Ducks’ McTavish and Zellweger Are Ready for the NHL

The Anaheim Ducks’ bright future may be closer than expected. With one of the deeper prospect pools in the NHL, they were well-represented in the 2022 World Junior Championship (WJC). Included in this group are three players from the gold-medal Canadian team, Mason McTavish, Olen Zellweger, and Nathan Gaucher. Both McTavish and Zellweger had an incredible run during the tournament. Zellweger led all defensemen in scoring with 11 points in Team Canada’s seven games. McTavish was practically unstoppable, scoring 17 points en route to being named the tournament’s MVP. Both of these stellar tournaments come on the heels of equally impressive seasons in their junior leagues.

Related: Ducks’ McTavish Could Be 2022-23 X-Factor

With another rebuilding year on the horizon, the Ducks’ top-two picks from the 2021 Entry Draft should get a chance to make the NHL roster. With plenty of youth and inexperience throughout the Ducks’ lineup, there should be room on the roster for McTavish and Zellweger to win a spot in training camp and grow into NHL players as opposed to returning to their junior leagues for another year.

Ducks’ Left Side is Already Unproven

One of the more significant roster issues facing the Ducks this season is the left side of the defense. After Cam Fowler, there are no clear-cut roster locks. Simon Benoit and Urho Vaakanainen will go into camp as the incumbents, albeit with just over 100 combined games of NHL experience between the two of them. There will inevitably be growing pains no matter who makes the team, so Zellweger, who will turn 19 before this season, should have a chance to show his upside.

Olen Zellweger Everett Silvertips
Olen Zellweger, Everett Silvertips (Photo by Christopher Mast/Getty Images)

Where Zellweger would fit into the depth chart is also a complicated decision to make. As I’ve mentioned in my defensive roster projections, Fowler has been Jamie Drysdale’s best partner since arriving in the NHL, and breaking up that pairing is probably not worth a theoretical top pairing of Fowler and John Klingberg. Zellweger would be facing a similar issue that Drysdale is on the right side. With the offensive-oriented trio of Klingberg, Drysdale, and Kevin Shattenkirk occupying the right side, Zellweger wouldn’t have a partner that could shoulder a larger defensive burden while he adjusts to the NHL level. The Ducks could decide to throw caution into the wind and pair Zellweger and Drysdale together. It would probably be considered too risky defensively, but the two are key features of the Ducks’ rebuild and it would be one of the most exciting tandems in recent history for the franchise.

McTavish Can Continue Crazy Year With Calder Push

Mason McTavish has been playing a lot of hockey this year. McTavish started the 2021-22 season with the Ducks for a brief stint, had a brief rehab stint with the San Diego Gulls, went back to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and went on a Memorial Cup run to the final with the Hamilton Bulldogs, and represented Team Canada in the Olympics all before this most recent WJC run. Despite the sheer amount of games at varying levels and localities, the third-overall pick from 2021 hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. His 17 points led the entire tournament, and his desperate overtime save on a Topi Niemelä shot will be as memorable as Kent Johnson’s eventual golden goal.

McTavish will likely secure one of the spots on the Ducks’ opening night roster for the second season in a row. Unlike last year, he will probably stick around beyond a nine-game trial period. McTavish should get the chance to continue his development in the NHL and continue at his torrid pace. As of right now, betting site Bovada has McTavish in a three-way tie as the Calder favorite along with Buffalo’s Owen Power and San Jose’s William Eklund.

McTavish and Zellweger Have Nothing to Prove in Juniors

As teenagers who have excelled in their respective junior leagues, there is no consensus path forward for the development of McTavish and Zellweger. It stands to reason why the Ducks wouldn’t want to rush a pair of young players into the NHL, where players have years worth of experience throwing their adult-size body weight around. The American Hockey League (AHL) would be a decent option, but the AHL doesn’t allow teenagers with Canadian Hockey League contracts to play, except for rehab stints (which allowed McTavish to play in three games last year) or if their junior season has ended (which allowed Zellweger to play in one playoff game last year). This essentially means that McTavish and Zellweger would have to make the Ducks roster or be sent back down to juniors for another season.

Mason McTavish Hamilton Bulldogs
Mason McTavish, Hamilton Bulldogs (Brandon Taylor/OHL Images)

Both McTavish and Zellweger have proven that they are in a class of their own at the lower levels of the sport. McTavish has experience playing professionally in Switzerland, and that powerful shot behind his 6-foot-0, 213-pound frame tends to make him look like a man among boys. He didn’t look out of place in his brief time in the NHL last season, and his experiences in the Memorial Cup and WJC would suggest he is ready to play at the highest levels of the sport.

Zellweger’s case as an undersized, underaged defenseman will be a lot more difficult. But as last year’s Defenseman of the Year in the Western Hockey League, as well as Team Canada’s defensive backbone during the WJC, there’s not much for Zellweger to do other than continue to dominate the lower levels. At some point, Zellweger will need a challenge, and he may not find a proper one until he’s on NHL ice. After all, the similarly-sized Drysdale has been playing and developing for the Ducks in the NHL once it was pretty obvious he had nothing to gain from continuing in the OHL.

Whether it happens this year or further down the road, the future of the Ducks is beginning to take shape.

Stats Courtesy of HockeyDB

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