Ducks’ D on Shifting Sand

Every so often there’s a moment when what made sense before suddenly doesn’t, when plans that were laid suddenly aren’t. That kind of moment might have happened to the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night at Honda Center. It occurred when Jarret Stoll of the LA Kings hit Ducks’ defenseman Cam Fowler, driving him into the glass in the corner of the rink. He left the ice with help from teammates.

After the game, his coach said, “He’s certainly not feeling good right now” before explaining that he was sitting on a training table, one assumes because he was waiting to be looked at. Boudreau didn’t really know much more than that. But about the hit that Stoll put on the young defenseman, he said, “I saw the numbers when Stoll hit him.” The injury was described as “upper body” and Boudreau wasn’t able to comment further. But what he might have said was that this hit changes everything, or has the potential to.

Before it happened, Anaheim had taken slim pickings of a defensive corps and turned them into some pretty decent talent on the backline. Fowler had been joined by fellow young gun Luca Sbisa. They had Francois Beauchemin as a stalwart along with Toni Lydman. And they made two additions on July 1st: Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen.

Never heard of the latter? That’s probably because you don’t memorize every first-round draft choice. Allen toiled for the Oshawa Generals before being the fourth overall pick in 1998, taken by Vancouver. He played for them, with stints in the minors, for three years, then got in an almost-full campaign in 2003-04. He did it again after the (prior) lockout, in 2005-06. He then went to Florida, and the Carolina. Last year, he got in his first complete campaign of 82 games. He has played over 600 thus far, with more than 700 PIMs, and 119 points. His role, then, is to play tough, fight when needed, and take up space in front of the net. At 6’4” and 237, that’s not hard to do.

Saturday night against the Kings, he fought Jordan Nolan in the middle of the game, and played a defensive game that saw him take some risks and give a couple of pucks away. He also blocked a key shot on the penalty kill with the game tied in period one. In period three, he swatted a puck out of the crease area with a glove, saving a dangerous Kings’ chance. His game was somewhat uncharitably described by one observer as “making a few mistakes mixed in with getting violent at in appropriate times,” which seems unfair. He did made some mistakes, obvious ones. But he also played a brave defensive game.

Souray, you’ll know, has a storied past that took him from New Jersey to Montreal, Edmonton to Dallas. His demotion to the AHL by Edmonton in 2010-11 was thought of as an insult, and many speculated that it might make him decide he’d had enough. This speculation was based partly on the assumption, true or not, that he had been in the spotlight, or better, on the hotseat, as a player and personality long enough and could no longer withstand the pressure.

The history goes something like this: pressure in Montreal too much for him. Playing in Edmonton near where he comes from, wife problems intervene. Demotion to AHL. But Dallas picked him up, and he got into 64 games last season. His major weapon is his slapshot, which cannonades from the point. It’s not a wild monster, either, but accurate, often taken low.

Just to give an instance, Saturday night against the Kings, he took one that hit Rob Scuderi in the leg. Scuderi finished the shift limping, but couldn’t get off the ice because his team was shorthanded. Another of those shots found its way into the net, crediting Anaheim with its fourth goal in a seesaw contest which ended with the home team winning 7-4, the last goal being into the empty net.

Souray is a veteran of nearly 725 games, and he scores at about a .4 points a game clip, so he’s good, most years, for 8-10 goals, most of which would be power play markers. But he’s also notoriously tough, and his nearly 1100 penalty minutes show that. Some of those, like the first one took Saturday night, are minors (two minutes for holding). Many are fives for fighting. His storied rivalry with Jerome Iginla of Calgary is detailed in my newest book, My Country Is Hockey. Look in the chapter on violence.

What’s remarkable about Souray when you get up close to him is that he doesn’t show the wear, nor the weariness, that you might think you’d see. His face is unmarked, either by scars or the signs of age. His demeanor is pleasant, and while he resorts to the cliché’d responses most hockey players do bytimes, mostly, he just talks to you. Those who have read much of what I’ve written know that I often make judgements on players’ intelligence. Souray is Ivy League smart. You’ll just have to trust my expertise on this.

So with these additions to a solid few regulars, how does the Ducks’ defense line up, literally? Forgetting the Fowler injury, it has been Beauchemin and Souray, Fowler and Allen, and Lydman and Sbisa as the pairings. That mean that the first two are big and strong, with Souray’s shot providing the threat offensively. And the second two pairs each have a young, quick, puck-mover as one half.

The one exception to that was Friday night, when Finn displaced Finn as Lydman was forced to sit and Sami Vatanen took his place. He is a slight 21 year-old (185 pounds) who comes from the Jyvaskyla team in the SM-Liiga (No, that’s not made up. I’ve been to Jyvaskyla. Lovely town. Not much going on, though. You’re better off in Tampere if you want a more riotous weekend.)

