Zellweger Dionicio

They say defense wins championships, and Anaheim's rebuild subcribes to the theory.

With the NHL Draft now less than one month away, the Ducks will soon have the chance to add to its top-ranked prospect pool, most notably with the third overall pick.

But before the names are called at The Sphere just off the Las Vegas Strip, AnaheimDucks.com caught up with Director of Player Development Jim Johnson for an update on the Ducks of the future, today continuing on the blue line.

Olen Zellweger

Fresh off back-to-back Western Hockey League (WHL) Defenseman of the Year honors, Zellweger split his first professional season between San Diego and Anaheim, earning an American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star nod with the Gulls.

Zellweger also recorded nine points in 26 NHL games, including six in his last eight appearances of the season, while impressing Ducks management with his commitment on the defensive side of the puck.

Olen Zellweger on rookie season, team's young talent

"That was the big question coming into this year, learning how to defend," Johnson said." He got away with things in junior hockey because of gifted skating ability and his offensive skills. He's got great puck hand and he sees the ice well. 

"He's always working on his stick and handling his edge control. I thought he adjusted extremely well after the first two or two months of the American League season, understanding how to defend the bigger, stronger men and not losing his positioning. In juniors, he was always was able to recover, but when you're playing against men, you're going to have to play a little bit different."

Zellweger saw an increased role for the Ducks as the season wound down, skating in at least 20 minutes of ice-time in four of the club's last five games. 

"I think he's got a bright future," Johnson continued. "He's gifted breaking the puck out. I would call him a breakout machine. He knows how to evade the forecheck. He knows how to find the first man available and he makes good quick decisions with the puck."

The 20-year-old defenseman is the ultimate rink rat, always the last player off the ice at practice and someone who dedicates every possible moment to his craft.

Zellweger scores first career NHL goal

"He's very competitive,  and everything he does off the ice is about being a better player," Johnson said. "He's got a really bright future."

Tristan Luneau

One of the standouts of both rookie and training camp last season, Luneau wowed Ducks coaches and players alike with a level of maturity and poise rarely found in a teenage defenseman. 

In total, Luneau appeared in seven games with Anaheim, scoring his first NHL goal in November at Honda Center, and another six games with San Diego, but his season would come to a screeching halt in December - when a viral infection in his knee held him out of the World Junior Championship and sidelined him for the remainder of the year.

"Tristan's a very focused individual, very passionate," Johnson said. "Like Zellweger, everything he does is about being a better player.

"He's got a high offensive upside, a high NHL upside into his game. He controls the play and he can break pucks out of his own end. He's a big body who skates well and he's progressed well there. I'm really excited where he is at. I'm just really disappointed that we lost him for almost a full season due to the knee infection."

Luneau scores on the rebound for his first NHL goal

Luneau returned the ice in May and is expected to be a full participant in training camp where he will compete for a spot on Anaheim's blue line.

"It didn't surprise me one bit watching him [succeed in the NHL] after working with him the last couple of years in the Quebec League. You look at his numbers offensively, he was the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Player of the Year last year. He drove his offense for his team. He plays with a bit of an edge. He can be physical, he can play any type of game you want to play. 

"His seven games that he played in the NHL I thought were outstanding and I know the coaching staff there in Anaheim was really excited about him. After his knee healed and he got the infection out, he spent a lot of time in the gym this spring and he's really made a commitment to building his body even better than it was. He's had no knee pain. He's doing all of his exercises right now. He's in the gym every day and he's been on the ice. Things are really looking good for him, he just needs to have a real solid summer, come into camp and earn himself a spot on the NHL roster."

Tyson Hinds

A third-round pick in 2021 who the Ducks traded up to acquire, Hinds began his professional hockey career with San Diego this season, skating in 71 of the club's 72 regular-season contests.

"I would say he had an up and down year," Johnson said. "There were some really strong games that I saw him playing. Then I saw some games where, for me, it's about his body again. He's light. He's got a good frame, but he needs to put on some more mass and more strength to his body right now. 

A classic defensively-minded blueliner, Johnson said Hinds' biggest area of growth comes with the puck on his stick.

"He needs to be a more consistent puck moving defenseman that can defend extremely well. We've seen him play that way and I had a talk with him at the end of the year, reminding him when he played for Canada in the World Juniors he was a shut down defenseman, hard to play against and physical. Now he's got to do the same thing, the way that he played in that tournament, in pro hockey. When he figures out what he has to do with his body to be able to play against men and then his decision making with the puck comes along, he's got a real bright future.

