Each day heading into their season openers Friday in Europe, ESPNLosAngeles has taken a closer look at the Ducks and Kings. What are their strengths, their weaknesses? Which defensemen has the most to prove, and which will continue to shine? We put the Ducks back under the microscope one last time and attempt to answer a few key questions regarding their defense.
Defenseman with the most to prove this season? All was dandy during the first stint in Anaheim for Francois Beauchemin. He helped the Ducks win the Stanley Cup title in his second season and shined while playing alongside future Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer. Beauchemin moved on to the Toronto Maple Leafs following the 2008-09 season and then was returned to Anaheim at last February’s trade deadline. He clearly was not the same player. Beauchemin continued to chew up minutes but wasn’t nearly as sharp with his decision making or puck-moving skills, and the Ducks paid the price on several occasions. Entering the final season of a three-year deal that will pay him $3.65 million, it’s time to put up or pack your bags for the 31-year-old Beauchemin, who could be gone as early as this season's trade deadline if he doesn’t show some resemblance of his former self.
Defenseman with the least to prove? Though he’s four years older than Beauchemin, fellow blue-liner Lubomir Visnovsky showed no signs of slowing down last season. In fact, he had the best run of his 10-year career, setting a franchise record for goals by a defenseman with 18. He also led all NHL defensemen with 50 assists and was a career-high plus-18 on the ice. The power-play specialist led the team in on-ice minutes and even became the first Ducks defensemen in franchise history to record a hat trick. As you might expect, Visnovsky received plenty of votes for Norris Trophy consideration. After qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since he was a member of the Kings in 2002, look for Visnovsky to put the power play back on his shoulders and attempt to lift the Ducks into the postseason for a second consecutive year.
Defenseman who will prove something anyway? The Ducks knew they got a steal from the moment they drafted Cam Fowler No. 12 overall in 2010, but they probably didn’t realize they were committing grand theft. Except for a broken nose that sidelined him for six games early last season, the 19-year-old Fowler played significant minutes the rest of the way, finishing with 10 goals and 30 assists, a franchise record by a rookie. Still two months shy of his 20th birthday, the sky seems the limit for Fowler. He looked smooth and strong on the offensive end during the preseason, totaling two goals and three assists. The one area Fowler still needs to show significant improvement is his plus-minus rating. He was a team-low minus-25 last season, which was also last among all 214 rookies in the league. Despite his success on the offensive end during the preseason, he was still a minus-4. If he can continue following in Niedermayer's footsteps and improve his play on the defensive end, look for him to be on the Norris Trophy watch-list sooner than later.
Biggest question on defense this season? Part of this question was already answered in the preseason, when goalkeeper Jonas Hiller looked rock solid while stopping 68 of 71 shots in his three exhibition appearances. It has been well documented that Hiller missed most of the second half of last season with vertigo-like symptoms, which was enough to derail a deep run into the playoffs by the Ducks. Anyone who has a stake in the team this season is crossing their fingers the symptoms won’t creep back once he’s back to full-time duty.