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February 15, 2017 | 10:20am ET
Battle for the Blue Line
By Hannah Spraker

ANAHEIM, CA -- Welcome to Anaheim, home to the happiest place on earth, some great craft beer and a plethora of young defenseman on the Ducks' blue line.

The trade deadline is creeping up and it is no secret there are a handful of teams in desperate need of adding to their defensive corps, and Anaheim is the prime suspect for trade bait when it comes to young defensemen.

So what's the battle? Well, teams want these young guys, and these young guys also want to prove their keep; an internal and external battle for Ducks GM Bob Murray.

"The phone has started to ring, not specifically about the young defensemen but more about teams preparing for the deadline," said Murray, who recently returned from Europe on a scouting trip.

"Any young player deal would be a hockey deal, not a rental."

Keep in mind the Ducks are a budget team and are up against the salary cap.

Prove Your Keep

As any athlete knows, this is a phrase uttered over and over by coaches. One I have heard many times myself in my years as a competitive athlete. You have to play to the caliber of the spot you want and think you deserve and it is never set in stone.

You want to be first string QB? You have to prove that every game. You want to be a top pairing on the blue line? You have to prove that night after night (and when you're paid the big bucks, you are expected to go above and beyond that).

So who has proven their keep in Anaheim? Who is trade bait, and who is locked in?

Cam Fowler

Rewind a few months to the very beginning of the season? Whose name was all over the league as the biggest trade bait? Cam Fowler.

In October, if you would have told me that Fowler would still be on this team by March, I would have laughed.

Hampus Lindholm was an unsigned RFA at the time and he was seen as Anaheim's top D-man. They needed the money to re-sign the young Swedes -- Rickard Rakell and Lindholm (or Timon and Pumba -- as they like to refer to themselves).

Murray worked his magic and through LTIR and negotiations, he made it happen. He re-signed the Swedes and managed to keep Fowler. So then what?

Well, then everyone expected that Fowler would still be shipped out by March, BUT Murray said explicitly at the time:

"I wanted to give this group another shot, and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep it that way.''

Fowler has been on the stand for years now, defending his place, and that was the verdict on the Fowler trial. He was staying.

So then what? Management affirms their confidence in the 25-year-old defenseman. He had been given top minutes, and he needed to back up everyone's faith in him. Thirty points in 57 games, and surpassing his career high in goals (11). Fowler typically has the most ice time of anyone on the roster and is a vital part of the penalty kill and powerplay.

Fowler has completely re-shaped his game. This offensively-minded Fowler is working for him. The underdog came up in a huge way this year -- from the chopping block to the All-Star Game.

He has had a record season thus far, and the rumors are shifting swiftly from the veteran to the young guns.

TSN's Bob McKenzie has said, 'Cam Fowler has become untradeable because he's so good."

Hampus Lindholm

How Swede it is. Lindholm was signed to a six-year, $31.5 million contract after an extended period of negotiations. A vital piece on the blue line. He isn't going anywhere.

Lindholm has been a great asset on the Ducks defense. He doesn't make a big commotion. He is not a flashy player. He is technical and calculated -- a shutdown guy.

There has long been debate over who is the Ducks No.1 D-man: Fowler or Lindholm? I would argue they both are, for different reasons.

Since Fowler has adjusted his game to be more offensively minded, he has changed his value for this hockey club. Lindholm's value stems from his possession, his puck movement, and how he generates offensive possession to produce points. He's still very young; at 22, he is coming into his own as a shutdown defenseman, and coming into a more veteran role.

Ducks Assistant Coach Trent Yawney recently told Eric Stephens of O.C. Register:

"Numbers don't lie. He's whatever plus-70 in 270-something games. His defense, I always talk to him about going back to that. That's his foundation. That's where it all starts for him. I think as of late and the past couple of weeks, it's the best I've seen him defend since he came over when he was 18 years old."

Sami Vatanen

Proving nothing but availability as trade bait.

Vatanen has had a lackluster season. A guy who used to be the slap-shot specialist has turned to a flop this year. Maybe he's been sucked into the Corey Perry slump?

