- Category: Cage Match
Cam Fowler vs. Vyacheslav Voynov
This should really be Voynov vs. my keyboard since I have most certainly butchered that name a hundred times over the years and may have even done so right now. However you spell it, Voynov’s a name you had better get to know because he’s fast becoming one of the best young defensemen in fantasy hockey so much so that this has become a compelling Cage Match.
Voynov isn’t the best defenseman in Los Angeles but he doesn’t have to be. Drew Doughty carries such a heavy burden in terms of both the sheer bulk of minutes as well as the level of stiff competition that he faces during those minutes that it makes the jobs of all the other Kings defensemen much easier. You could certainly associate Doughty’s presence with Voynov’s breakout this season despite the fact the two rarely played together (figures courtesy of FrozenPool):
Instead much of the credit for Voynov’s ascendance goes to Voynov himself. Not only did Voynov improve as an overall player but he did so such that the coaching staff rewarded him with a much larger role this season. Last season Voynov saw 18:32 minutes per game with 2:29 on the power play. This season his minutes ballooned to 22:18 per game with 2:06 on the power play. That near four minute improvement was huge even if it did coincide with a slight decline in power play time – the result was Voynov scoring 25 points in 48 games this season, a 43-point pace for 82 games.
That decrease in power play time is a bit concerning but much of it is the result of a league-wide decrease in power play opportunities rather than his being sapped minutes by someone else. You might suspect that someone else to be Jake Muzzin, who also emerged as an intriguing young defenseman this year but as FrozenPool showed us above, these two are playing together on the power play, not stealing minutes from one another. Moreover, Voynov’s eight power play points this season were an improvement on his six from last year (in 54 games).
That games played figure is a tricky one. Voynov has barely played over a 100 regular season games in his NHL career (though he has now played 30 playoff games) so we’ve yet to see what he can do over the course of an 82-game season. It may prove that he doesn’t have the consistency to produce over such a long season – whether that be because of fatigue or injuries or what have you. But we also don’t know that he can’t and he’s a player worth giving the benefit of the doubt. At 23-years-old, Voynov is pretty old for an NHL sophomore and having spent three and a half years down in Manchester playing for the Kings AHL affiliate, he has put in more than enough time learning to become a professional.
Voynov’s savvy, mature play deserves a lot of credit for the Kings turning into the juggernaut they now are. The Kings were the second worst offensive team in the NHL last season scoring just 2.29 goals per game but we’re actually a pretty decent scoring team with Voynov in the lineup scoring 2.54 goals per game. That figure jumped up to 10th in the league this season at 2.73 goals per game, with Voynov in the lineup for every game. A good amount of credit goes to new head coach Darryl Sutter. And the acquisition of sniper Jeff Carter helps a lot too but teams need good puck movers to generate offense and that’s exactly what Voynov is.
Voynov isn’t necessarily the sort of defenseman who drives the play forward, nor is he going to dominate the puck but he is smart and knows how to pick his spots. He’s got a good shot and is a very intelligent and skilled passer. But he’s also never going to be the number one guy in LA so long as Doughty is there and given the fact that they are both right-handed shots, Doughty does stand in the way of Voynov becoming a top power play option. This isn’t to say the skill isn’t there but the opportunity may never arise – similar to the way Campbell was buried by Duncan Keith in Chicago. If you recall that Campbell, even while buried under Keith, managed a 52-point season before sliding down the depth chart so far a trade was necessary. Voynov isn’t Campbell though and the Kings certainly aren’t a Blackhawks-level offensive powerhouse but the point of the analogy is that even with the somewhat limited opportunity Voynov can still put up some really strong numbers, it’s just a little less likely than you might hope.
For Fowler, the story is a bit different. He really didn’t have to pay any dues before making his NHL debut – going straight from the NHL draft to NHL hockey after being drafted 12th overall in 2010. In fact, Fowler fell to that spot after receiving pre-draft hype as a potential top three selection. He made an immediate impact with 10 goals and 40 points in 76 games as a rookie, doing a ton of damage on a Ducks power play that was tied for second best in the league that season. Of Fowler’s 23 points that season, 23 came on the power play but while he has immense skill it’s hard to say that he was really driving that power play. With guys like Corey Perry (the league MVP and top scorer that season), Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf and Lubomir Visnovsky (the top scoring defenseman that season) Fowler was more along for the ride than anything else. And his overall play was pretty abysmal as demonstrated by his minus-25 rating that season.
