Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ducks’ Olen Zellweger, Pavel Mintyukov shine against Sharks

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ANAHEIM — The Ducks’ 30th anniversary season will provide opportunities to look back and celebrate luminaries of the organization’s past, but between the whistles it will be one of the most forward-facing campaigns in franchise history.

Much of the promise ahead was on the back end Wednesday night as Pavel Mintyukov manned the left side of the Ducks’ first defense pairing and Olen Zellweger did the same for the second in Wednesday’s 4-2 preseason victory over the San Jose Sharks at Honda Center.

Mintyukov, the Ontario Hockey League’s top defenseman last season, and Zellweger, the Western Hockey League’s recipient of the same distinction, wasted little time introducing themselves to the feathered faithful on Katella Avenue.

Zellweger was the first star of Tuesday’s victory in San Jose with a goal and an assist, a game in which Mintyukov did not dress. On Wednesday, Mintyukov, last year’s 10th overall pick, garnered first-star honors. After falling behind 1-0 on a fortuitous power-play bounce for the Sharks, the two fledgling blue-liners quickly swung momentum, and the score, in the Ducks’ favor on a night when goalie Lukas Dostal handled the rest by making 47 saves.

With less than four minutes left in the first period, Zellweger whipped a one-timer from the high slot that went wide but remained one of the stronger chances in the period for the Ducks, and one that resuscitated their game. Fifty-nine seconds later, Mintyukov fired an equalizer through a screen, then 48 ticks after that the Ducks had the lead for good on a goal that earned Zellweger his second assist in as many matches. Mintyukov was on the ice for the Ducks’ third goal and Zellweger for their fourth, meaning at least one of the Ducks’ top defense prospects was on the ice for every goal they scored Wednesday.

“I thought Olen was our best player. He’s real visible, right? He’s up and down the ice, he’s confident,” Coach Greg Cronin said.

“I’m excited to see more of [Mintyukov]. I think he’s going to get more confident as we move on,” Cronin continued. “You can see his burst offensively and he’s fearless defensively.”

Mintyukov was the first player in OHL history to be named Defenseman of the Month three consecutive times. Beyond awards, goals, assists and plus-minus rating, he has been a stat nerd’s naughty dream at the junior level. He reified buzzwords like “four-way mobility” and personified concepts like purposeful possession. His expected goals, two-way effectiveness on entries and propensity to create chances in the slot produced figures that seemed like typos as 99 ratings and robust blue bars dotted every player card that displayed his metrics.

“I feel way more comfortable. I have confidence. I’m getting to know these new guys,” said Mintyukov, a man of simple, direct and enthusiastic diction.

Both players were traded midseason in their junior leagues last year. Mintyukov’s output tailed off slightly on a deeper team that assigned him a more defensive role while Zellweger’s production exploded after he was dealt. Already widely considered the best defenseman in the WHL, Zellwegger burst out with 52 points in 32 games post-swap and then poured in a staggering 29 points in 14 postseason appearances.

“I got to Kamloops and everything kind of clicked there. Great coaching staff, great organization, great players there,” said Zellweger, who said he appreciated the experience with Everett previously as well.

With Zellweger moving from a more all-around role to a more offensive one and Mintyukov making a transition from an offensive emphasis to a two-way game, both prospects gleaned wisdom from the variety of their experience, which Cronin hopes will help transition them to the NHL with fewer snags and seams. Cronin gave the example of a player he saw rise through the Colorado Avalanche organization quickly, and averred that ready-to-play NHL defensemen were rare exceptions.

“We had Cale Makar. He came out of college, and he was unique because he could defend just as well as he could attack,” Cronin said. “I think both of these guys are going to have to learn to really dial it in defensively.”

Zellweger said he did not want to place any limitations on himself for the upcoming season and was focused more on the day-to-day dealings of training camp and the exhibition schedule. Mintyukov was more succinct in stating his goal.

“Of course I have a goal, just to play in the NHL this year, so I think it will be great,” Mintyukov said.

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