Vatanen spoke with IH after his debut game to say, “I was surprised how calm I was. I thought I would be more nervous, but I think it helped me that I’ve been here the last couple of weeks.” He started the season in Norfolk, but was up with the club with just one interruption, to be reassigned to Norfolk on the 25th of January and recalled on the 27th. He continued, “I know the guys, so that helped me a lot.”

His game he described as “playing a little bit more offensive game, so I was pretty happy that I got that chance.” He was speaking of the fact that Boudreau had him on the power play early in Friday’s game. “The first game is done, and now I have to be better in the next game.”

IH asked him about what he’d been told as far as his style of play, and he said, “I haven’t spoken with the coaches about how I should play, but I think that’s why I’m here. I’ve been playing like that all my career. That’s why they have drafted me, and that’s why I’m here.” He said that the NHL demands that he move the puck a little bit faster, but that there was not a big contrast to other places. “Today, it’s just hockey, and if you think like that, you do your best.”

Responding to another writer, he said of Friday’s debut, “I think it was a free game on TV in Finland because it was two big Finnish teams playing” (adding up the Koivus, Selanne, etc.). “I hope some family was watching, I’m sure they watched the game, but I hope many other Finns were watching the game.”

He further said that he was honored to play with these Finnish greats, and that he could learn a lot about how to stay in the NHL from these great players.

His coach, in the media, hasn’t been quite as generous, citing a disparity of effort between the youngster’s practice intensity and his play. And he played only the one game, being scratched once more when it came Saturday.

But pair him with Sbisa, and you’ve got a combination who can move the puck as quickly as any pair in the league. It’s not often, in fact, that both guys of a tandem are confident enough to take that role. The downside, of course, is that that pairing would be small, each guy just on the over-under of six feet tall and 200 lbs. heavy.

Just to make the picture of the Ducks’ D-squad complete, let’s note also that the first game of the season, defenseman Jordan Hendry was up with the club. He played in game one, putting in just over 18 minutes. And of further note is that should this stock of guys become at all depleted, there’s a wunderkind waiting in the wings. He is Hampus Lindholm, a Swede, who was selected sixth overall in the first round by Anaheim last spring. He is tall and slight, at 6’3” and 195 lbs., but the organization, according to Doug Stolhand of the Fox Sports Puck Podcast, is very high on his prospects.

It might be that Hampus (I dislike writers calling players by their first names as if they know them, but that name is just too good not to use) would be called up from Norfolk sooner rather than later, but he is just at the end of concussion problems which have limited him to 19 games this year, which is fewer than half of the Admirals’ 44 to date. He did have a concussion test in late January which saw good results.

And that loops back to the moment. Stoll knocking Fowler out, if that’s what he’s done, put the corps at six, and takes away the threat of Fowler’s speed and playmaking. One solution might be to slot Vatanen in and hope that he can do what he did pretty bravely in his debut, which was carry the puck. The other would be to hope they can soon grab Lindholm and slot him in. But how shortsighted would that be, and how bad for his longer-term prospects, not in terms of his health, but in terms of his confidence and ability to cope with the pressure?

Speaking of how his team survived being down a defenseman when Fowler went out Saturday, Coach Boudreau said, “Having five D seems to heighten their senses. They can’t do the things they normally can, so they focus, blocking shots.”

The question is, is the best approach to button-down or improve the breed for the Ducks now? Do they go with the bare six of Beachemin, Souray, Allen, Vatanen, and Lydman and Sbisa? The other names on the Norfolk roster don’t ring familiar excepting Nate Guenin. He is 30 and has just 32 NHL games to his credit, though they come from a scattered lot of teams (Philly, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Anaheim). He is the captain of the AHL team, if that indicates any qualities that might help his case.

Of course if they need someone, there’s always Hendry, who has played 130 NHL games with Chicago (129) and Anaheim (one). He is 28, and another guy who resembles the smaller end of the Ducks D corps at six feet and 197 lbs. No big advantage, in other words, and as a swap-in for Fowler, someone with much less offensive talent. He might, however, be on hand to take any spot vacated by another guy who gets hurt, or, perhaps, to spell Lydman. The coach said in the press that one reason the latter sat Friday was the team’s schedule of playing two nights in a row. That, as we all know, is going to repeat itself a good deal this year. Fresh, young legs might be in order to keep a veteran like Lydman at the top of his game, which would still make him only a middling defenseman, to be truthful.

The Ducks started the year poised to defend well, if not entirely fixed up on the front end for scoring. That’s now out the window, with the forwards and power play getting all the goals they need to run them to 5-1-1 after seven games and the defense potentially in trouble if Fowler is not healthy. What happens to their strong start hangs in the balance of how they respond to the potential loss of Fowler.

Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey. Yeah, twitter’s dumb, but you might find me interesting.

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