By Corey Masisak
ANAHEIM -- Each of the past two postseasons have ended in familiar fashion for the Anaheim Ducks, a disappointing defeat in a Game 7 at Honda Center after a successful regular season.
The 2014-15 Ducks have already progressed further than the previous two teams. One of the biggest reasons is their young, skilled defensemen.
General manager Bob Murray has overhauled the defense over the past couple of seasons, moving away from a collection of low-risk veterans to a swift skating group. For a team with such high expectations, it has taken courage to commit to fielding a lineup with four defensemen who have not reached their 24th birthday, but Anaheim has been rewarded with a late-season spike in its possession statistics and a deep run in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I think with all of the young guys, we are in a good organization that lets you develop at the pace that you can do," Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm said. "They have great guys around the organization to help as well. There’s [Scott Niedermayer], who I talk to a lot. He’s been really good for me. Being paired with Francois [Beauchemin] has been great too as a veteran guy to kind of rely on. They’ve been doing a great job of shaping us the way they want."
Two seasons ago, Cam Fowler was the young guy on the Anaheim defense. The Ducks have deployed veterans (Sheldon Souray, Toni Lydman and Bryan Allen) and younger players who don’t really fit the mobile, puck-moving mold (Ben Lovejoy, Luca Sbisa and Mark Fistric).
All of those players have moved on or are no longer part of the active roster. Lindholm and Sami Vatanen became regulars last season, and the Ducks added Simon Despres before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. Those three, plus offseason free-agent signing Clayton Stoner and deadline addition James Wisniewski, have joined Fowler and Beauchemin to form the new-look Ducks defense.
"It's been great watching the younger guys improve the last couple years," Beauchemin said. "You can tell even at 23 and under, they're really mature the way they handle themselves, the way they work hard, the way they prepare for the games."
Anaheim does not have a true No. 1 defenseman, someone thought of in the same class as Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning or Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers. Lindholm, 21, is the most likely of the group to elevate to that level in the coming seasons.
What the Ducks do have is five players (maybe six including Wisniewski, who has yet to play this postseason) who could be No. 2/3 defensemen on a contending team, and that type of depth is something few clubs can match.
"I think the one thing our group doesn’t get enough credit for is they’re mobility and the fact that they can get the puck up to our forwards and also join the rush," Ducks assistant coach Trent Yawney said. "If you look at all the teams still playing, they possess that element of mobility on the back end both for defensive purposes but also offensive purposes. The game is a four-man rush game now instead of a three-man rush game. Forwards love when a defenseman jumps up and provides that extra option."
Lindholm is a future star, a smooth, all-around player who has become a go-to option in his second season for coach Bruce Boudreau. His maturation, and the coaching staff’s increased trust in him, was the first big step forward for the group.
Lindholm played less than 16 minutes in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Kings last season, but has logged more than 20 minutes in eight games in these playoffs. Lindholm had the opening goal of the Western Conference Final, a 4-1 win against the Blackhawks, and has eight points this postseason.
Game 2 of the best-of-7 series is at Honda Center on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN).
Fowler, 23, has played less this season, especially in the playoffs, but he’s improved since the deadline. Longtime partner Lovejoy was replaced by Despres in a trade that has been a clear victory for the Ducks to this point.
Defense - ANA
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 6
SOG: 14 | +/-: 7
Despres, 23, struggled to earn opportunities beyond bottom-pairing minutes with multiple coaches for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Always considered a talented prospect, Despres has found his chance with the Ducks.
"It was a weird day," Despres said of the trade. "I was out shopping for furniture with my girlfriend and looking forward to a long stay in Pittsburgh, but then my phone started ringing off the hook. I had to take a cold shower and realize what was going on. I had about 15 minutes to pack and leave for Phoenix and I played the next day. Since that day, it’s been a blast.
"First game I played with Cam, and I’ve played with [Wisniewski], but mostly with him. I like playing with Cam. He’s a fast player. We read off each other. We’ve got good hockey sense, so we just read off each other and make some plays and be good on defense."
When Murray made those additions before the deadline, Wisniewski was expected to be Anaheim’s big boost. He averaged nearly 23 minutes per game for the Columbus Blue Jackets in four seasons, but with everyone healthy, Boudreau preferred Stoner at the start of the postseason and the Ducks are 9-1 with no glaring weaknesses on defense.
Despres’ surprising play is part of the reason for Wisniewski’s absence.
"Initially I was [surprised]," Boudreau said. "We thought we got all these guys and Simon would be the seventh D. He came right in, and we were hurt at the time of the trade, so they all played. He never let up. He kept playing better and better and better.
"Now it would be pretty hard arguably to take him out. Bob did a tremendous job acquiring him."
The Ducks horde of young, talented defensemen doesn’t end with the four in the playoff lineup. Josh Manson, 23, was a solid fill-in for 28 games this season. Shea Theodore, 19, was a first-round pick (No. 26) in the 2013 NHL Draft and is one of the top prospects at the position.
There has been a strong support system in place, with Yawney joining Niedermayer as an assistant coach this season. Yawney coached Vatanen and Lindholm with Norfolk of the American Hockey League. Beauchemin is also able to help mentor them.
Fowler lived with Niedermayer when he joined the Ducks. Despres lived with Beauchemin after the trade. It’s all helped them settle in, and the team has benefitted from it.
Two seasons ago, the Ducks finished 22nd in shot attempts percentage (SAT%) at even strength at less than 48 percent. Last season, Anaheim finished tied for 17th at 49.96.
This season, the Ducks were tied for 15th at 50.8 percent on March 1. The next day they added Despres and Wisniewski (along with forwards Jiri Sekac and Tomas Fleischmann), and from March 2 until the end of the regular season, Anaheim’s SAT% spiked to 53.8 percent, which was fifth in the NHL in that span, according to war-on-ice.com.
Three of the four teams in front of the Ducks (Los Angeles Kings, Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes) did not make the playoffs. The fourth, Pittsburgh, was gone after five games.
The Ducks are not considered an organization known for its enthusiasm about analytics, but Murray’s acquisitions and Boudreau’s trust in the young defensemen has been the biggest reasons for Anaheim’s puck possession improvements.
That is part of why the Ducks are three wins from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2007.
"I think the game is changing," Lindholm said. "Now you need the defense that is mobile and can play at both ends. I think all of the D's here can be two-way defensemen. That’s big for us. We can take care of our own end and then go help on offense. I think that’s why Bruce trusts us."