With the preseason injury to Sheldon Souray, ACL rehab of Francois Beauchemin, and retirement of Toni Lydman, Sami Vatanen had an opportunity to assert himself in camp and seize one of the blue-line positions for the 2013-2014 season. Though the young Finnish blue-liner had only played in eight games at the NHL level, he had shined in his first year in North America, scoring 45 points for AHL Norfolk and earning First All-Star Team and All-Rookie Team honors in the AHL.
The season started well for Vatanen, who made the team out of camp and played regular minutes with Bryan Allen on the third pairing. However, with the emergence of Hampus Lindholm as a regular, the Ducks suddenly only had eight blue-liners with six regular spots. The Ducks also acquired veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline, adding a ninth player to the blue-line mix. Vatanen, with his two-way contract, was made expendable, and he was often a healthy scratch or down in Norfolk again this season.
Though he only played 48 games for Anaheim this season, Vatanen made an impact on the team. The youngster scored six goals, which was tied with Cam Fowler and Lindholm for the most from any Ducks’ blue-liner. He set career highs across the stat sheet in goals, assists, points, +/-, and time on ice per game. Vatanen also made Team Finland, where he really made a statement with his skills, leading Team Finland in ice time.
Vatanen didn’t start the postseason with any ice time: he was made a healthy scratch for Games 1 and 2 before being optioned back to AHL Norfolk. However, with the team struggling to escape their own zone and lacking speed in general on the blue-line, Vatanen was finally called up for Game 3 against the Los Angeles Kings and made an immediate difference, helping the Ducks turn around from a 2-0 series deficit and put the team right back in the series. As a restricted free agent, Vatanen recently signed a two year bridge deal worth $2.525 million total.
Vatanen is an electric player who adds a dynamic to the Ducks’ blue-line, but there are still areas of his game that he can improve on to help the team. With the departure of Robidas, uncertain future of Souray, and trade of Luca Sbisa, Vatanen is once again in a position to assert himself as a mainstay at the NHL level. The next few pages detail what the Finn brings to the Ducks and what areas he needs to improve as a player.