One of the big reasons the Anaheim Ducks went from watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs to finishing as the second seed in the Western Conference in 2012-13 was the play of a burgeoning crop of young players.
That group included forwards Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem, Peter Holland and Rickard Rakell, and defenseman Sami Vatanen.
Expect more young players to get prime opportunities this season.
John Gibson, who led Team USA to a gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship, gives the Ducks depth in net behind Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth. (Photo: Getty Images)
"If you can play, we'll find a spot for you," Ducks director of player development Todd Marchant told NHL.com. "Don't care if you're 18, 19, 20, 21, however old you are. If you're going to be able to play in the National Hockey League, we're going to find a spot for you."
Here's a look at Anaheim's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. John Gibson, G: This past season was a memorable one for the 19-year-old; he won the best goaltender award and was named most valuable player when the United States won the gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. He was in net when the Americans defeated Finland in a shootout to win the bronze medal at the IIHF World Championship. He parlayed that success into an invitation to USA Hockey's Olympic orientation camp at the end of August. He's the only goaltender with no NHL experience to be invited to the camp.
A 2011 second-round pick (No. 39), Gibson went 17-9-1 with a 2.41 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in 27 regular-season games with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. He got into one game with the Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, after his OHL season ended.
"Ever since we drafted him, he has done nothing but get better," Marchant said. "He's succeeded not only in the OHL, but in international competition with the Under-18s, World Juniors, and then at the World Championship. The fact that he got invited to the Team USA [Olympic] orientation camp is proof that he is one of our top prospects we have in our organization."
With Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth guiding the Ducks to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, it's likely Gibson (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) starts his professional career this season in Norfolk.
2. Hampus Lindholm, D: The sixth pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, Lindholm made the unusual decision to start the season in North America rather than return to his native Sweden. Though it wasn't always a smooth run for the 6-3, 199-pound player, the Ducks believe it was a good decision.
"He said, 'I can come over and learn the North American-style of game early and be able to play big minutes,' because he didn't feel he would get those if he went back and played for his men's team in Rogle," Marchant said. "He made the decision to come over and play as an 18-year-old and played big minutes for us. He had a rough start to the season, but he got much better as the season went on."
Two concussions limited Lindholm to 44 games last season with Norfolk, and he had one goal, 10 assists and a plus-5 rating. He was healthy for the final 25 games of the season, and Marchant said he was happy with what he saw from the 19-year-old.
"He finished the season real strong for us in Norfolk," Marchant said. "We expect big things out of him. We expect him to contend for a spot on the big club [in 2013-14] in training camp."
3. Peter Holland, C: The Ducks' first pick in the 2009 NHL Draft (No. 15), Holland saw his most significant NHL time last season, when he had three goals and five points in 21 games, averaging 11:35 of ice time. He had 19 goals and 39 points in 45 AHL games.
It was Holland's second successful AHL season, and Marchant said he sees the 22-year-old as someone who has proven about all he can at the AHL level and is ready to make a big push for an NHL job.
"This is a big year for him," Marchant said. "He has to take the next step forward in his development. He's proven it at the junior level, he's proven it at the American League level. Now it's time to prove it at the National Hockey League level. He's got all the tools -- big (6-2, 192), strong, great shot, can skate well. Has all the skills of a National Hockey League player; now what he needs to do is put it together, put the whole package on the ice every single night. If he does that, he'll have success in the National Hockey League."
4. Rickard Rakell, RW: The Ducks' 2011 first-round pick (No. 30) was a surprise addition to the opening-night roster and played in four games before being returned to his junior team, the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.
Rakell (6-1, 191) had six assists in six games to help Sweden win the silver medal at the 2013 World Juniors, and had 44 points in 40 games with Plymouth, but Marchant said the most beneficial time last season for the 20-year-old was his short stint in the NHL.
"I think it was a huge advantage for him to be able to go see the NHL and see that action because now he understands what it takes to play at that level," Marchant said. "He went back to Plymouth and finished the season very strong with his junior team and in the [OHL] playoffs. He's another one of those players we expect to contend for a spot on the Anaheim Ducks. Smart player, real big, strong, protects the puck well. He's definitely one of the guys that we're expecting to contend for a spot."
5. Sami Vatanen, D: A 2009 fourth-round pick (No. 106), Vatanen had a strong debut season in North America. He was second in scoring in Norfolk, and tied for third among AHL defensemen with 45 points in 62 games. That earned him an eight-game call-up to the Ducks, when he had two goals and averaged 15:49 of ice time.
