Veteran defensemen Kevin Bieksa and Francois Beauchemin have had their share of rocky moments with the Anaheim Ducks this season. Deteriorating speed in the twilight of their careers seems to be the main reason for their often subpar play, but in the case of Bieksa, an ongoing issue with his left hand has possibly exacerbated his ineffectiveness—especially when it comes to making plays with the puck.
Bieksa will undergo surgery to remove scar tissue and thus correct the issue with his hand. While he recovers over the next two to five weeks, Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle will pretty much be forced to keep 21-year-old Marcus Pettersson in the lineup. Hopefully, Bieksa can heal quickly and be ready to play again soon, but for now, the fact that Carlyle now cannot lean on a pair of unreliable defenders will, in truth, likely help the Ducks down the stretch as they try to make it to the playoffs.
Pettersson Gets Another Opportunity
For Bieksa, the best-case scenario is of course for him to get well and not only be available for the postseason to give Anaheim more depth, but be better-suited physically to provide better minutes than he has for most of this season.
Of course, his hand surgery is not going to magically improve his foot speed, so he is still likely to have his share of struggles upon his return. Despite his struggles and ongoing hand issue, though, Carlyle continued to play Bieksa more than he should have. The 36-year-old had suited up for 59 games and averaged about 18 minutes of ice time per contest.
Then, in mid-February, the team called up Pettersson from the AHL’s San Diego Gulls. Pettersson drew into the lineup consistently, replacing either Bieksa or Beauchemin each time. It seemed that Carlyle had finally realized that his club needed more youth and mobility in the depth of its defense corps.
Alas, Carlyle ultimately began to regress to his bad habit of leaning on the past-his-prime veteran over the promising youngster. After playing in every game following his call-up, Pettersson was a healthy scratch for two of the Ducks’ most recent four games prior to Friday’s win over the Detroit Red Wings. Perhaps not coincidentally, Anaheim dropped both contests in which he did not suit up.
In hindsight, the signs were there, not only because of Carlyle’s past habits, but also because while Bieksa was seeing 18 minutes per game, Pettersson was only seeing an average of 12:41 per game.
Carlyle is far from the only coach to fall victim to this unsubstantiated and antiquated idea that veterans can do no wrong while youngsters always have to be kept on an extremely tight leash, but that does not make it any less maddening.
In any event, with Bieksa now unavailable for an extended stretch, Carlyle does not really have much of a choice except to play Pettersson consistently in hugely important games for his fringe-playoff team.
Pettersson in Comparison to Bieksa
Pettersson’s possession numbers have admittedly taken a bit of a nosedive after a strong start, but that’s somewhat been the case for the Ducks as a team during their uneven play over the most recent couple of weeks. Furthermore, although Pettersson is in the same tier as Bieksa in terms of overall 5-on-5 possession (Pettersson has a meager Corsi-for percentage of 43.75 percent in his limited 12-game sample while Bieksa’s 44.50 CF% is not notably better), he has been better in limiting the high-danger chances against and staying on the right side of that differential. Pettersson’s high-danger CF% is a respectable 51.79 percent, while Bieksa lags behind at 47.06 percent.
Pettersson also offers a bit more mobility and escapability than Bieksa does at this stage in his career, so the payoff from that and his higher ceiling in comparison to Bieksa (and Beauchemin, for that matter) are worth the price of any growing pains he might experience, even during the high-stakes contests Anaheim will find itself in for the rest of the way.
Carlyle, though, does technically have another option at his disposal right now. In need of another body with Bieksa on the shelf, the Ducks recalled defenseman Korbinian Holzer from the Gulls. The 30-year-old Holzer, though, has largely struggled at the NHL level in his career, so Carlyle should only consider him as a seventh defenseman ready to step in if a malady befalls another blueliner.
The hope, again, is that Bieksa recovers well and quickly, but in the meantime, Carlyle will essentially be forced to make what is, in reality, a better personnel decision for the team.