Ducks Look for Identity on Defense

The Ducks are supposed to have fallen as the mighty will do, their glory days of just a few seasons ago gone along with most of the players who earned them the Stanley Cup in 2007.   Chief among their problems going into the new year was supposed to be their defense.  Chris Pronger is a distant memory, as is Francis Beauchemin.   Aaron Ward retired.  No doubt everyone in North America knows that Scott Niedermayer did as well.

But despite a potentially weak back line, the team is not down, and nowhere near as out as the pundits would have them.  In fact, their offense is strong and their goaltending is solid.  Offense and goaltending.

We’re missing something, right?  Oh yeah, the defense.  Well, that’s where it gets a little dicey for the Anaheim team this season.

The Ducks tried to bolster their defense over the summer by getting Toni Lydman from Buffalo, but that has gone temporarily awry with a health issue.  Lydman is experiencing double vision, and doctors can’t seem to figure out why.  They have, thankfully for the player, ruled out the potential of serious problems, but that doesn’t help solve the question of what’s going on and what they should do about it.  He did skate with the team on Friday, but he has not appeared in a pre-season game.

Lydman is 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds.  He played 67 games last year, recording 20 points.  His career thus far spans 660 games and shows him with just shy of 200 points.  He’s rugged when he’s healthy, playing eighty and eighty-two games two of the last three years.  But three of the past six, he has played just 67.  Precisely.  An odd coincidence, or a sign, since six plus seven is 13?  No, you’re not supposed to take that seriously.

Lydman came to the Ducks as a ten-year veteran, signing a three-year deal in July.  The contract is said to be worth $9 million.  He is working out regularly despite not being involved in game action or contract drills.  He will be reevaluated early in the week, and until then, the team is not commenting or offering even tentative ideas as to what the problem might be, except to say that it is not related to concussion symptoms.

Perhaps as a salve for that wound, the Ducks signed Paul Mara to a one-year deal on September 16th.  Mara was last with Montreal, playing 42 games and notching eight assists.  He has almost 700 games on his career resume, and is with his sixth team in the Ducks.   He sat the last 30 games of the season last year with a shoulder injury.  He was at his house in Cape Cod the night the Ducks called with an offer.

Anaheim had talked with Mara over the summer, and he had fielded other offers as well, but nothing came of any of them.  The Ducks pulled the trigger on a Monday night, and Mara was on a plane the next morning, took a physical, passed it, and got a deal done in time to be on the ice Wednesday of that week.  To date, he has appeared in three pre-season games and has an assist.  Mara is 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds.

Another free agent pickup over the summer was Andy Sutton.  Sutton is a whole order of size different from the aforementioned two.  He is 6-foot-6 and 245.  His career numbers include an 11-year run with five teams before he joined the Ducks.  The game total is 585, but oddly enough, the guy has never played even close to a full season anywhere he’s been, other than once.  His high with one team is 76 with the Thrashers in 2005-06.  He got in 72 with the Islanders and Senators last year, but he has a handful of years in the 50-game vicinity.

On the plus side, Sutton is a gamer, having played in the lower junior leagues in Canada before a four-year college career.  His pro years have seen him bounce back to the AHL in his first two years.  He spent the lockout year in the Swiss leagues.

The anchor of the defense, if anyone as small as he is could be described that way, is Lubomir Visnovsky.  He arrived in Anaheim last year after a couple of years with the Oilers, and of course, a grand run with the Kings from 2000-09.  Visnovsky came to the Ducks in March when the team was still hoping to make a late charge at a playoff spot.  He scored five goals in sixteen games, but fractured a hand with three games left in the year, and did not play again in the 2009-10 campaign.  The Ducks, of course, were not in the playoffs.

Those five goals, by the way, were joined with eight assists to mark an almost point-per-game performance. Visnovsky is another Ducks defenseman in the 600-game neighborhood, with 622 to date.  His size, by the way, is 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds.  He’s perhaps a deceptive 188, like Teemu Selanne is a deceptive 196.  Both men are coiled steel with no fat, and in Visnovsky’s case, he’s thick, and has a couple of tree trunks for legs.  Just the thing to leverage guys out of the crease.

