The Ducks flew in formation for a two-game trip with reason to soar a little higher than usual following a win and an auspicious debut from a top prospect that provided wind beneath their wings.
They’ll face the Dallas Stars on Thursday night and then travel to the Stars’ original home, Minnesota, to take on the franchise that filled that void in the State of Hockey, the Wild, on Saturday.
Accompanying them on the journey will be defenseman Olen Zellweger, who recorded an assist in his first NHL game, a 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. That was a game in which veteran winger Jakob Silfverberg doubled his season goal total with a pair, and one Ducks coach Greg Cronin deemed “a good baptism” for Zellweger.
“He played tenacious defense and managed our zone well. He was also efficient with the puck,” Cronin said via text. “He has that lateral quickness and speed that we need.”
Zellweger, 20, was the latest duckling to integrate effectively into a group with a multitude of moving parts this season.
“The pace is a little faster, there’s a little less time out there with the puck on your stick, but overall I think guys make a lot of high-skill plays and they’re looking to hit when you’re joining the rush as a defenseman,” Zellweger said in his comparison of the NHL and American Hockey League levels.
Zellweger was one of three Ducks who captured his Canadian junior league’s award for its top defensemen, which represented a clean sweep of the three top-level leagues. He earned that honor in the Western Hockey League last year.
At the moment, with Pavel Mintyukov recovering from a separated shoulder and Tristan Luneau appearing unlikely to play for the Ducks again this season, Zellweger was the only one of the three available. The thinness of the crop of young stallions in Cronin’s stable has been even more pronounced after the Ducks dealt Jamie Drysdale to Philadelphia, where he scored his first goal as a Flyer in a 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
Zellweger built on an impressive minor pro campaign to date, his first, in which he had scored 25 points in 34 games. On Tuesday, he picked up a primary assist on the power play by threading a shot through traffic to create a rebound for hard-nosed Sam Carrick’s rebound tally.
“One of my better skills is finding that (shooting) lane, especially from the blue line. It’s something I’ve worked on and I feel a calmness looking for that lane,” Zellweger said.
Zellweger’s ability to generate speed through all three zones and break out pucks exhibit some of the same qualities the Ducks lost when they moved Drysdale for renowned forward prospect Cutter Gauthier. Gauthier will compete in this weekend’s Beanpot series as his team, Boston College, takes on archrival Boston University in a matchup of the two top-ranked college teams in the nation.
The build, stature and fearlessness of Zellweger (listed at 5-foot-10, 189 pounds) might remind fans of former Duck Sami Vatanen. Yet Zellweger’s skill level appears higher than Vatanen’s, and his power-play capabilities might ultimately exceed those of Drysdale, who has already grown a bit in that area in his short time with Philly.
Zellweger’s game is well-suited for the modern NHL. Along with Montreal Canadiens prospect Lane Hutson, he’s among the most intriguing undersized young defense prospects in the world. His pivoting and edge work complement his acceleration and velocity, while he has the puck skills to convert threats into guarantees offensively.
If Zellweger and any on-looking prospects want an exemplar to model their games after, perhaps Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen would qualify. His four-way mobility, effectiveness on zone entries and all-around dependability have made him a marvelously multifaceted tool in Coach Peter DeBoer’s kit.
Heiskanen continues to be the Stars’ engine on the back end but they’ve enriched their forward depth. Arcadia native Jason Robertson still paces the team offensively, but the addition of veteran Matt Duchene as well as the emergence of Wyatt Johnson and Mason Marchment have balanced their once top-heavy forward group.
DUCKS AT STARS
When: Thursday, 5 p.m. PT
Where: American Airlines Arena, Dallas
TV: Bally Sports SoCal