What Happened to Ducks’ Envied Defense Core?

Flashback to the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks had a blue line that consisted of Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour, Josh Manson, and Hampus Lindholm. With an average age of 23.5, they were the envy of the league. What was even more remarkable was that they were all drafted by the organization and the Ducks’ had three more highly touted youngsters waiting in the wings; Marcus Pettersson, Jacob Larsson, and Josh Mahura.

It didn’t take long for the dream to fall apart.

Expansion Draft/Injuries Cost Ducks Theodore and Vatanen

The Ducks lost in six games to the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference Final. The 2017 NHL Expansion Draft followed and the Ducks lost blue-chip prospect Shea Theodore in a trade that ensured the Vegas Golden Knights would select Clayton Stoner in the draft. (from ‘To Keep Coveted Defenders, Ducks Must Sacrifice Theodore,’ OC Register, 06/21/2017) The trade allowed the Ducks to shed Stoner’s contract and ultimately hold onto Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 28: Shea Theodore #27 of the Vegas Golden Knights takes a break during a stop in play in the first period of a preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings at T-Mobile Arena on September 28, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Golden Knights defeated the Kings 2-0. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Vatanen was the next to go.

The Ducks began the 2017-18 season plagued by injuries. Ryan Kesler hadn’t played a game all season, Ryan Getzlaf had missed 14 games due to facial injuries, and Rickard Rakell just picked up an upper-body injury. Bob Murray was forced to make a move. Vatanen and a conditional third-round pick were sent to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi, and a 2018 third-round pick. Just like that and a third of the core was gone.

Transitioning Ducks Lose Montour and Pettersson

Despite losing Theodore and Vatanen, the Ducks would start the 2018-19 season with a strong group consisting of Lindholm, Manson, Fowler and Montour. Jacob Larsson and Marcus Pettersson made the jump, along with fellow prospects Jaycob Megna and Andy Welinski.

That’s about as good as it would get.

The Ducks lost 12 in a row and 19 of 21 in a stretch of games spanning from December to February. John Gibson was overworked and the Ducks offence was bottom of the league. General manager Bob Murray attempted to rectify that by acquiring Daniel Sprong from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 3, sending Marcus Pettersson back in return.

On the eve of the trade deadline and at the height of the Ducks ineptitude, Murray pulled off a trade that signaled that start of a ‘re-tool’ in Anaheim. Brandon Montour was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Brendan Guhle and a 2019 first-round pick.

Brandon Montour, Buffalo Sabres
Brandon Montour, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Only three remained from the 2016-17 team that reached the Western Conference Final.

Where Are They Now?

Theodore

Shea Theodore has built on what made him successful in Anaheim and quietly has become one of the most effective defensemen in the NHL.

Viz Created by CJ Turtoro

He is one of the most efficient defensemen in the league in being able to exit his own zone cleanly with possession and then drive play up the ice and gain entry into the offensive zone. Only four defensemen finished with more possession exits per 60 minutes than Theodore – Erik Karlsson, Matt Grzelcyk, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Ivan Provorov.

Theodore’s offensive contribution from the blue line is something the Ducks have sorely missed since he left for Vegas. Hampus Lindholm is still one of the best possession defensemen in the NHL, but the Ducks lack a reliable option after him to cleanly exit their zone with possession.

Theodore’s impact on the power play is what the Ducks have hoped to get from Cam Fowler for years. The Golden Knights power play with/without Theodore shows the impact that he has on their success.

Shea Theodore
PP Unblocked Shot Rates – With/Without Shea Theodore – Micah Blake McCurdy (hockeyviz.com)

The Golden Knights’ power play was actually worse than the Ducks’, operating at 16.8% compared to 17.0% for Anaheim. However, with Theodore on the ice, the Golden Knights saw an increase in shots from the blue line, slot and the top of each circle. All of which are considered prime scoring areas on the power play.

Josh Mahura was the only Ducks’ defenseman to have a positive impact on the power play. However, he only had 15 minutes on the special teams unit across his 17 game stint with the Ducks.

Vatanen

This is one of those scenarios where a trade has worked out well for both teams. The Ducks and Devils have gotten exactly what they expected from Adam Henrique and Sami Vatanen, respectively. Henrique has continued to be a player who can consistently put up close to 20 goals and 45 points, and has provided the Ducks with some much-needed center depth. Meanwhile, Vatanen has been one of the top contributors on the Devils’ power play and provided a reliable offensive presence from the blue line.

Vatanen has continued to do what made him successful in Anaheim. He led all Devils defensemen in entries per 60, exits per 60 and shot contributions per 60. His 21:44 average time on ice was only second to Damon Severson. He is an all-around defenseman who can positively impact your team’s power play.

Sami Vatanen
EV & PP RAPM Type (Per 60) 2016-19 – Eolving-Hockey.com

When Vatanen is on the ice for a Ducks/Devils power play; goals for expected goals for, and shot attempts generated all increase significantly.

The Devils are poised to make a run at getting back into the playoffs, and with the additions of Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban, a lot of the pressure will be taken off Vatanen. In a season where he won’t be asked to do as much, we might see a resurgence for Sami Vatanen. Or will the reduction in ice-time result in his production to diminish? No matter what it’s an important season for the Finnish defenseman whose contract expires at the end of the 2019-20 season.

We’re all here for this though, aren’t we?

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Optimism High for Ducks Prospects

The Ducks are slowly replenishing the cupboards when it comes to defense prospects.

Larsson is still finding his way as a Duck. He hasn’t quite established himself as an NHL regular but the potential is still there for him to develop into a solid NHL defenseman.

Mahura made his NHL debut last season and played in 17 games for the Ducks. He’s likely the most exciting prospect on the blue line and the comparisons to Shea Theodore are already surfacing. He’ll get another shot this season to prove he deserves to play in the NHL full-time.

Guhle has some high expectations after being the main piece involved in the Montour trade. Guhle could be due for a breakthrough in 2019-20. His time with Cam Fowler was impressive, but cut short by injuries. He’ll have a full season to prove to Ducks fans that the trade was worth it.

The 2019 NHL Entry Draft saw the Ducks draft more than one defenseman for the first time since 2015. Most notably, Jackson LaCombe and Henry Thrun represent a commitment to rebuild the Ducks defense through the draft.

Check out our offseason primer to see how the Ducks defense could line up in 2019-20!