Ducks Rolling Four Solid Lines

The Anaheim Ducks are not so much a new team as a transitioning one. Their roster features the same top end as the past few years, with the first and second lines mostly static, albeit in some different combinations from what they have been over the past seasons. The third and fourth lines and defense, however, have seen some changes, and the role of the backup goaltender is in experiment mode.

The latter is only partially true, with the familiar starter, Jonas Hiller, now well back from a vertigo problem which plagued him starting at the All-Star game in 2011. But the backup, that year represented by Ray Emery and last year by Dan Ellis, each of whom got into 10 games, is no longer based on reclamation efforts. The team has signed the veteran Viktor Fasth, who is thirty and a former standout in the Swedish Elite League. As the story goes, he felt that he’d accomplished all he could there and wanted the chance to compete in the NHL. He played a few games over forty in the SEL in each of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. This year, he got into three games with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Norfolk, VA, on the way to the big time.

His debut saw him win against Nashville after going to a shootout. He let in two goals on 21 shots, and turned away five shootout attempts as well. His GAA was 1.85 and save percentage .905% after one game.

His second start came Friday night against Minnesota. As he had done in his first game, he let in an early, soft goal. It came off the stick of Marco Scandella, at about the halfway point of the first period. It was a five-hole shot from far enough out, and without a screen, to make the Ducks say “what”?

As the game went on, he got stronger, playing a crouching style much like Hiller does and stopping a further 26 shots. Most, to be fair, were from the perimeter, the Wild not having a lot of luck penetrating near the Anaheim net. One nervous moment came when Cal Clutterbuck shot a puck from the left hashmarks near the boards. It seemed to find its way through the goalie and along his leg before it worked its way out the other side and wide. His coach said after the game, “To me, he was fighting the puck a little bit. But when we had a 2-1 lead, he made a big save.”

The fact that no further goals were scored was due to the defense in front of Fasth, which IH will detail in a story to run after Saturday’s game against the LA Kings.

To cycle back to the first two lines, actually, there are four guys who appear regularly there, and they are names even the distant fan probably associates with the team: Getzlaf, Perry, Selanne and Ryan. The first two are playing with Matt Beleskey right now. The second two have been experimenting with two younger players, Nick Bonino and Kyle Palmieri. On Friday against Minnesota, it was Palmieri on the line, celebrating his 22nd birthday. He did that by scoring Anaheim’s first two goals. On each, Selanne got an assist, to run his season’s points total to 7. He wasn’t done, also assisting on the Ducks’ third goal, which came with a minute and a half left on the power play to put the game out of reach of the Wild.

Part of Palmieri’s success was due to a move to center which Coach Boudreau made with Bobby Ryan. After the game, the coach said, “They [centers] have to work more. He’s in constant perpetual motion out there. It’s the first time, so we’ll see how he does tomorrow.” He talked about Ryan’s seeing himself on video, the idea being that he isn’t fully aware of how he was successful, though he was. Boudreau doesn’t care. “My fingers are all crossed right now,” he commented when asked about Ryan’s prospects for the position.

Palmieri said “I played with Bobby in the past and we had success together, but tonight was the first time I played with him as my centerman, and he payed great.” Ryan had the primary assist on Palmieri’s first goal and the secondary assist on the second. He also scored the team’s final goal with Minnesota shorthanded.

So that’s the top six. The latter two lines also feature some interesting stories. One notable fact is that SoCal native Emerson Etem has recently joined the club after starting the year by playing 40 games in Norfolk. There, he registered 14 points, with two of those being goals. His debut in the NHL came in San Jose, with the announcement coming too late in the day for his folks to drive up to see it. They live in the Long Beach area. (San Jose is a five or six-hour drive, without traffic, to use the local lingo). His second game, against Minnesota on Friday night, was when he expected his friends and family to see him play in the NHL for the first time. Etem was drafted by the Ducks in the first round, the 29th player picked, in 2010. That, fans will recall, was the year that the draft was held up the road from Anaheim in LA.

Etem was playing alongside Devante Smith-Pelly and the aforementioned Bonino on the fourth line. He played just over eight minutes and recorded a shot on goal and a giveaway. He had two good chances to score, but the best was in the third period. He chased a puck into the Minnesota end, but couldn’t poke it past the defenseman. But he went to the net and suddenly, there it was again. He couldn’t get a shot off, and a defenseman came back to cover at that time.

