In a start that must rate as a worst-case scenario, the Anaheim Ducks
at least have one positive in 18-year-old defenseman Cam Fowler
In opening their season on a three-game road trip, the Ducks are 0-3, have been outscored 13-2 and in their opener lost veteran defenseman Andy Sutton
, a free-agent signing Anaheim had slotted to play on its top pair with Lubomir Visnovsky
. Sutton suffered a fractured thumb as a result of a fight with Detroit's Ruslan Salei
and could be out 4-6 weeks, forcing the Ducks to sign Andreas Lilja
-- last seen in training camp with the Sharks on a tryout deal -- in the last few days.
Amid all of that chaos, Fowler, the 12th pick at the 2010 Entry Draft, ranks second on the Ducks in time on ice per game at 22:50 and posted an even rating in his first two games before going minus-2 in Monday’s 5-1 loss at St. Louis -- a fairly impressive feat, considering the Ducks own a minus-11 goal differential and Visnovsky himself is minus-5.
Fowler, who was raised in suburban Detroit, got to open his season before friends and family at Joe Louis Arena against the Red Wings, and Ducks coach Randy Carlyle
thought Fowler demonstrated he belonged.
"We liked what Cam Fowler
and (Paul) Mara did last night," Carlyle said the morning after the 4-0 loss. "We thought they were one of our best pairings last night."
And it seems that thinking has continued. On Monday, Fowler led the Ducks in time on ice at 25:22. None of this is a surprise to Windsor Spitfires coach Bob Jones
, who served as an assistant last season on the team when Fowler played his lone season of junior hockey after coming out of the U.S. National Team Development program in nearby Ann Arbor, Mich.
"The game has changed so much to a skating and passing game," Jones said of the NHL, "and if Cam has two strengths, that's what they are. He skates as well as NHLers and passes as well as NHLers."
If there's anything that the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Fowler will need to improve, Jones said, it's his strength and understanding of the Ducks' system. Off to such a promising personal start, it's possible Fowler could make some of those 11 teams who passed on him in the draft regret it. He was, after all, expected by many to be a top-five pick. NHL Central Scouting ranked him as the No. 5 North American skater in its final rating.
Carlyle said one of his main objectives in helping Fowler develop is to try not to put the defenseman in situations he cannot handle, such as penalty-killing against other team's top units. Against Detroit, Fowler said he mostly played against the Red Wings' third and fourth lines. Still, Detroit has such great skill and depth that that counts as a test for almost any player.
"With the Detroit team, their third and fourth lines are still pretty skilled, I think," Fowler said. "I was out there against (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg a little bit, too, but, coach, he's obviously trying to get the matchups going and I was able to play against the Sedins a little bit in the preseason, so it's good to play against those caliber of players."
Fowler has been able to make the jump to the NHL to play the most demanding position on the ice for a variety of reasons. Among them are rules changes that allow less obstruction and holding and put more of an emphasis on skating and passing. He also has followed a recent trend set by the likes of, among others, 2010 Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty
of Los Angeles and Atlanta's Zach Bogosian
, both of whom are 20 and are entering their third seasons.
Fowler also has benefitted from coaching. Last season his coach was Bob Boughner, a savvy NHL veteran of 630 games who moved on to become an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets
after winning two straight Memorial Cups. In Anaheim he is playing under Carlyle, who coached his team to a Stanley Cup and also won a Norris Trophy as a player.
"Oh, it's great, he's definitely got a lot of knowledge about the game," Fowler said of Carlyle. "He's just kind of an old-school guy who expects hard work. He's a good mentor for us young 'D' and helps out a lot."
About the only silver lining to getting drafted lower than expected -- along, perhaps, with the opportunity he is getting -- is that on draft day Fowler got to meet Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer
, the player whom Fowler has called a role model and says he has tried to pattern his game after.
"The game has changed so much to a skating and passing game and if Cam has two strengths, that's what they are. He skates as well as NHLers and passes as well as NHLers." -- Windsor Spitfires coach Bob Jones
Niedermayer has since retired and the Ducks are hurting without him. But at least they have a promising young defenseman in the wings.
"With Cam Fowler
, you just look at him and you say, 'Hey, the kid's got some tools,'" Carlyle said. "He has a fairly extensive confidence level, and I think you just let him play. We're going to try to protect him as we don't put him out in a lot of the penalty-killing situations. We give him second power-play units but ... when you see him skate the puck and move the puck effectively as he did (against Detroit) in a pretty high-paced game, then that's one of your bright spots.
"He was not overwhelmed by anything that happened out there ... and we expect him to continue to grow as he gets more comfortable, and he should become that much better of a player."