Early in the season, the Ducks’ visit to Minnesota to confront the Wild on Saturday might have been billed as a showcase of stellar young defensemen, most of whom were on the Ducks’ side of the lineup sheet.
But as fate would have it, the most prominent (and perhaps the only) young blue liner’s number circled on a whiteboard will be that of Minnesota’s Brock Faber.
He has emerged as a short-odds contender for the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year, with the second-best shot at the award on most sportsbooks’ ledgers behind wunderkind and 2023 top overall pick Connor Bedard. Faber, local fans might recall, was a prospect in the Kings’ system before he and a first-round draft pick were traded to Minnesota in exchange for dynamic winger Kevin Fiala.
The Ducks, who lost to the Dallas Stars, 4-3 in overtime, on Thursday night, are without their most promising rookie defenders, Pavel Mintyukov and Tristan Luneau, due to injuries. They traded the more established Jamie Drysdale to Philadelphia earlier this month. They will have Olen Zellweger in their midst, however, and Jackson LaCombe, who skated with Faber at the University of Minnesota through last season.
LaCombe ran the Golden Gophers’ power play, but he has hit rough seas on his maiden voyage, while Faber has found new levels to his offense in the NHL.
“That started with [now former Wild coach] Dean Evason and his staff, they identified power-play potential in him and carved out an offensive role, and it’s translated, he’s having a hell of a year,” Ducks coach Greg Cronin said via phone.
Faber has racked up 29 points, 11 on the power play, while placing in the top 10 in minutes per game league-wide as a rookie. That’s the sort of excellence the Ducks hope to be getting from Mintyukov and Luneau in their first complete seasons, and have seen in glimpses earlier this season.
Presently, Zellweger is up with the club, whose immediate contributions Cronin called a “pleasant surprise,” praising his assertiveness, tempo and ability to create scoring opportunities. Zellweger held his own against a heavy, deep and skilled Dallas club and had notched a point in his NHL debut against Buffalo.
In the Dallas game, veteran Jakob Silfverberg’s hands stayed hot, producing his second straight multipoint effort. He had three goals and an assist against Dallas and Buffalo combined after compiling just eight points in 45 prior appearances. He and another veteran forward, Adam Henrique, had “stepped up” of late, Cronin opined via phone.
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Yet Cronin also pointed out postgame Thursday that one could count on one hand the number of times the Ducks have had the same lineup from game to game, with injuries creating a near-total lack of continuity. Against Dallas, veteran goalie John Gibson and some timely scoring might have stolen a point in a game that saw the Ducks absorb heavy fire and struggle territorially for significant stretches.
“Analytically, you chop it up any way you want, they deserved to win the game,” said Cronin, who has seldom if ever shied away from an honest evaluation.
In Minnesota, they’ll face not only Faber but also prolific winger Kirill Kaprizov and imposing center Joel Eriksson Ek. Mats Zuccarello and Matt Boldy have been staples of secondary scoring, and have been joined by former lottery pick Marco Rossi in his first full NHL campaign.
DUCKS AT WILD
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. PT
Where: Xcel Energy Center, Saint Paul, Minn.
TV: Bally Sports West