Illo has striven to work on deficient defensive-zone play, shoot the puck more, adjust to the dump-heavy North American style and, above all, get stronger.

20. (NR) Brett Perlini, RW, 6.5 D
Acquired: 7th round, 192nd overall, 2010

The Michigan State Spartans junior Perlini posted NCAA career highs in goals (18), assists (12) and points (30) this season in Lansing. His father Fred Perlini was a pro hockey player, as were the fathers of his occasional linemates at MSU, Dean Chelios and Trevor Nill (STL), earning them the nickname "The Blood Line."

Perlini competes hard. He darts to the puck in a hurry, battles vigorously along the boards and is a strong one-on-one player in the possession game. Not only does he work hard on the puck and away from the play, Perlini remains tireless in his preparation away from the ice. He was voted most improved Spartan in 2009-10 despite an injury that caused him to miss about half the season. Perlini produced at that pace over a full season this year and was one of the faces of the MSU squad.

Likely to return for his senior season at Michigan State, Perlini has a chance to become a very accomplished collegian in his senior season and carve his identity going forward. Carrying a strong hockey pedigree and loads of determination, Perlini should become an asset to some level of the Ducks organization in short order and may compete for a bottom six role with the big club before too long.