Just for fun, try to answer this following trivia question: Who is the longest-serving Ducks defenseman as of the start of the season?  Someone who people in the farther edges of hockey-land, and probably those of you in the east, has likely never heard of.  Did you guess?  How about Sheldon Brookbank?

He is 30, and he came to Anaheim during the 2008-09 season.  He’s got just 95 games with the team, and slightly over 150 in a ten-year career that’s mostly seen him in the minors.  His career totals are 1-21-22 points.

Just because he’s the longest-serving Duck D-man doesn’t mean he’s the most experienced.  But it’s interesting to contemplate his combination of long tenure with little experience as a symbol for what might be the team’s major weakness as the season goes on.

So who’s playing with whom?  Well, it’s obviously early, and on Sunday night with the Kings in town, the Ducks were giving a look to Lucas Sbisa and Cam Fowler, which is perhaps why Mara was scratched (more in a second on that).  The pairings were Visnovsky and Brendan Mikkelson, Sbisa and Sheldon Brookbank, and Sutton and Fowler.  There were shifts when that changed, of course.

Fans in a fairly full Honda Center got to see Visnovsky with Sbisa and Fowler with Mikkelson, as well as Sutton with Mikkelson.  The minutes on the night as distributed amongst the defense were as follows: Sbisa 17:44, Visnovsky almost 24, Brookbank trailing the whole group with about 15, Fowler 22, and Sutton and Mikkelson about 19 apiece.

The group got five of Anaheim’s 21 shots, and blocked eight that LA launched.  Scoring-wise, Visnovsky contributed two assists and Mikkelson one.

OK, but how good are they?  They’re OK, but there tend to be gaps in communication, with players sometimes throwing a puck across the blue line and not having anyone there to get it, or passing it across and watching as it left the zone.  This might be a result of lack of familiarity with a partner’s habits.

The other fault—letting the Kings get close to the net without enough pushback.  There were often a couple of guys right on Jonas Hiller, jamming away at the puck with him sprawled backwards, legs out and glued to the posts.  The shots as the second period wound down, for instance, revealed the situation, with the Kings out front by 23-13.  The scoreboard told a different tale, with the Ducks up 1-0 on an early first-period Corey Perry goal.

As that second frame wore down, the Kings poured it on with one last good shift.  The puck at one point sailed in low from the point, and Hiller got it with a cleverly moved left pad, a save he’d made already more than once.

One interesting read on the group of D-men is gained by listening to what Randy Carlyle said after the game when asked for a general assessment of his group.

“I don’t know if we have created an identity yet,” said the Ducks coach. “We think we have some offensive players that can provide us with a good offense; we have a good mix of defensive players; we think we have strong goaltending.”

“Your 600 goal scorer gets the winning goal and all those things are positives—your goaltender played very, very well, the penalty killing, we didn’t give up anything,” Carlyle added about the final preseason game.  “We blocked lots of shots.  We can build on [this], but there’s a lot of work ahead of us and we know that.

“But we still haven’t created our own identity, and that’s to me, is very, very important to our group.”

Carlyle also talked about the young players, speaking particularly of Ryan Getzlaf, but he did not get into the specifics of the defense until someone in the scrum said, “Paul Mara,” and Carlyle responded, “Paul Mara, what about him?” with a chuckle.  Then he added, “We only have seven D, and you try to rotate people in, and tonight was Brendan Mikkelson’s turn.”  Period.

When asked about the fact that for the past half-dozen years, he’s had one premium defenseman or the other, a recognizable name in the league, but that he’s now got a group with much less recognition, Carlyle said, “Cam Fowler.” Then he laughed.  “You guys have put that tag on him at some point.”

But he went on, “The thing is, when you have the luxury of the Niedermayers and the Prongers, and the Beauchemins, you’ve gotta feel fortunate.  Now we’re in a transition period, when we’ve got to transition the responsibility.  We think Lubomir Visnovsky is a pretty good hockey player.  We know that he is.  We think Andy Sutton is a good hockey player.  We have confidence in the individuals we brought in and that we have in our lineup, and we’re transitioning from some young players [that’s how he said it] we selected very high in the draft.  We’re hoping that their development enables them to provide us with strong minutes, and we don’t expect anything more than that from them.”

