Maine Hockey Journal

Ducks prospects ready for NHL; Not just yet

Yesterday, while trying to nail the latest rumors and news of the day I came across a really good article done by John McGourty of NHL.com. It really opened my eyes to what the Anaheim Ducks were thinking, but it also left me scratching my head as I continue to ask myself if I’m watching the same games in Portland as the rest of the staff in Anaheim. Let’s not take anything away from John, because he’s one of the brightest guys in the game. He’s coached hockey and been around the sport for a long time and his knowledge is phenomenal. I just want to expand a little on what John is talking about. In addition, anytime the Ducks can get some positive press besides listening to latest gossip on whether Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer are retiring or Brian Burke blasting Kevin Lowe for his perceived poaching of Dustin Penner is a refreshing change on the landscape.

For the Portland Pirates, they’re getting ready to embark on what could be a very promising year with the start of their regular season a little less than two months away.

Much of that optimism comes from the Anaheim Ducks, (or should I say Stanley Cup Champions Anaheim Ducks), as they continue to draft quality players. However, a lot of the credit has to be given to Ducks Assistant GM David McNab for signing undiscovered gems such as Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz and former UMaine, Pirates and Ducks forward Dustin Penner.

With all of that said, you’ll see me standing on top of the Casco Bay Bridge waving the white flag because as much promise as the Pirates show, they’re in a precarious position before the season even starts. Much of how their season will play out depends on the actions of the Ducks over the rest of this summer.

The Ducks have brought in some positive additions in the off-season for the Pirates, bringing Andrew Ebbett, Stephen Dixon and Jason King into the fold. It’s certainly changed the core of the franchise in Portland.

The Ducks without a doubt – and John pointed this out – have done a fantastic job at drafting quality prospect. In fact, some of these players may have played their last game in a Pirates uniform.

Also in John’s article, he mentioned several players, who are ranked highly on the Ducks radar and maybe playing for a spot on the Ducks roster come September. I guess that is where I disagree and question the Ducks approach because several of the players mentioned aren’t ready for prime time just yet. We saw that last year with Ryan Shannon. After one great season in Portland, finishing second in AHL Rookie of the Year voting, he went on to have a successful training camp, however once the regular season began he struggle trying to adjust to the speed, size and skill of the NHL. That could be the same pitfall for a couple of the players who could be prompted to play in Anaheim because of their continuing cap issues.

One of those players poised to make a run at the Ducks line up is Ryan Carter, who went undrafted until McNab discovered him at the University of Minnesota-Mankato. Carter played for the Pirates last season where he scored 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points in 76 games.

“We’re very happy with him,” Murray said. “We see him in a third-line role. We put him in tough games last season and he did very well. He has a chance to play in the NHL this season. He’s a good NHL prospect.”

That’s a resounding endorsement to the type of player that Ryan Carter “can” be in the NHL. That’s unfortunately is where I differ with Murray, while I think Carter is a player bound for the NHL, I just don’t see him there yet. After watching all 80 games last season, it’s safe to venture out and say that Carter had moments of brilliant play, but he was also inconsistent with the Pirates going long stretches of time without a point as well as he looked much like what he was “a rookie in the AHL”.

He went stretches of nine games (twice) and six games without a point or even being a factor on the scoresheet. At 6-1, 200-pounds, Carter plays a physical game and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when called upon, but he’s still developing and a big question mark is raised if he can translate that to the NHL game in the regular season on a consistent basis. It’s one thing to be tossed into the fire of a Stanley Cup playoff match and doing it steadily for 82 games.

Another such player is Drew Miller, named CCHA Defensive Forward of the Year for the Michigan State Spartans. Miller is a person who needs to visit McDonalds a little more often as he’s listed at 170-pounds, but looking at him, you’d have to be convinced that he weighed more then 160 lbs with his gear on.

He likewise plays a physical game, a player willing to throw his body around, but to do that at the NHL; Miller will certainly need to bulk up in order to maintain his edge for a complete season. Last year, he played in all, but the final regular season game because he was being recalled to Anaheim. Miller scored 16 goals, 20 assists for 36 points during the season and he played on a line with Ryan Carter. Some nights they truly looked like rookies who needed to learn the game.

“Drew is very smart and he has great hockey sense,” Murray said. “He has a chance to make the Ducks next season. You can’t replace the hockey sense that he has. He just got thrown right into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and had no problems at all.”

Unfortunately, the same arguments can be made about Miller that was made about Carter. Both were ineffective and inconsistent at times during the regular season. Despite the fact that they finish near the top in Pirates scoring last season, it really isn’t an accomplishment because the Pirates weren’t very good. They were a team that looked lost for most of the year trying to find their identity after trading players such as Bruno St. Jacques, Pierre Parenteau, Curtis Glencross and Zenon Konopka. In the case of the final three players listed, they all out produced Miller and Carter.

