Talent and diversity of Anaheim Ducks pipeline apparent in prospect awards

By Brad Gardner

Nicolas Kerdiles - Wisconsin Badgers

Photo: Wisconsin freshman Nicolas Kerdiles (#17) had a productive freshman season for the Badgers and is a player to watch in the NCAA scoring race heading into the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Anaheim Ducks had several prospects transition into depth roles at the NHL level in 2012-13, with Emerson Etem standing out in particular in the playoffs. The organization’s prospects also found success at lower levels of play, from John Gibson’s international success to Nicolas Kerdiles making an impact in the NCAA as a freshman. The following prospect awards highlight many of the notable performances among the Anaheim Ducks’ prospect pool in 2012-13.

Prospect of the Year – John Gibson, G, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

From start to finish, John Gibson had the finest season of any Anaheim prospect. Although limited to 27 OHL regular season appearances due to injury and international competition, his 2.41 goals against average and .928 save percentage are numbers that would have ranked in the league's top-five if he had enough starts to qualify. He stepped it up in the playoffs with a .946 save percentage while seeing an average of almost 38 shots per game, but the Rangers could not fend off the London Knights in the second round.

Gibon's biggest success came with Team USA, first winning gold with the U20 team at the 2013 World Junior Championships and then helping the men's team capture the bronze, its first medal since 2004, at the 2013 World Championships. The 19-year-old goalie captured the MVP award at the WJC for his performance, earning a 1.36 goals against average and .955 save percentage. Perhaps even more impressive was his performance against professional-quality competition at the WC, where Gibson took over for Ben Bishop and played a key role for the club down the stretch.

Emerson Etem may not have put together such a complete season as a rookie pro, but his progression over the course of the year still earns him an honorable mention. The excitement that he stirred up with his play late in the season will make him the player to watch heading into Anaheim's training camp in the fall, especially if Teemu Selanne retires and the team is forced to audition scoring line wingers.

Best Defensive Prospect – Hampus Lindholm, D, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)

The Ducks' selection of Hampus Lindholm at the 2012 NHL Draft was one of the early surprises inside the top 10. The Swedish defender justified the selection however, making a smooth transition and playing important minutes in the AHL. A capable puck-mover, Lindholm made more of a name for himself in his own end, where he played with poise and maturity despite making the difficult transition to the smaller North American rink. Given the age of the Ducks defensive corps during the 2013 season and Lindholm’s low-risk style, the blueliner may challenge for a roster spot in Anaheim sooner rather than later.

Lindholm was not the only Ducks defensive prospect to make his North American debut in 2012-13. Offensive-minded defenseman Sami Vatanen, last year's winner of the Best Defensive Prospect award, may not be as balanced of a blueliner as Lindholm, but he put together an excellent rookie season in his own right. The Finnish defenseman was named to the AHL's First All-Star Team for his nine-goal, 45-point campaign for Norfolk.

Hardest Worker – Andrew O'Brien, D, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)

Beyond the Ducks' top two defensemen, the team has depth in the form of role players. Andrew O'Brien is a tough, physical blueliner that could hold down a lower-pairing role down the line. A hard-nosed defender in his own end, O'Brien is a player that leads by example on the ice. He continued to develop in his overage season in the QMJHL as a leader on a young Rouyn-Noranda club and maintained his aggressive, yet reliable, style of play in his own end, setting career-highs in penalty minutes (113) and plus/minus (plus-19). O’Brien was signed to an entry-level contract and will make his pro debut in 2013-14.

Hardest Shot – Andy Welinski, D, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA)

Andy Welinski made his collegiate debut in 2012-13 with UMD. His offensive instincts and strong shot from the point helped him make an impact as a freshman, leading the Bulldogs blue line in goals (4) and points (18). Three of Welinski's four goals came on the powerplay, and when he has the time to get everything behind one, he is a lethal option from the point. He can also get power behind his snapshot, which should help him continue to be one of the Bulldogs’ leaders in terms of generating offense from the blue line.

Breakout Player for 2013-14 – Nicolas Kerdiles, C, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)

Kerdiles' freshman debut was delayed by 10 games lost to suspension, but he worked his way into a primary scoring role for Wisconsin fairly quickly. By the end of the 2012-13 season, Kerdiles was helping the Badgers capture the WCHA title. The 6’1 centerman finished the year on a 12-game point streak, which included three consecutive one-goal, one-assist performances at the WCHA Final Five. With Minnesota facing some losses in their lineup, Kerdiles and the Badgers will have a chance to build off their strong finish going forward in 2013-14 during the inaugural season of the Big Ten Conference.

Most Improved Prospect – Emerson Etem, RW, Anaheim Ducks (NHL)

Questions abounded entering the 2012-13 season regarding Emerson Etem's ability to transition to the pro level, and many of his early season performances seemed to justify the concerns. Over the course of the season however, Etem settled in at the AHL level and made a strong debut with the Ducks. It was in the playoffs that the 20-year-old winger made his biggest impact, scoring three goals (tied for first on the team) and five points (tied for third) during the team’s seven-game series against Detroit. For a player who averaged only 12:50 of ice time per game in the playoffs, Etem’s post-season showing will likely raise expectations as the team’s top prospect heads into his second pro season in 2013-14.

Overachiever – Charles Sarault, C, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)

Charles Sarault totaled 195 points in his last two seasons of junior hockey with Sarnia, but it took him some time to adjust to the OHL and earn an opportunity to skate in a scoring role. With a solid AHL debut of six assists in 11 games already under his belt, the challenge will be for Sarault to adjust to the pro game on the fly as he did at the junior level. Sarault’s balance of defensive responsibility and offensive skill will give him a good chance to be an impact forward next year for Norfolk, but despite his outlandish point totals in the CHL, he projects to be more of a balanced, two-way forward as he establishes himself at the pro level.

Underachiever – Devante Smith-Pelly, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)

A physical, energetic presence in the Anaheim lineup during his 49 NHL games in 2011-12, Smith-Pelly was unable to build off his surprising rookie season as a second year pro. His play in the AHL this season did not exactly force the organization's hand, as he finished the year with 14 goals, 18 assists through 65 games but earned a team-low minus-20 rating along the way. For a player who is likely going to make the NHL as a role player, defensive responsibility is still an area in need of improvement. Anaheim’s depth on the left wing in their pipeline is not as strong as the other forward positions, so Smith-Pelly could have a chance to bounce back, and after only seven NHL games in 2013, see more time with Anaheim in 2013-14.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect – Sami Vatanen, D, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)

Vatanen made a productive transition to North America in 2012-13. An excellent playmaker with great offensive instincts, Vatanen is a potent powerplay option. He is equally capable setting up his teammates, finishing the play on his own, and using his speed to join the rush. Vatanen finished his rookie season tied for fourth in the AHL in points among defensemen, but his rookie year was not without missteps. Taking care of the puck and nowing when to jump into the play offensively and when to maintain his defensive position will be keys to his development towards the NHL, but Vatanen could very well be adding some offensive punch to the Ducks lineup in the near future.