Hmmm.  So he answered the question he wasn’t asked, in a sense, which reveals what he is thinking.  That there’s a gap there, but that if he can keep youngsters, he’s willing to do it, and they are the ones who will make the cut.  The older, guys, well, as mentioned, some are already gone (DiPenta) down to the minors.  And his hope is simply for good minutes, without the expectations being raised too high.

Later, when talking about the selection of the team’s captain, he again spoke about defense, but in past tense.

“We’ve had the luxury of a Scott Niedermayer here for a number of years, and when he wasn’t here in training camp we had Chris Pronger, so we’re pretty used to having high-profile players in the league.”

But the team is making a shift, and the choice of Getzlaf as captain (about which more in the notes below) shows that the Ducks are moving toward offense as their model.

But that doesn’t solve the numbers question, with eight defensemen on the roster as camp winds up.  So let’s just say that Lydman comes back, and either Sbisa or Fowler ends up not sticking with the big club.  Who else sits?  That would probably be Mikkelson.  On the other hand, Fowler looks to some to be ready for the NHL.  (It’s either that or Juniors, as readers likely know—he’s too young for the AHL.)  If he sticks with the big club, then when Lydman comes back, Mikkelson and Sbisa could go to the AHL, or just sit.

Carlyle wasn’t saying anything specific after the game about who might find himself on the 23-man roster that must be in the league offices by noon Wednesday.

“This is always a tense time about some players who are [on the bubble], and it’s not a real nice time for coaches or management who have to make this decision,” said the Ducks coach. “But you do make the decisions based on what your gut tells you and what players have been able to provide, and you go forward.”

If the defense goes to hell, who else might the Ducks use this year?  A few familiar names were recently sent to the AHL team in Syracuse, including DiPenta, Danny Syvret, and Brett Festerling.  In the pipeline longer-term are  Mat Clark, Mark Mitera, Jake Newton, and Scott Valentine.  Whether any of them makes a name for himself, or even gets onto Orange County fans’ radar, remains to be seen as the ins and outs of the coming NHL season start to unfold.

The game on Sunday night was dominated by the Kings, who nearly doubled the Ducks up in shots 43-20 by the end of three periods, and the score was tied at that point.

Even the OT was more or less controlled by LA, but it, and thus the game, were won on the scoreboard by the Ducks.  Hiller, as mentioned, was outstanding, making one mistake in mishandling a puck that had been lobbed into his zone.  He goofed it and saw it stolen by Justin Williams, who took it from right to left and stuffed it in as the goaltender sprawled to get back into his crease.

And then Hiller made another booboo, letting a weak lob from the point get through his legs as he went his knees in the crease.  He gave the old “look up to the ceiling” move after, but caught himself quickly and steadied his gaze.  The puck had come from the point, a toss more than a shot by Jack Johnson.  That was at 17:17 of the third period.

The overtime lasted just more than a minute, with the Kings taking a penalty for too many men at the 40-second mark.  The Ducks then worked the puck around in the zone, with Visnovsky doing his patented move of skating backwards across the blueline from right to left, and passing to Ryan Getzlaf.  He saw Selanne through a seam and floated a soft pass, which the Finn one-timed into the top of the net.  Saku Koivu was on the edge of the crease waiting, should there have been a rebound.

Offense, identity.  The two went together on this night.  Now if only the backline comes together, the Ducks will be OK.

Notes

After the game, Carlyle announced that the team’s captaincy would be held by RGetzlaf.  The decision was made in a vote, which is something the Ducks have not done under his tenure before.  This time, he decided to let the players have the say.

“The players made that decision.  This year, we thought it would be a little bit of a different scenario,” Carlyle said.  “Obviously, we’re a team that’s in transition, some of our youth [going] into major roles.  We thought it was in our best interest if the players made that decision.  We had a vote [Saturday] and then we relayed the news to the two players who were very, very close in the collection from their teammates.  Ryan Getzlaf came out on top.”

His summation: “It was their ownership and their voting that has provided us with our captaincy.”

About Getzlaf himself, his coach said, “It is a challenge, and it’s another step in the maturation of a Ryan Getzlaf, not only within our team, but in the league. . . .  He’s expected to play a prominent role with our hockey club.”

Brian Kennedy’s new book, Living the Hockey Dream, gives fans the inside stories of favorite players of the present and past.

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