ANAHEIM -- Shea Theodore got to know a stretch of the West Coast particularly well last season.
The top defense prospect of the Anaheim Ducks made good use of an Amtrak pass and a brand new train station just across the street from Honda Center. Theodore regularly trekked across Katella Avenue to the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, known as ARTIC; it's a multicolored half-dome-like building that sits between Honda Center and Angel Stadium and can be seen lighting up the night sky after a winning night in Anaheim.
With his sticks and pads in the seat next to him, Theodore rode through the rolling hills of southern Orange County down to the ocean, traveling along the southernmost point of the California coastline into downtown San Diego, the home of the Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. It was a beautiful ride, an easy ride.
Theodore, 21, had never ridden on a train until the Ducks decided to start shuttling prospects back and forth via Amtrak. But the novelty of his first train ride soon wore off when he found himself on the train again and again.
He's determined to stay off the train this season, and he's confident he can.
"I think just my confidence level coming into camp [is higher]," Theodore said. "I know I can play at the NHL level and I'm hoping that can kind of give me an advantage. There's quite a few guys ahead of me when you're looking at the depth chart, but I'm trying to take a spot from somebody, and that's all I can really do."
Theodore, a smooth-skating 6-foot 2, 194-pound defenseman with a dangerous left-handed shot, has a daunting task ahead of him as he attempts to crack one of the deepest defense groups in the NHL. Anaheim boasts three of the League's most talented young defensemen in Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen. Veteran Kevin Bieksa and complementary players Simon Despres, Clayton Stoner and Korbinian Holzer round out the group.
Video: CGY@ANA: Cogliano sets up Theodore in front
Not to mention, prospect Brandon Montour is knocking at the door of the NHL as well.
"The strength of this organization and this hockey club is, obviously, a deep number of people that are capable of playing in the NHL on the blue line, and that's a luxury," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "That's a real luxury."
But Theodore isn't intimidated. This season, he says, he's smarter and stronger and eager to prove he's capable of living up to his potential in the NHL.
"I worked on my overall strength, like my upper body and my legs," Theodore said. "Kind of just stuff that you need to try and build up when you're playing with bigger stronger guys in the NHL. That's what I was working on, and trying to come into camp in the best shape I can."
Theodore has 19 games of NHL experience; he had three goals and five assists with Anaheim last season, which he said was enough to show him the level he needed to be able to play at consistently. But there was one game that haunted him all summer.
In his first Stanley Cup Playoff game, against the Nashville Predators, a puck went off Theodore's skate and into the net; the goal proved to be the eventual game-winner. He described it as his lowest moment as a pro, and the full realization of what's at stake in the NHL hit him.
"I was decently nervous," he said. "I was a young guy playing in the playoffs, where every moment is crucial. It was a little hard. I got a text from [Shawn] Horcoff after the game while I was sitting in my hotel room. He's been through a lot as an older guy. He sent me a message saying not to worry about it, that type of thing, and that was really good to hear."
Theodore knows there will be growing pains in the NHL, but also said he hasn't yet shown all of what he's capable of. He hopes that will come this season, when San Diego's highest-scoring defenseman last season with 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists) finds his offensive stride and is given more responsibility with the puck.
Should Theodore find himself back on that train, looking out at the ocean on his way to San Diego, he won't allow it to crush him; he'll simply have to get back to work.
"I'm very hopeful that his circumstance is one of success and I know he's motivated to do it, but his circumstance is that the Anaheim Ducks is a team that's loaded with top-end defenseman," San Diego coach Dallas Eakins said. "I think that's going to be a real interesting battle on that back end."