Expected to peak and come into his prime, at 25, Vatanen only has two goals in 49 games and 15 assists for a total of 17 points. Ducks Head Coach Randy Carlyle has made him a healthy scratch when playing Winnipeg, as a statement to his performance.

He is a great defenseman, we've seen it. A dynamic player with a gnarly slapshot, he is someone who would add a considerable amount of depth to a teams blue line.

Maybe a change of scenery will produce production?

Josh Manson

Often overlooked, Manson is a good hockey player. Physicality is his strong suit. He has 169 even strength hits this season, a career high.

If teams are looking for a strong puck moving defensemen, who isn't afraid to drop the gloves, then Manson is the guy.

Trade bait? Yes, but let's be realistic. We aren't going to see Manson and a first for James van Reimsdyk. If it was going to happen, it would have happened already.

Is he valuable to the Ducks? Yes. He is a solid defensive defenseman, but he could also be valuable elsewhere.

My guess? He isn't trade bait, he is expansion bait.

Brandon Montour and Shea Theodore

Ah, the young guns. Now at the forefront of the trade chatter.

These guys, both successful in the AHL with the San Diego Gulls, are now fighting to prove themselves as NHL starters, and teams are keeping a close eye.

Montour recently potted his first NHL goal and has shown he is able to hold his own. Theodore continues his ups and downs of the I-5 freeway from San Diego to Anaheim. Teams are looking for young, talented defensemen at a cheap price. Keeping in mind the expansion draft has everyone thrown for a loop.

Perhaps a package deal could be in the future for that top-six left wing the Ducks have needed for quite some time. Teams that are looking for a win-now addition to their blue line will not be looking for these guys. Montour and Theodore are investments looking forward.

Jacob Larsson

Forget about this guy?

Playing in the Swedish League, we saw him in the pre-season before he got shipped out. He is definitely one to watch the next few years, but now is not his time.

Lower on the bait list than Montour and Theodore, he doesn' have enough recent NHL experience as a reference to how he plays. The Swedish League is different from the North American game -- scouts have a much better reference for Montour and Theodore.

Larsson is under contract with the Ducks until the 2018-19 season at $925,000, BUT he has a European Assignment Clause.

Korbinian Holzer, Clayton Stoner and Kevin Bieksa

Holzer is serviceable for his contract. Paid $700,000 and a pending UFA, he is not a worry to this team. He plays to the caliber of his paycheck. Don't see any trade value there.

Stoner and Bieksa have two of the most frustrating contracts in the NHL, not to mention they're both declining and over 30.

These contracts are eating up valuable cap space. Stoner and Bieksa are both under contract through the 2017-18 season; Stoner at $3.25 million, Bieksa at $4 million and an NMC.

So just by that, we know Bieksa isn't going anywhere unless he waives his NMC -- thus starts the expansion/ buyout debate. Not going there. Budget team, 'nuff said.

Stoner on the other hand is on LTIR. Ideally, they want someone to take that albatross of a contract, but since that is not likely, keeping him on LTIR is working since they can save the cap space until playoffs.

Simon Despres

Still on LTIR due to concussion symptoms -- no timeline for return. Self explanatory.

Now What?

A deficit of solid defensemen is a league-wide disease and Anaheim provides the Rx.

Ducks still need a spark in the top-six to increase scoring production, but Murray is going to be selective. The phone is ringing, scouts are showing up, and trade chatter continues, but Murray is not going to budge unless it actually makes sense.

He is not looking for rentals. He is looking for an investment.

Murray has to look at two things; the internal battle (who has proved that they are not tradable and the cap), and the external battle (what other teams can offer).

Although, I will say this: The price paid for a reliable top-four defenseman in this league is much higher than a forward. Look at the Taylor Hall/Adam Larsson trade. If Larsson gets you Hall, who, let's face it, is better than a JVR, Tomas Tatar and Gabriel Landeskog, then the Ducks might not have to overpay for a top-six winger.

Hannah Spraker is the Anaheim Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow her on Twitter.




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