"I think he learned a lot this year at the pro level. I expect him to have a much stronger year next year and hopefully he gets off to a real good start. I believe he will. He's got great work habits. He's a great kid to work with."

Drew Helleson

The 23-year-old Helleson took on an increased role in his second full AHL campaign, skating in 57 games with San Diego and finishing third among team blueliners in points, goals and assists.

"Drew had a pretty good year despite missing some time with injuries," Johnson said. "I would say he didn't progress as rapidly this season as I saw at the end of last season when he came up [to Anaheim] and played games. He was a little frustrated, I think, at times with his himself and his play, and I think he beat himself up a little bit too much."

Helleson ended the AHL season on a high note, recording seven points in his final six games with a +3 rating.

"He's a good straight line skater," Johnson added. "He's got to work on his mobility a little bit, but he can make quick decisions. I think he has good hockey IQ, but he needs to have a little bit more poise with the puck. He's got good size. He's going to have to be a good defender and he's just learning what it takes to be a pro style defenseman. 

"I think that's the biggest thing. Once he defends with better posture and technical skills, I think he's going to be more effective. He's learning to close quicker. He's got a good stick. He's hard on it. He defends well when he's in good athletic posture and I think he needs to continue to, I think [Gulls head coach Matt McIlvane] has done a good job with him...controlling what he can control and advancing the game a little bit more directly with his puck decisions and consistency."

Rodwin Dionicio

The newly crowned Memorial Cup champion had one of the best season's of any Ducks prospect, turning heads in Anaheim and beyond with a dynamite offensive performance and significant improvement on the defensive end.

We've seen him play offensive gifted player that sees the ice extremely well, has decent skating mechanics straight ahead, real good size and reach has unreal vision, makes plays under pressure.

"He's got good poise with the puck," Johnson said. "His puck and hand skills are good. We've really challenged him on his defensive game, understanding one-on-one situations and, how he needs to accept the rush. I think he's gotten better reading situations and arriving on time. He's got better awareness now in the defensive zone. His lateral mobility and agility is getting better and now he's working on understanding how to create physical relationships earlier, closing quickly in the defensive zone and being a little bit more under control. 

"I think when he is more direct with the puck offensively, he's more effective. I think he's got high-end offensive ability."

But most important to Johnson was Dionicio's effort off the ice and in the gym, where he dropped 25 pounds in a commitment to rebuild his body.

"He has made himself a player by understanding the importance of his body and dropping some body fat," Johnson said. "He was 220 pounds. I give him all the credit. I challenged him a month into the season to become a player that is physically fit. And last time I saw him he was 197.8, someone just told me he is 194 now, and he's playing his best hockey.

Noah Warren

A 2023 second-round pick, Warren stands out for his rare blend of size, athleticism and mobility. The 6-foot-5 blueliner battled through injuries to appear in 50 games with Victoriaville (QMJHL), collecting six goals and 13 points along with a +13 rating.

Warren also registered eight points and a +3 mark in 14 playoff games.

"He's got unreal athleticism, good skating mechanics and good mobility," Johnson said. "His posture and balance are good. He's learning how to close hard and strong with a purpose. He can kill plays with his aggressiveness when he is playing well. 

"When Noah puts his mind to it, he can be a very intimidating, aggressive player that can be very effective in the defensive zone. He's got great size, and a good frame, which is a huge advantage to him...Noah is learning to understand that he is a big and physical defenseman. He has to play hard and kill plays, be hard to play against with a mean streak in and around the net. He also has to be able to make a solid first pass, and he can do that. He's a really effective player. We saw him play in the NHL camp and thought he was outstanding... He just needs a little bit more consistency out of his starts and consistency through 60 minutes with his aggressive play.

Konnor Smith

Aggressiveness and physicality are the names of the game for defenseman Konnor Smith, a fourth-round selection by the Ducks last June in Nashville. The Windsor native split his final junior season between Peterborough and Owen Sound (OHL), finishing with 74 penalty minutes while chipping in a career-best 17 points and helping the Attack to a postseason berth.

"Konnor's got a ways to go, but he's got really good work habits and a good work ethic," Johnson said. 
He's got great size, a good reach and his physicality -  he loves the hit. He's willing to stick up for himself and his teammates. I think he plays aggressive naturally, he just has to work on his positioning, and not losing it when looking for hits. Take it for when it comes and be a little bit more patient on those contact situations. We're going to work with him this summer on his knee bend, going for a little bit more flexibility. I think that'll help his overall skating and lateral mobility."

