Cam Fowler was not playing hockey when he knew he had arrived, so to speak, as a full-fledged NHL defenseman.
“The last few days they told me to start moving some of my stuff into Scotty (Niedermayer)’s house and get my car out here,” he said. “That was kind of a good tip that at least they were going to keep me around for a little while.’
It became official Tuesday when Ducks general manager Bob Murray announced that he intends to keep the 18-year-old defenseman in the NHL this season. Fowler, who has played six games and is set to play his seventh on Wednesday, could have played up to nine games before Murray had to keep him or return him to his junior squad, the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.
Despite the circumstances, Fowler said he did not use the nine-game threshold as motivation. At least, he tried not to.
“I knew it was there,” he said. “We’re all fighting for a spot on this team. Especially as a young guy, I’m just trying to do everything I can to earn my spot on this team. It’s always something you keep in the back of your mind, but you can’t really use it as added pressure or anything like that. You’ve got to play your best and hopefully things work out.”
Things have been working well for Fowler since the Ducks began playing exhibition games, head coach Randy Carlyle said. His preseason stats weren’t much — no goals, two assists and a minus-2 rating in six games — but Fowler showed enough poise on the ice to convince the coach he was ready for the NHL.
“In the scrimmages … he didn’t really separate himself a great deal, until the exhibition games started,” Carlyle said. “The things he was doing in the games led you to believe that he had a high threshold for confidence, he had a high skill level, that he could skate, that he wouldn’t be overwhelmed with the speed and the size of the people.”
Added veteran defenseman Paul Mara, “at the age of 18, it’s sometimes difficult to do that from Day 1. He hasn’t looked back.”
Fowler’s confidence improved in each game since, reaching a peak on Oct. 17 against the Phoenix Coyotes. Early in the second period of that game he scored his first NHL goal on a deep point shot. A few minutes later, Fowler drove from his own blue line with the puck, through several defensemen and toward goalie Jason LaBarbera, before Shane Doan steered Fowler away from the net and into the end boards. Fowler broke his nose on the sequence and hasn’t played since.
The rookie thinks he’s back to 100 percent, the last obstacle being a stubborn sore neck that has kept him out of the last six games. The Ducks went 2-4-0 in that stretch, during which the power play went 4 for 19. Fowler was back on the first power-play unit in practice Tuesday and he figures to be there again Wednesday against the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
There’s still one more threshold for Fowler, the 40-game mark after which he burns a year of unrestricted free agency. Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, rookies are given seven years from the time their entry-level deal kicks in, or until age 27, before they can become an unrestricted free agent. If Fowler plays in his 40th NHL game this season, he can become an unrestricted free agent at age 25; if the Ducks send him back to Windsor before then, he’ll have to wait until age 26.
By keeping Fowler in Anaheim for now, Carlyle said, “it just gives him the confidence that … he’s a part of the team. Before it was a viable option to send him back to junior hockey. The 40 games is another threshold he’ll have to surpass. In reality, he’s going to be a part of our hockey club, he’s going to play, and we hope he’ll continue to develop the way he’s developed into an elite-level defenseman.”
He’ll have some help from Niedermayer, who first met Fowler when the latter arrived on stage as the 12th overall pick at the NHL Draft in June. The arrangement certainly worked for Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux during Crosby’s early years in Pittsburgh. Fowler and Niedermayer haven’t had much one-on-one time yet, the rookie said, but that figures to change.
“For basically my role model growing up to open his home for me — to meet his wife, she’s awesome — I don’t think it gets any better for an 18-year-old kid to move in with his idol in Newport Beach and play in the NHL,” Fowler said. “I’m really thankful that they opened their house to me. I can lean on Scotty for knowledge and he can help me out along the way.”