The Anaheim Ducks were considered a Stanley Cup contender heading into the 2015-16 season.
Spoiler alert: It hasn’t looked that way so far.
Despite the lack of success, Anaheim is still in the thick of the Pacific Division playoff race, mainly due to a surprisingly stingy defense.
By the Numbers
The Ducks have allowed the third-fewest shots per game in the league (27.5) , and are currently seventh overall in goals against per game.
That is a huge improvement from last seasons numbers.
The 2014-15 Ducks were 20th (!) in GA/GP and 10th in SA/GP. A huge majority of Stanley Cup Champions from the past 10 years have been at or near the top of the league in goals against per game, and Anaheim has climbed 13 places from last year’s goals-against statistics.
The continued development of Anaheim’s defensive core has been key to the team’s progress in limiting opposing chances, and the prospects chomping at the bit have influenced the Ducks’ defensive improvement.
The Young Guns
Anaheim’s blueline has been led by the youth movement that GM Bob Murray has introduced to the team over the last several years.
Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are three of the top four Anaheim leaders in average ice time, and all three of them are under 25. Those three are the core of the Ducks’ defense.
They are joined in the regular lineup by fellow youngsters Josh Manson and Simon Despres, both 24 years old.
The young blueliners also employ a variety of styles, with Fowler and Vatanen quite often joining the attack from the backend, Manson and Despres bringing the physical game, and the well-rounded Lindholm doing a bit of both. This gives the Ducks options, and adds balance to the defensive pairings.
Anaheim boasts one of the deepest defensive prospect pools in the NHL. The plethora of young Dmen on the active roster are joined by several high-end talents still making their way through the system.
Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour, Jacob Larsson and Marcus Pettersson are four of Anaheim’s top prospects on the blueline.
Theodore is the only one to see NHL action, skating in Anaheim’s past six games after an injury to Cam Fowler. He has impressed coach Bruce Boudreau enough to be trusted in all situations, averaging 2:31 of ice time per game on the powerplay and 1:33 on the penalty kill. Theodore played a season high 21:45 Wednesday vs. Toronto.
Silver lining tonight was play of Shea Theodore. He’s ready for consistent NHL deployment and has already improved ANA power play.
— Matt Weller (@mweller9) January 2, 2016
Meanwhile, Montour has been nothing short of spectacular for Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in San Diego. The 21-year old defenseman leads the team in scoring with 29 points in 31 games, and is consistently seen leading the breakout and joining the rush for the Gulls. Montour is one of two Gulls players to be selected for the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic.
Jacob Larsson and Marcus Pettersson are honing their game in the Swedish Elite League, and both were members of fourth-place Team Sweden during the 2016 World Junior Championships.
Larsson is in the mold of the prototypical Swedish defenseman, smooth-skating with excellent instincts and pucks skills.
Pettersson is a strong two-way defender with impressive mobility for his 6-foot-4 frame. He will need to add some weight and physicality to his game to have success at the NHL level.
Though the Swedes are most likely a couple years from coming to North America, Anaheim has some decisions to make.
Lindholm and Vatanen are both pending restricted free agents, and with the amount of talent in the system combined with Anaheim’s scoring struggles, it is likely that one of the young NHL defensemen is moved in a trade for a top six scoring winger.
Anaheim GM Bob Murray has done a tremendous job drafting and developing high-end defensive prospects, and the Ducks will reap the rewards in the coming years.