- Craig Custance
It was about this time last year that the interviews started for Ben Lovejoy. Not the typical hockey player interviews where we in the media pry for information. Real interviews. Job interviews.
The NHL lockout was dragging on and Lovejoy was looking for work, although he’s not sharing exactly too many specifics about the field in which he was searching.
"I'm not going to tell you what [it was]," Lovejoy said, shooting down a couple of my suggestions. "I was going to be fine."
Now, things are better than fine. One calendar year later, following a trade from Pittsburgh to Anaheim, he's become one of the Ducks' most important defensemen, skating nightly alongside Cam Fowler. Among Anaheim blueliners, only Fowler and Francois Beauchemin average more ice time than Lovejoy's 20:01.
"This has been something that I hoped I could do, I thought I could do," Lovejoy said. "I never knew."
He's been an integral part of a Ducks blue line that has completely transformed in the past year. But he's not the only part of the transformation.
The Ducks won again Tuesday night, scoring five times. That's a big number and, as it seems to happen with the Ducks, it overshadows the other number. They allowed just two goals. An opponent hasn't scored more than two goals (we're not counting the Kings' shootout winner) against the Ducks yet this month.
Anaheim's goals-against per game this season now sits at 2.42, which is No. 12 in the league. Not bad, but not necessarily among the league's elite. And not considerably better than the number the Ducks finished with last season, 2.40. A number generated by a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Like last season, the Ducks are keeping pace with the Blackhawks. Chicago has won two straight. The Ducks have won six. The reigning champs have 55 points. Anaheim is right behind at 53. Chicago has an impressive 12-2-4 record at home. The Ducks? They're 13-0-2.
Yet, when people talk about the Western Conference elite, it's typically the same group of teams. Chicago is the team to beat. Then comes the case for the Kings, Sharks and Blues. Anaheim? People typically don't want to make the same case for Anaheim.
It's because of the Ducks' defense. Stacked up against the other top Western Conference teams, the Ducks' blue line usually doesn't fare well. The Blues can send out Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. The Blackhawks have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Drew Doughty is trusted not only by his own coach in Los Angeles, but he's a favorite of Mike Babcock, who will use him early and often in Sochi. The Sharks have one of the league's most under-appreciated defensemen in Marc-Edouard Vlasic to go with veteran Dan Boyle, both of whom are making Olympic cases.
Half of the Ducks' best defensive pair was job hunting last Christmas. Three of their most impressive defensemen are under 23 years old.
And that's the mistake being made with the Ducks. We're casting the sins of last season's blue line onto this season's group, when the reality is it's not the same defense. And it could be those differences that alter their stock as a contender in the spring.