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Sbisa Makes the Grade

by Staff Writer / Anaheim Ducks
By Matt Vevoda

"I wanted to make this team so bad," Sbisa said. "It was a tough camp, with a lot of competition. I'm really happy to be here and looking forward to the opportunity to play with a bunch of great guys."
On the final day of September, many 19-year-olds around the country are situating themselves back into dorm rooms and getting back into the flow of college courses. Luca Sbisa found out he’s made the opening night roster of the Anaheim Ducks.

Needing to cut their roster size to 23 this morning, the Ducks reassigned defenseman Brendan Mikkelson (to Toronto of the AHL) and left wing Logan MacMillan (to Bakersfield of the ECHL). The moves ensured Sbisa a place on Anaheim to begin the 2009-10 season.

“I wanted to make this team so bad,” said Sbisa, who played in 39 games a rookie with Philadelphia last season. “There were so many guys. It’s been a long way. I worked pretty hard this summer. It was a tough camp, with a lot of competition. I’m really happy to be here and am looking forward to the opportunity here to play with a bunch of great guys.”

As Sbisa still has some junior eligibility with Lethbridge left, there was some question on if he would remain in Orange County. But his play has kept him around a defense core that will also include Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney, James Wisniewski, Nick Boynton, Steve Eminger and Sheldon Brookbank.

“In this situation for him, he has shown us he’s above what we would deem a normal junior-age hockey player,” Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said. “He’s a 19-year-old competing for a position in the National Hockey League and he doesn’t look out of place doing it.”

Anaheim’s defense has had a major makeover since last season’s opener. Only one player remains from that group (Niedermayer) and the average age has dipped from 30.6 to 27. But this new-look blue line, an eclectic bunch ranging in age from 19-36, has no shortage of talent.

“Scotty is obviously the guy who has accomplished the most (four Stanley Cup titles, 1,183 games played), which is pretty evident,” Ryan Whitney said. “Nick Boynton has played a lot of games (505). Steve Eminger (283) has played a lot of games for being 25. Wiz (185) and I (273) are entering our fifth year in the league. Sbisa (39) has looked good and he’ll continue to learn. Brookbank (91) is another solid player. It’s a bright future here.”

"Hopefully by now, I've learned one or two things I guess that a 19-year-old might not know," Niedermayer said. "It's definitely fair that I should be aware of what he up to, try to offer some advice and be a good example for him as much as anything. It's something I will definitely do."
Interestingly enough, the most and least experienced members of that group – Niedermayer and Sbisa – may form a defense pairing. The two have skated at times together in the preseason and looked good when doing so. If that does in fact come to fruition, there certainly would not be a better player to learn the ins and outs of the National Hockey League from than a former Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Sbisa said. “Every young guy in the league dreams to play with a veteran guy. I have the chance to play with a future Hall-of-Famer. A lot of guys want to be in my spot right now. I have to make the best out of it. I just have to watch him all day long, how he prepares for games and how he does little things. I’m pretty positive that I will take a lot of things out of this season.”

The possibility of grooming a young d-man would not be a new venture for Niedermayer, as he’s done so several times in Anaheim, most notably with Francois Beauchemin (who signed with Toronto in the offseason). The Ducks captain is more than willing to lend his knowledge and support to Sbisa whenever need be.

“It’s a matter of us going out there, if we do end up playing together, probably to start simple and work towards building something as a defensive pair,” Niedermayer said. “Hopefully by now, I’ve learned one or two things I guess that a 19-year-old might not know. It’s definitely fair that I should be aware of what he’s up to, try to offer some advice and be a good example for him as much as anything. It’s something I will definitely do.”

While the Ducks defense has a variety of experience and personalities, Niedermayer likes the possibilities the group presents going into the 2009-10 season. “It will be good,” he said. “You have to play to your strengths. The fact we’re younger now and maybe more of a skating group, we have to use that to our advantage. I am confident that we’re a group that will be able to get the job done.”

Joffrey Lupul returned to practice Wednesday at The Rinks – Anaheim ICE after experiencing some lower back pain earlier in the week. The forward, who will most likely begin the season on a line with Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, reported no problems after taking part in drills.

“It’s feeling good now,” Lupul said. “This was a muscle spasm, just from fatigue. I played four out of the first five exhibition games, which was a lot after not playing a game since April. I just overdid it a little bit. Now it’s fine. I talked to the trainers. They said it’s not going to be something that we’re worried about coming back all the time. It was just a one-time thing.”

Petteri Nokelainen (groin) was also back after missing a day of practice, but the Finnish forward left about midway through the session. His status was not yet certain by Carlyle.

The Ducks head coach also reflected on the decision-making process that went into making the team's final cuts. On Mikkelson, "We felt as a young player, that would be his best situation right now. We feel that the player has shown great strides. He had a very strong camp compared to what he had last year. Going to the American Hockey League and playing, versus sitting here and playing sporadically, is a much better option at this point right now.”

Carlyle continued on why MacMillan was with the team untli the final decision, "He’s had some issues. What we tried  to do is educate him in a couple of training issues and what not. We kept the player around. We felt that he had a lot to learn in a short period of time around our group."
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