Smith also played six games with San Diego, scoring his first AHL goal and collecting 10 penalty minutes.

"He's gotten better with his gaps on the rush and gaining his ice back a little bit quicker. With his work ethic and willingness to get in the gym, I believe he's going to be forced to be reckoned with. He's 6-foot-4, 212 lbs. and I believe he'll probably come into camp close to 220. He plays with an edge so there could be a bright future for Konnor.

Vojtech Port

It was a tale of two seasons for Port, as the Czech defenseman saw his role change drastically after a midseason trade from Edmonton to Moose Jaw (WHL).

"He played extremely well in more of a limited role with Moose Jaw," Johnson said. "In Edmonton, he was more of an offensive player and got more opportunity to play in those situations. Then he went to a deeper team in Moose Jaw, he's been more of a third-pair defenseman and he's grown his craft.

"He skates his fluid and he's got pretty good mechanics. He transitions well and he's got a pretty good stick. He needs to get stronger in his stick battles in all aspects, lower and upper body. He lacks that power and explosiveness right now...The gym needs to be a priority for him and I think, because of that lack of size and strength, he's a little tenative at times. That's what we're working on him with and he's getting to do all of this in the playoffs...He's been making progress since his move to Moose Jaw.

Port tallied three points in 16 regular-season games with Moose Jaw before adding four helpers and a +3 rating in 20 playoff appearances.

"I think it took a bit of time for him to adjust to his situation out there, with new coaches and a way different city," Johnson said. "I think he can make a little bit quicker decisions moving the puck, but I think he's getting more comfortable playing with an edge and being more assertive. Those are the areas that I really want him to focus on going forward."

Ian Moore

Entering his senior season at Harvard, Moore will be one of the most experienced defensemen in college hockey next season and counted on to play a key role on the Crimson blue line.

"He's a big right shot defenseman and he's growing," Johnson said. "Last time I saw him, it looked like he was 6-foot-4 already. We list him at 6-foot-3 but I think he might be even taller. Good size, good frame. He needs to put some mass on that frame but he's got good hockey sense and great anticipation skills. His compete level is high and he's got a good understanding of the game. He knows how to defend well with understanding gaps. I think this kid is going to be an NHL player."

Moore was limited to 21 games in 2023-24 while dealing with high-ankle sprain.

"Those sprains are almost worst than a break," Johnson said. "He came back and played at the end of the year but just wasn't his normal self. He had a battle with that. But up until that point, he was really good for Harvard and I expect him to have a really strong senior year.

"I expect him to be a real force coming out of college hockey with an opportunity to play in the NHL."

Will Francis

A warrior in every sense of the word, Francis' toughness and tenacity has been required in other areas the last few years as the Minnesota-born defenseman has fought with Leukemia. 

The 23-year-old had a relapse last August and sat out the 2023-24 season while undergoing treatment, but announced in January he is once again cancer free and on the road back to the ice.

"I've spent a lot of time with Will. He's just over 30 days out (from a bone marrow transplant) and has some important days coming up," Johnson said. "He probably won't make it to development camp because he needs to be 100 days out before a lot of contact, but I just spoke with him and he's doing extremely well. He's already in the gym and working out on his own. He can't be around people yet but he's a kid that does nothing but amaze me.

"He continues to work on his body to get better...He's mentally strong and he's already doing whatever he can to get ready. His goal is to come back and play this season at the University of Minnesota - Duluth. We're excited for him. Obviously, he has some catching up to do with the time he's missed but he's very competitive by nature with a strong work ethic. He's a young man battling cancer with unreal will and determination to fight. Playing again show what kind of guy he is. I have a lot of time for Will."

On the ice, Francis projects as a physical blueliner who excels in his own zone.

"He's a strong guy to play against," Johnson noted. "I saw him play two years ago at the end of the season against St. Cloud and he was a force, good size and aggressiveness. He has natural power in his stride. His feet need to get a little bit better, but I think he's going to be effective if he can get his strength and conditioning back to where it was. He eliminated lunging in the neutral zone and is now accepting the gap. He's gotten good at accepting the rush with good gaps. His puck and hand skills need to improve at the next level but the way he played against St. Cloud in that weekend series, he could be a very effective pro player."