He's grown by an inch and 17 pounds since he was drafted, but at 5-10 and 180 pounds, Vatanen, 22, needs to get stronger to earn full-time NHL work.
"He's a dynamic player, really good vision, skates well, sees the ice well, has a really good shot from the point," Marchant said. "He needs to continue to work on his ability to defend, especially bigger players, because he's not the biggest guy. But he's another one of those players who is right in the mix for earning a spot on the Anaheim Ducks."
6. William Karlsson, C: The 2011 second-round pick (No. 53) made his debut in the Swedish Hockey League last season a successful one, totaling 28 points in 50 games with HV 71 and earning the league's rookie of the year award. Karlsson (6-foot, 180) had two assists in six games to help Sweden win the silver medal at the 2013 World Juniors.
Marchant said he expects the 20-year-old to spend one more season in Sweden but has liked what he's seen so far.
"He's a really smart player," Marchand said. "Very cerebral, sees the ice well, makes good decisions. Very good defensively. He's another player that will have to continue to get bigger and stronger as he develops. Since we drafted him, he's added about 15 pounds of muscle. The sky's the limit for him as a player."
7. Nicolas Kerdiles, LW: The 2012 second-round pick (No. 36) had a bumpy start to his college career, with a 10-game suspension due to an NCAA violation. However, he returned to finish second on the team with 33 points (third with 11 goals) in 32 games. Kerdiles (6-1, 192) helped Wisconsin win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship and was named MVP of the conference tournament.
Marchant said what impressed him most was how Kerdiles, 19, handled his suspension, staying at Wisconsin rather than bolting for the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, which owns his Canadian Hockey League rights.
"He didn't let [the suspension] get him down, didn't let that bother him," Marchant said. "Once he came off the suspension, he took off. He finished with a great season at Wisconsin, they won the WCHA championship, he was named the MVP in the playoffs. For him to step his game up when it counted the most is a trait that teams love to have and they love to see that, so you know when it comes to crunch time in the playoffs, you need players to step up. Nic Kerdiles did that this year. We have high expectations for him."
Theodore, Anaheim's 2013 first-round pick, put forth an impressive showing at the team's prospect camp. If he can improve his game defensively, he's expected to be a big part of the Ducks' future. (Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI)
8. Shea Theodore, D: The Ducks' first-round pick (No. 26) in 2013 made a nice impression on Marchant during the team's prospect development camp in July.
The 6-2, 178-pound player had 19 goals and 50 points in 71 WHL games with the Seattle Thunderbirds last season. It's likely the 18-year-old will return to Seattle for at least one more season of development.
"He's a very good skater, no question he can get up and down the ice," Marchand said. "He's got great offensive instincts. He's another player that in the next few years will be contending for a spot on our team. He's got great offensive instincts [but] needs to continue to develop on the defensive responsibilities. He has all the raw tools of being an NHL defenseman. Now it's just a question of putting it all together at the right time."
9. Nick Sorensen, RW: It took a while for the Danish-born forward to fully heal from a knee injury that limited him to eight games in 2011-12, but the Ducks believe they found a prospect on the rise in the second round (No. 45) at the 2013 NHL Draft.
Sorensen, 18, had 20 goals and 47 points in 46 games with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, but had 11 goals and 21 points in his final 20 games.
"He really didn't come on until the second half of last season," Marchand said. "He was coming off an ACL injury the year before, took some time in the beginning part of last year to get his feet under him. He finished the season real strong and that's why we took him in the second round this year. We felt not only was he physically beyond the injury, but mentally. I talked with Nick extensively over this and he said it really did wear on him, not knowing if he could bounce back from the injury. But he did really well at our prospect camp. He's a big, strong kid (6-1, 174), he skates well, very intelligent player. He's got all the tools."
10. Kevin Roy, C: The Ducks drafted the 5-9, 160-pound forward in the fourth round (No. 97) of the 2012 NHL Draft after an explosive season with the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League that saw him total 54 goals and 104 points in 59 games.
Roy, 20 in May, showed he still had the scoring touch last season as a freshman at Northeastern University, totaling 17 goals and 34 points in 29 games. His 1.17 point-per-game average topped all first-year NCAA players and was No. 12 among all players.
"He's very dynamic around the net," Marchant said. "Not the biggest guy, but always seems to be around the puck. He reminds me of a Ray Whitney-type of player. When he's on the ice, the puck is usually on his stick."
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