IH said to him that it seemed like that was going to be his first goal. “Yeah, yeah yeah,” he said, the energy picking up with the speed of his voice (which is why there’s no separation between the second and third “yeahs” there!), “I probably should have stepped out a little bit more. I probably had a little more time than I thought, but whatever, you learn. You get right back at it.”

Another time, he charged to the blueline with the puck and dished it to Smith-Pelly, who then dished it back going across the blueline towards the net. Etam then passed outside to Bonino. By the time it got to him, a defenseman managed to get a stick out, and he deflected Bonino’s shot over the net. Probably, Etam should have held the puck longer and he and Smith-Pelly could have gone in on a 2-on-1, but time will improve the youngster’s courage to go for it without fearing a mistake. When IH asked him about the play, he again recognized that it was solid, but preferred to talk about the line, rather than his own contribution.

In true rookie fashion, he defaulted to, “I thought our line played pretty good, created some energy for the other lines. That’s the fourth line role, and I think we did that tonight.”

He did get back to his own perceptions to add, “Like everybody says, it’s bigger, the guys are stronger [than in the minors]. I tried to use my speed as much as possible, and I thought I did that out there tonight. I’m really impressed with the way our line and our team played tonight.”

He said after the game that he wasn’t saving any mementos from the game, “Probably not, no. It’s just another game. Maybe if I would have scored or something like that.”

He had never been to the Honda Center before he played preseason games last year, but rather than go away from the arena to the hotel (he said he’s not staying with his family) impressed with his newfound spot on an NHL roster, he will just “try to work hard every day, not think about the future at all. I need to make sure my practices are solid and try to create opportunity.”

Also of intrigue is Devante Smith-Pelly. He is from Scarborough, Ontario, and he came to the Ducks as their second pick in 2010, in round two, 42nd overall. He played 49 games with the NHL club last year, spending part of the season scratched. This year, he began in Norfolk and played 34 games while scoring five goals and eight assists. He played in the first three of the Ducks’ games, his icetime declining from ten to eight to seven minutes and his stats showing no shots and no points. That sounds, actually, more tragic than it is. The fact that he was in the lineup again Friday night shows that Boudreau has no lack of confidence in the kid.

He got in about seven and a half minutes and recorded a shot and three hits on the night. It’s too early to say he has chemistry with Bonino and Etam, and nobody ever says that about fourth lines anyhow, but he and Etam, at least, make an interesting pair. They’re both bulky bodies, not super-tall, but big and thick in the chest. But they’re fast, and they can both pass the puck and shoot it. Potentially, at some point, they’d make a good third line, in the old Ducks’ model, where they shut some guys down as well as doing the stuff Etam cited.

The present accounting for the Anaheim offense has yet to discuss line three, and one notable Ducks’ name that you’re probably wondering about. Saku Koivu. He is playing with Andrew Cogliano and Daniel Winnik, who has been the team’s surprise player of the year to this point. He came out with five goals and seven points in the first five games, but slowed down promptly by not recording a point on Friday. He did create some offense, accounting for the line’s two shots.

As for the roster as a whole, it has been relatively steady in the first five games leading into Friday night, with few moves up and down to the minors as of yet. Peter Holland started the year with the big club and played only in game three. He is now in the minors. Rickard Rakell played in four of the first give games. Etem was in the minors until this week, as noted. Jordan Hendry played in the fist game, logging an impressive 18 minutes, but he is now in Norfolk as well.

The odd man out in the lineup is Brad Staubitz. He was undrafted as a young player, and the Ducks signed him as a free agent on Canada Day. He has played over 200 NHL games in five seasons, but this year, just one for Anaheim, game four against Nashville. He got just over five minutes and now finds himself in the press box again, not dressed.

On defense, the Ducks are more well set-up than pundits had them being before the short season began. They have young stalwarts Fowler and Sbisa, veterans Beauchemin and Souray, and Brian Allen and Sami Vatanen.

Who’s that, you’re wondering? OK, we’ll profile Vatanen along with the rest of the D. But for that, you’ll have to wait until after the Kings-Ducks game Saturday night.

I promise few tweets but good ones @growinguphockey

And read my books, if you’d be so kind. The newest one is My Country Is Hockey.

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