At 5’10 183 pounds, Sami Vatanen is far from a physically menacing figure on the ice. However, what Vatanen lacks in size he makes up for in talent, imagination, and determination. You could say that Vatanen’s skill set is equivalent to that of a first round draft pick. A playmaking defensemen who can skate, pass, and possesses a rocket shot from the point; a skill set that is the coveted by all NHL organizations.
In 2009, Vatanen was drafted in the fourth round of the NHL entry draft by the Anaheim Ducks. Labeled by many insiders as an offensive talent who is well undersized for NHL standards, Vatanen has proven his potential as an offensive threat so far.
In his first year in North America (2012-2103) Vatanen scored 9 goals and had a team leading 36 assists (45 points overall) in just 62 games for the Ducks’ AHL affiliate the Norfolk Admirals. Last February Vatanen was second in assists during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. His 5 total assists (one behind leader James Van Reimsdyk) helped lead Finland to a bronze medal along with the play from his recently retired Anaheim Ducks teammate Teemu Selanne.
Last year Vatanen played in 48 games with the Anaheim Ducks (most in his NHL career.) In those 48 games Vatanen was able to put up 6 goals/15 assists for 21 points scored and a +9 plus/minus. That put him third on the team behind Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm in total points scored for defenseman and tied for first with both Fowler and Lindholm for goals scored by defensemen. The crazy thing is Vatanen played in almost 30 less games than both Fowler and Lindholm.
Despite his offensive success Vatanen’s role on the team was uncertain at times as he was used as a 6/7th defenseman option for the team. Going into this season, Vatanen is in the same position, fighting for playing time with defenseman Mark Fistric and Bryan Allen.
Being out of position defensively and poor decision making is where Vatanen has gotten a bad rap with the club. In watching almost every Ducks’ game last year I noticed a few things about Vatanen’s play. The first is that he is not afraid to take the body and play physically, no matter who he is up against. Hardly did I see Vatanen get thrown around or look out of place physically.
Second, I noticed that the Ducks were a quicker team up and down the ice with Vatanen in the lineup. One of Vatanen’s strengths is his ability to get puck out of the defensive zone and up the ice to a forward, whether he skates it out or makes a quick first pass. In my opinion the Ducks had a tougher time towards the end of the year getting the puck out of the defensive zone, without Sami in the lineup.
Third, although Vatanen did make the occasional bad pass and turn the puck over, his offensive ability and hard shot from the point gave the Ducks more of a scoring threat on the power play. Vatanen had 2 goals and five assists for a total of 7 power play points.
Lastly, I went back and checked the Ducks record with Vatanen in the lineup vs. without. The Ducks’ record with Vatanen in the lineup was an outstanding 36-9-3, compared to an 18-11-5 record without him.
It’s no coincidence that the Ducks’ play is overall better with Vatanen in the lineup on a daily basis. His stats and the team’s success make the case for him to be an everyday starting defenseman moving forward. The sky is the limit as far as his potential goes, playing time and maturity will determine how high Vatanen will ascend. The upcoming 2014-2015 NHL season will be a good indicator as to which direction Vatanen’s career goes with the Anaheim Ducks.
Feel free to comment with your opinion.