Can Cam Fowler avoid the sophomore slump?

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Having a great rookie season is a great accomplishment for any player in the NHL. After constant years of hard work, making the NHL and succeeding is a dream come true for any person who’s ever laced up a pair of hockey skates. Players will put in countless hours while they’re relentlessly chasing their dream—the closer they get to the brass ring, the harder they’ll work to make it.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when players take a step back in their second season in the league. Its goes by many different names: sophomore slump, sophomore jinx, Jim Carey, whatever. Many time’s it’s just a bit of complacency in an ultra-competitive game where thousands of players are fighting for a precious few spots on NHL rosters.

He was one of only five players to make the jump straight from the draft to the NHL last season and was the only defenseman to make the transition. He certainly didn’t disappoint. It may have flown under the national radar, but his 40 points as an 18-year-old rookie put him in the company of guys named Housley, Stevens, Bourque, Murphy, Berard, Myers, and Niedermayer. Not bad company for a guy who dropped like a rock at the 2010 Entry Draft.

The next step for Fowler to develop into a complete, two-way defenseman. “[I’m just] trying to develop into that top-tier defenseman,” the Fowler shared. “I want to be a guy that a team can build around. It seems like every premier team in the league has those one or two d-men that just stick out and play a lot of minutes and log a lot of ice-time out there. That’s something I want to do—I want to be able to play in all situations and just complete my game overall.”

That doesn’t sound like the kind of player who is content with his 40-point rookie season. Becoming a two-way defenseman will be imperative for the Ducks as they deal with injury problems on the blueline and look for players who can add a strong defensive game. He’s already getting more time on the penalty kill this season as Toni Lydman continues to recover from an injury that kept him out of the first two games in Europe.

Still, Fowler is a defenseman who has the potential to be an elite blueliner with his puck skills, on ice vision, and smooth skating ability. He hasn’t lost track of his bread-and-butter. His ability to jump into the play as a defenseman is something that that separates him from most other d-men.

“The coaching staff preached to me last year that that’s what they wanted me to do.” Fowler said. “Whether it was joining up in the play late to make it a 3-on-2 or whatever it may be, I think that’s an element of my game—that when I’m skating is when I’m at my best. The coaching staff, there are no reins on me or anything. Its go. They trust me when to make those reads, when to jump and when not to jump.”

Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said the main difference between the beginning of last year and this year is confidence. Although even with the added confidence, the coaching staff didn’t think he had the best training camp—but it was different story once training camp ended and the games started in Europe.

“It’s all about his ability to get around the rink and read situations.” Carlyle said. “If the two games [in Europe] were any indication, we have Cam Fowler back.”

The coaching staff aren’t the only ones who see a difference in Fowler this year. Fellow 2010 draft pick Devante Smith-Pelly, who is fighting to stick with the team this year, says the difference has been night and day.

“It’s crazy what a year did to Cam,” Smith-Pelly said. “He’s a lot more mature, you can tell. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s faster. He was obviously a great player coming into this team and no seeing him for a year and then coming back and seeing him every day, you can tell he’s gotten a lot better and a lot more mature.”

It’ll be critical for Fowler to use his maturity and have it translate to his play on the ice. If the team can depend on him for 25 minutes per game, it’ll ease the workload for bottom-pairing guys, and allow guys like Toni Lydman and Lubomir Visnovsky a breather every so often. Still, Carlyle is quick to make the distinction between an increased workload and increased pressure this season.

“I don’t want to put the pressure,” Carlyle said. “I don’t mind the workload, but it’s the pressure of having to accomplish more than he did last year. We would accept a young 19-year-old defenseman to accomplish what he did last year. If he was to come in and have 10 goals and 40 points, would we accept that as a good year? I would say yes. Our expectations are not for him to go to 20 goals and 60 points right off the bat. That’s not the pressure we’re putting on him. If he does it, that would be great. But we’re not going to put that kind of pressure on him or any of our younger players. We think that’s incorrect. We think its tough enough to play defense in the league as a 19-year-old. He did it as an 18-year-old. Sometimes those ‘sophomore jinxes’ do come into play, we don’t want to look at that as a possibility. [We want him to] just go out and play, give us your best, your best that you gave us last year was good enough.”

There won’t be any whispers of a sophomore slump if Fowler can pick up where he left off last season. Judging by his attitude at the beginning of the season and his willingness to improve upon his overall game, last season looks like it’s only a hint of the vast potential Fowler can bring to the Ducks.

The rest of the league should be afraid.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.