Injuries Force Ducks to Rethink Defense Pairings


October 26, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski (8) is hit by Anaheim Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy (6) during the third period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries have heavily plagued the Anaheim Ducks in this young season. The Ducks started the season without forwards Dany Heatley, Kyle Palmieri, and defenseman Bryan Allen. This week, things took a turn for the worse in Orange County.

On Sunday, against the rival San Jose Sharks, defenseman Ben Lovejoy fractured his finger while beating the tar out of Sharks’ assistant captain Joe Pavelski in one of several bouts between the rival clubs during a very chippy affair. The news of Lovejoy’s injury added injury to insult. As the Ducks suffered a 4-1 loss, we learned that Lovejoy would miss the next 6-8 weeks of action as a result of his injury.

In the absence of his top pairing defenseman, Bruce Boudreau was forced to redesign his defense on Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks. He started Clayton Stoner on the top pairing alongside Cam Fowler, forcing Stoner to play on his off-side. The second pairing of Hampus Lindholm and Francois Beauchemin remained untouched, and Mark Fistric skated alongside Sami Vatanen.

The impromptu pairings held strong, and the defense was able to keep the Blackhawks off the board, though much of the credit goes to an outstanding performance from rookie netminder John Gibson, who garnered a 38-save shutout victory.

Boudreau iced the same pairings on Thursday against the St. Louis Blues, but early on defenseman Mark Fistric suffered an upper-body injury on a seemingly innocent collision with Alexander Steen. The injury, which occurred in the first period forced the Ducks to play with only five defensemen for the rest of the evening during the 2-0 loss. 

With Fistric questionable for Friday’s game against Dallas, and Bryan Allen still at least another week away from returning to action, Bruce Boudreau called on rookie Josh Manson to complete the lineup. Manson was recalled from AHL-Norfolk on Monday following Lovejoy’s injury, but it was not clear if he would see time in the NHL or not.

Manson, son of legendary NHL enforcer Dave Manson was a 6th round (160th overall) selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Manson went on to play college hockey at Northeastern University, where he assembled 21 points (6g-15a) and 158 PIMS in 99 games. After signing with Anaheim, he played nine regular season games in Norfolk, where he collected a goal and 26 PIMS, and held a +1 rating.

With Manson in the lineup, Boudreau again adjusted the defensive pairings Friday night against the Stars. Much to the delight of followers of advanced statistics (such as myself), Sami Vatanen started alongside Cam Fowler on the top pairing. Manson joined Clayton Stoner on the third pairing.

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The Fowler/Vatanen pairing was everything that Ducks fans could have hoped for. The pairing dominated possession. Vatanen posted a 58.82% CF% (+15.97% Rel) on the evening, while Fowler garnered a 55.56% CF% (+9.84% Rel). The pairing passed the eye test as well, and seemed to have good chemistry throughout the evening.

The Stoner/Manson pairing also performed well. While not dominating possession as thoroughly as the top pairing, the bottom pairing was strong defensively. Josh Manson nearly garnered his first NHL goal, if it were not for goalie interference on the part of Tim Jackman.

If there’s a silver lining to all the injuries on the blue line, it’s that Coach Boudreau will get the opportunity to get to know his defense a little better.

Personally, I feel that Fowler and Vatanen should spend more time with each other. Vatanen’s excellent play has earned him more ice time, and his playing style along with Fowler has the potential to be dominant. When Ben Lovejoy returns, he could jump on the second or third defensive pairing against easier competition.