On the eve of their biggest game of the season so far, the Ducks have announced that Cam Fowler, their best defenseman all season long, will be sidelined for the next 3 to 5 weeks with a sprained left MCL. Coming into this season it was unclear if Fowler would be able to take the next step and become a top pairing defenseman for the Ducks, and he has answered that with a resounding yes. With him missing for what is pretty much the rest of the regular season, the Ducks are going to have to turn to the rest of the defense, including new addition Stephane Robidas, to try and come together and make up for Fowler being out for an extended period of time. It was also announced that center Nick Bonino did not accompany the team to San Jose and it is unclear how much time he will miss.
This season, Cam Fowler has averaged 23:54 minutes and 29.3 shifts per game, both of which lead the Ducks. He is tied among for 1st among Ducks defenseman with 6 goals, and leads all Anaheim blueliners with 30 assists and 36 points. And for the 1st time in his career he is a + player with a rating of +15. He's done all this in 67 games, and had played in every Ducks game until the 2-1 victory over Los Angeles a few days ago. Not only has he contributed offensively, but his defensive game has never been better, forming a damn good shut down duo with Ben Lovejoy. No one player will be able to fill Fowler's roll all by himself, it's going to have to be done by committee. Here's a breakdown of the how the Ducks blueline currently looks and what to expect going forward, possibly for the rest of the regular season into the 1st round of the playoffs.
The player that the Ducks are going to lean most heavily on is Francois Beauchemin. He was a rock on defense last season, and while he hasn't been as good this season because of injuries, he can still be the Ducks most reliable blueliner and minute eater. Against Colorado, in the game in which Fowler was injured he played over 28 minutes to lead the team. No other defenseman played over 20 minutes, although both forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf did. Against Los Angeles Beauchemin played over 27 minutes. With Fowler out, he is going to take on a lot of those hard minutes, especially against other teams top lines and while the Ducks are shorthanded.
The player who may benefit the most from Fowler's injury, and who has looked much better in the last couple of games, is Luca Sbisa. Sbisa's season has been one of constant injury. It seems like every time he has gotten healthy and made it back to the lineup he has just gotten injured again. As a result, of the Ducks 69 games this season, he has only played in 21 of them. And because of his lack of playing time he has looked very tentative on the ice and has not been very good. But in the last few games he has seen his ice time increase and has been paired with Beauchemin and has responded well. While his game is far from perfect, he is making good decisions with the puck and is shooting the puck very well and has even picked up 2 assists in his last 4 games.
The Ducks newest addition Stephane Robidas has only played in 1 game for the Ducks, and it could best be described as decent. He was on the ice for 1 goal against, that was partially on him and took a big hit during the game. He played 13:32 minutes in his Ducks debut and didn't register a shot on goal. He was primarily paired with Brian Allen. For his 1st game, I didn't expect much from him and that's what was delivered. He hadn't played in over 40 games, so it's going to take some time to adjust to the speed of the game and to his new teammates. He is starting out on the 3rd pairing, but I'm hoping that his play will improve enough where he can force his way into the top 4. But that is entirely dependent on how well he plays and adjust to the Ducks. It could take a while, maybe even not until the playoffs, but I'm hopeful that Robidas becomes a force on this team.
Rookie defenseman Hampus Lindholm has been a revelation all season for the Ducks. He has primarily been paired with Beauchemin, but has also seen time alongside Allen and Fistric. Since Fowler's injury he has been slotted into Fowler's old spot alongside Lovejoy. He has also taken the spot on the point on the Ducks #1 powerplay unit. He's been great all season, but I'm not conviced that he is ready to handle the duties of leading the Ducks #1 unit. I like him on the Ducks #2 unit, often paired with Beaucemin, but in his limited time on the #1 unit he hasn't inspired a ton of confidence in me (then again, the rest of the team hasn't either). With Fowler out, he is the most offensively gifted defender on this team and his 26 points are 2nd on the team, 10 ahead of 3rd place Lovejoy. Lindholm is young and not quite ready to be the teams offensive leader from the blueline, but it's a burden that he's going to have to bear with Fowler out. And he is going to get his chances, in the last game against Washington he played a career high 24:22 and had 2 assists. He is going to have to play even better during the stretch run with Fowler on the shelf.
Ben Lovejoy has found himself on the top shut down pairing with Fowler for most of the season. With his partner injured, Lovejoy is currently paired with Lindholm, but it's hard to say where he is going to end up on Anaheim's depth chart as the season finishes up. I would expect him to play in most, if not every game, but sometimes it will quite possibly on the 3rd pairing as the Ducks try to figure out the correct defensive pairings going into the post season.
The 2 final defensemen on the Ducks are Bryan Allen and Mark Fistric. They have both been on the 3rd pairing for most of the season, and have at times rotated between being the healthy scratch. I expect both of them to play a similar down the stretch as they have all season, playing reliable hockey when called upon and laying out the big hit on opposing forwards.
The final defenseman who may get playing time in Fowler's absence is Sami Vatanen. He's been back and forth between Anaheim and Norfolk all season and is currently injured. However, when he is healthy he may get playing time with the Ducks. He has 6 goals on the season, tied for 1st with Fowler among Ducks defenseman, and has only played in 41 games. He has a great shot and I feel is more qualified to run a powerplay than Lindholm is. The real issue for him is who would he replace on the Ducks blueline? Certainly not Beauchemin, Lindholm or Lovejoy. Sbisa has been playing much better and Robidas needs playing time to acclimate himself with the rest of the team. That means taking either Fistric or Allen's spot, but I'd rather have one of those bruisers on the Ducks back end for the stretch drive. That being said, if he were to take their spot for some games, or if the Ducks went with 7 defenseman and had Vatanen in that spot to help run the powerplay, I'd be fine with that.
With Bonino out for at least 1 game (unless he joins the team in San Jose tomorrow), the Ducks can move either Daniel Winnik or Jakob Silfverberg to center. Of the 2, I think Winnik is the better option, he has played that position more often and is better defensively and in the faceoff circle, 2 key attributes when facing the powerhouse Sharks. The Ducks could also recall center Rickard Rakell from Norfolk and give one of their young players a shot. Also, if they elect to move Winnik or Silfverberg to the center, they could recall wingers Emerson Etem or Devante Smith-Pelly. Personally, I feel that the best course of action is either to move Winnik to center and call Etem up, or call Rakell up and have him center the 4th line. There isn't a perfect option with Bonino out, but I feel either of those moves will help the team against the Sharks.
Losing their #1 defenseman and their #2 center before the biggest game of the season could be a real blow to the Ducks. But this is a team that has dealt with adversity all season long and used it to come together and be one of the best teams in the league. Hopefully they can come together and put together a good effort at the Shark Tank. It's a 4 point game and the winner will have control of the Pacific with about a dozen games left in the regular season.