Based on what was witnessed last year, it would be advised for those players to play at least one more year in Portland in order to develop further. Placing them in Anaheim will not only hurt that development process; it will hurt the Pirates now and the Ducks down the road.

One player who many have anticipated in Portland is Bobby Ryan. When he finished his season with Owen Sound of the OHL, he played eight games last year for the Pirates, scoring nine points (3 goals, 6 assists).

Ryan is certainly a work in progress, but based on the comments of Ducks GM Brian Burke, he may not be afforded that opportunity to allow Ryan to turn into a star player. For Ryan and Burke it may turn out to be on the job training.

At 20 years of age, Ryan is 6-1, 221-pounds and has moves that would make any goaltender cringe. The issue is he still is only 20 years old and because of an agreement with the NHL and CHL; players such as Ryan cannot play in the AHL until they turn 20 years old or their season has ended with their junior team.

From the first year he was in Portland to last year, you could see dramatic improvement in his development but he’s going to plateau because all power forwards do. That’s where he will need the guidance of a coach like Kevin Dineen to help his game develop to the next level. Dineen has on more that one occasion made reference to Ryan that he needs to learn the “junior” out of his game.

On defense I actually tend to agree with Ducks because they have so many defensemen they are willing to allow them to develop as to just tossing them to the wolves and seeing if they can survive. As for Portland, they actually look to be pretty solid on defense as they have returning to on the blueline Brian Salcido, Aaron Rome and Eric Weinrich should be back in the fold as well. The Ducks will have prospects Brett Festerling and Brendan Mikkelson, who are looking to begin their pro career in Portland.

The Ducks also have Mark Mitera, who is most likely heading back to the University of Michigan for at least one more season. When his defensive partner, Jack Johnson left school to sign with Los Angeles, it was expected that Mitera might follow, but after careful guidance from his advisor and the Ducks, it’s pretty much expected that he‘d play one more year in the NCAA.

As for the goaltenders in the system, unlike last year, the Ducks are stocked deep after drafting two in this past summer’s NHL Entry Draft. Anaheim didn’t qualify David McKee because they signed him to such a large contract they didn’t want to qualify him at the 5% which would have meant a little more then a $42,000 dollar raise on the $850,000 he was already going to make.

The Ducks have J.P. Levasseur waiting in the wings and many who have watched him are saying that he’s a true NHL goaltending prospect. Again, I disagree with John on where Levasseur will play because of other moves the Ducks have made, it’s conceivable that he will start the year in Augusta of the ECHL, playing a lot minutes while the Ducks work through their goaltending issues.

The Ducks have J.S. Giguere, who without a doubt will be the number one starter for Anaheim next year, after that it becomes a little murky and each move the Ducks make will have profound impact on the Pirates. The Ducks have Ilya Bryzgalov under contract for one more year, but Brian Burke is looking to move him. Possible suitor continues to be the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“A backup at Bryz’s salary when your starter is making $6 million makes a lot less sense than it did a year ago,” said Burke, “especially when we have some cap issues. I can confidently predict he is going to be playing somewhere else if and when we make the right deal.”

When Bryzgalov is dealt, either the Ducks will have to sign another goaltender on the cheap or he will bring up Jonas Hiller, who the Ducks signed over the summer. Hiller played last season in Europe for HC Davos and many have considered him the best goalie not playing in the NHL currently. The only issue with him playing in the NHL this season is he has no grasp of the North American game. Many goaltenders, who’ve played in Europe and North America, have told me that there is a huge difference between the two because of the size of the ice, angles are different and the play around the net is much more physical in North American then in Europe. Another fact with Hiller is his salary, he signed a one-year deal worth 3.2 million dollars and although he’s only guaranteed $850,000 should he play in Anaheim he’d most likely collect on a large portion of the salary or at least more that what Bryzgalov would have made at his 1.18 million dollars.

The Ducks also have Gerald Coleman, who is most likely slated for Portland as either the back up goaltender to Hiller or he would spilt time with Levasseur should Hiller become the back up to Giguere in Anaheim.

It will certainly be interesting to watch the Ducks – Pirates pipeline as September 10th approaches.

NOTES: The Pirates will open training camp on September 24th in Portland.
– Nathan Marsters signed a one-year deal with the Augusta Lynx of the ECHL. He will not be part of the Ducks organization, but they will be able to keep an eye on him should they be in need of a goaltender.
– The Augusta Lynx and Anaheim Ducks will announce a one-year affiliation agreement shortly.

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