Fowler followed up his strong rookie effort with a sophomore slump, scoring just five goals and 29 points in 82 games and boasting another dreadful minus-28 rating. A big reason (probably the only reason) for that slump was the severe decline of the Ducks power play. They fell to 21st in the league at just 16.6% as Perry and Getzlaf were both in a funk, while Selanne started to show his age and Visnovsky struggled with injuries. They fired their head coach mid-season and needed some time for Bruce Boudreau to get acquainted with his squad. Fowler’s power play production was cut in half to just 11 points. Of course it was almost certain his power play production would decline as it’s nearly impossible to maintain scoring half your points on the power play.
You certainly couldn’t blame Fowler’s drop in production on his minutes. The Ducks basically threw Fowler into the fire as soon as he came into the league skating him 22:07 per game with 3:37 on the power play as a rookie and then upping that to 23:15 per game with 3:40 on the power play as a sophomore. Fowler also didn’t have to do much heavy lifting as a penalty killer.
This downward trend continued into this season but was compounded by some injury woes as Fowler played just 37 games this season and managed only 11 points (six of which came on the power play). You can’t blame the Ducks’ power play for his struggles this time around though as the Ducks rebounded to fourth in the league at 21.5% on the power play this season.
You could blame his lack of power play production on bad luck. After all, he was still a member of the Ducks’ top power play unit when healthy this season – though he has lost some time to Sheldon Souray (hockey’s version of the pinball paddle) over the past couple of years. But I don’t think the lack of power play production is really the concern here. I mean, certainly his minutes were down (just 2:30 per game on the power play this season) but that was mostly because of the reduced number of penalties called this season. And over half of Fowler’s points came on the power play this season despite the limited production. That’s not a promising trend.
Overall Fowler’s minutes were down this season too (he skated just 20:26 per game this season), perhaps the result of a new head coach and perhaps the result of his rehabbing from injury but more likely the result of his simply not being up to the task of playing regular minutes. He is supposedly working on his defensive game and as we have seen that has been responsible for a lot of slumps from young defensemen. I don’t disagree with the notion that he is improving but at a certain point you start to wonder if Fowler didn’t fall in the draft for a reason and if he will ever truly figure out the defensive side of things to be an impact player for 20+ minutes a night.
Fowler is still young (just 21 years old) and has only played two and a half seasons, which is hardly enough time to give up on him. He has great pedigree and still has a ton of valuable assets like a good shot, strong vision and offensive instincts that made him the high pick that he was. He’s also suffering some bad luck having scored just one goal this season on 50 shots. Of course, he’s got to shoot the puck more to really be successful but he did once score 10 goals in a season. That’s something you cannot take away from him.
I love Fowler’s upside and if he ever puts it all together there is no one in the Anaheim system that can keep him from being the number one defenseman and with Anaheim’s big guns locked up long term you can bet that being the top defenseman will pay major dividends, just look at how well it worked out for Francois Beauchemin this season. The only question is how long it takes for Fowler to round out his game enough for Boudreau to unleash him. Boudreau is the same guy who let Mike Green run rampant on the league so there’s no question he was once willing to roll with a defensive liability on the blue line but was his experience with Green enough to scare him off? Does Fowler even have any desire to become another Mike Green? On one hand, I love it. On the other, maybe he should learn to become a complete player.
The point is, if you want to win now Voynov is probably your guy. There is some inherent risk taking a player who isn’t even the top guy on his own team on top of a guy who hasn’t played more than 54 games in an NHL season but Voynov is solid and has proven capable of sustaining strong play for long seasons in both the AHL and on LA’s extended playoff runs the past two years. I’d have no issues taking him over Fowler for the next couple of seasons. Long term though, I don’t think I could help myself. I’d want to take the safer pick with Voynov but Fowler could really be something else as the top defenseman with Anaheim’s superstars up front. He has a long way to go, especially figuring out how to contribute with a regular shift at even strength but he doesn’t need to become a shutdown defenseman. In fact, you could argue that would just take away from what he does best. Most importantly, I’m not so sure that Voynov is SOOOOO good that he makes you regret rolling the dice on Fowler long term because if/when that light comes on (and be prepared to wait a few years) the light is going to keep getting flicked on (if you know what I mean). So think Voynov if you want to win now, especially in one-year type settings but take Fowler long term.
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