Sunday, June 1
June 2, 2:49 PM ET
Ducks defensemen no longer unnoticed
By Lindsay Berra
ESPN The Magazine
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- They say offense wins games, but defense wins championships -- that's probably why nobody ever considered the Ducks a contender.
In Southern California, where the NHL spotlight rarely shines during the regular season and games are played hours after the average hockey fan has called it a night, the defense the Ducks have built over the past 10 seasons has worked in relative anonymity.
Well, not anymore.
In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Ducks have shut down the two top ranked teams in the West -- the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars -- and beat the defensively astute Minnesota Wild at their own game, limiting them to just one goal in Western Conference finals. Granted, they do have Jean-Sebastien Giguere. But while a goalie can steal an occasional game for his team, he's only as good as what is in front of him. And since Christmas, when the Ducks started the charge that would land them in the playoffs for the first time since 2000, the Ducks' backline has been ruling the Pond. Here's a look at why:
There's no doubt about it, this is Keith Carney's show. He's big, he's mobile, he's smart, he's never out of position (OK, hardly ever) and he kills penalties with a vengeance. He's played in the Olympics, the World Cup and the playoffs, and is the voice of experience on the backline. He's the guy Ducks coach Mike Babcock counts on to put the quash on other teams' stars -- just ask Mike Modano, Sergei Fedorov and Marian Gaborik -- and the guy that the rest of the Ducks defense looks to for guidance. "It's poise," said Babcock. "Carney is our glue. When he plays with poise, it settles everyone down and we make good decisions." But, the best decision by far was the one made in June of 2001, when the Ducks acquired the 6-foot-1, 217-pound Carney from Phoenix for just a second-round pick. In the playoffs, he's averaged over 27 minutes per game.
Can you say underrated? Havelid was drafted by the Ducks in the third round of the 1999 draft and is in just his fourth season in the NHL. It is commonly accepted that defensemen take at least five years to fully mature, so by that yardstick, Havelid should just be hitting stride, if you don't count the full year he had to spend rehabbing a fully torn ACL and partially torn MCL. But he was 100 percent for this season, and it showed. He averaged over 22 minutes a game and finished the year at a plus-5 with 33 points. "Nicky played phenomenally all year," said Anaheim assistant coach Lorne Henning. "He's very well-rounded, very smart defensively and offensively. He's in the right position all the time, and he has great hockey sense."
When talking about Ozolinsh, somehow the phrase "risk vs. reward" always works its way into the conversation. He is a defenseman that spends the minimum amount of time necessary on defense, and if a team's defensive system isn't designed to allow for such wanderings, he often leaves his teammates high and dry and on the sour end of an odd-man rush. "Ozo" wore out his welcome in San Jose, Colorado (where he won a Cup in 1996), Carolina and Florida before Bryan Murray brought him to Anaheim over the 2003 All-Star break. "Sandis walked into a situation that was good for him. We needed exactly what he could give us," said Ducks assistant general manager David McNab. "We needed a high-end, offensively skilled guy. He wasn't expected to kill penalties, and Mike (Babcock) doesn't put him in situations where he's going to make a mistake defensively." Also, Ozolinsh's ice time has been cut down dramatically since his time in Florida. He's down to around 23 minutes a game, and his defensive game has improved because of it. Ozo is big (6-3, 215) and mobile. And now, he seems to have found a system that loves him for it.
The Ducks picked Salei in the first round of the 1996 draft and waited for him to mature. They knew they'd made the right choice after watching Salei and the rest of the team from Belarus shut down Mats Sundin and the Swedes in the 2002 Olympics. Now, "Rusty" is paying the Ducks back for their patience. He scored the OT game-winner in Game 3 of the Cup finals simply because he did exactly what he was supposed to do -- when Adam Oates won the offensive-zone faceoff back to the point, Salei blasted a shot on net, and bingo, game over. But don't count on that happening too often -- Salei has just 21 goals in his NHL career. He's more of a penalty minutes kind of guy (511 in 434 regular-season games). "Rusty is a great skater, he moves puck well, he can jump into the play and plays great defense, and he plays with a bit of bite in his game," said Henning. At 6-0, 207, Salei is built like a tank, and he's not afraid to throw his body around. That makes him the perfect role model for the Ducks' blossoming bruiser, Vitaly Vishnevski.
The Ducks took Vishnevski fifth overall in the 1998 draft, then watched their new acquisition lead the Russians to the gold medal in the World Junior Championship in 1999. "Vish" was named the best defensman in the tournament. He played his first game in the NHL in the 1999-2000 season and quickly garnered a reputation for crushing body checks. "Forwards around the league know who Vish is and they keep their heads up when he's out there," said Henning. "Vish does a great job of stepping up in the neutral zone." Vishnevski is big (6-2, 205) and mean, but he's young (23) and doesn't play that many minutes (about 14 per game). But he adds a healthy dose of growl to a crew of D-men that, with the exception of Salei, mostly purrs.
Mike Babcock coached Sauer when he was playing for the Spokane Chiefs in the Western Hockey League, and he made it clear that he'd like to have the kid around. When the Avalanche decided to pass on signing Sauer, the Ducks snatched him up. He is just 22 years old, but his teammates joke that he acts more like he's 35. "He's big and strong (6-3, 219), he has great hockey sense and positioning, he moves the puck well, he's smart and has great skating ability," said Henning. "And he's very mature." But, Sauer doesn't think of himself as a great player. At least not yet. He's quiet, respectful, and eager to learn. He watches Carney on every shift, trying to pick up defensive tricks to shrink the ice on the penalty kill or close off passing seams with a well-placed stick or break up the two-on one with perfect body position. His efforts have paid off -- he's averaging over 20 minutes a game in the playoffs as a rookie and is a plus-4. And he will only get better.
Lindsay Berra of ESPN The Magazine can be e-mailed at email@example.com.