A year ago, it seemed that no amount of salary-cap wizardry would allow the Ducks to avoid trading defenseman Cam Fowler. He didn't want to leave the team that had drafted him 12th overall in 2010, but he understood that the Ducks wanted to keep emerging stars Rickard Rakell, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, and that the math simply didn't look good for him.
Hoping to stay — or to prove his worth to potential suitors — Fowler narrowed his focus and actually did what every athlete in such situations vows to do: he controlled what he could control and let everything else sort itself out. He handled his end of things so well that he had his best season and was rewarded in July with the security of an eight-year, $52-million extension that will kick in with the 2018-19 season.
It was difficult at this time last year to imagine that Fowler would remain with the Ducks. It's almost impossible now to picture them without the smooth-skating Fowler, who is beginning his eighth NHL season but won't turn 26 until December.
"I think that he's the prototypical modern-day defenseman: good skating, good puckhandling, can create offense, can drive the pace of the game," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said Monday. "All those things, those are his strengths and I think it's just natural for him to continue to grow in the game."
Fowler, who played for Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympics, averaged a career-high 24 minutes 51 seconds of ice time last season and made his second All-Star game appearance. He also reached a career best with 11 goals and fell one short of the personal-best 40 points he scored as a rookie in 2010-11. A knee injury kept him out of the last two games of the regular season and the Ducks' first-round playoff sweep of Calgary, but he averaged a team-high 26:30 during postseason play.
Impressive. But he's looking to do better, and that's entirely possible if he can again be as assertive as he was last season.
"I tried to play with a little more confidence, prove to everyone what I could do, and I was happy that I had a good season and carried that into the playoffs and hopefully I can build off of that," Fowler said Monday after he practiced at Anaheim Ice. "I don't see any reason why it shouldn't carry over, especially with the confidence that ownership and management has in me.
"I think they put me into a position to carry on that leadership role on the back end, especially. I'm looking forward to using that confidence, playing with that leadership role and hopefully that can turn into another good season."
There's room for Fowler to step up and lead again, especially while Vatanen and Lindholm recover from shoulder surgeries that are expected to sideline them until around Nov. 1.
Francois Beauchemin, re-signed for his puck-moving ability and his experience at age 37, likely won't play big minutes. Nor will Kevin Bieksa, who's 36. Rugged Josh Manson, who played all 82 games last season, has become a fixture and nimble Brandon Montour, who played 27 regular-season games and all 17 playoff games, is poised to take on a bigger role. Jacob Larsson, Josh Mahura, Marcus Pettersson, and Andy Welinski are hoping to get noticed in training camp and win the sixth spot, with Korbinian Holzer also in the mix.
Carlyle, who wanted to pair a veteran defenseman with a youngster to start training camp, put Fowler alongside Welinski. The oddity there is that Fowler, who has 494 regular-season games and 62 playoff contests on his resume, is only 16 months older than Welinski, who played four years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and spent last season with the Ducks' American Hockey League farm team in San Diego.
"I was very lucky to step in at a young age," Fowler said. "I look back to who I was as a person and a player back then and where I am now, I've absorbed a lot of knowledge. There's a lot you have to learn playing this game and it kind of forces you to mature and grow up quickly. So I'm thankful where I'm at now. I try and help those guys as much as I can."
The Ducks' depth will be tested while Ryan Kesler, Lindholm, and Vatanen are out of the lineup, but Fowler believes they can — and must — start strong. They open exhibition play Tuesday at San Jose and Wednesday at home against Arizona.
"It's a cliche, you can't win it at the start, but you can put yourself in a pretty dicey position if you don't have a decent start," Fowler said. "So we're going to need to be prepared for that and when those guys come back, hopefully it will give us that little boost that we need to finish out the rest of the year."
Although it feels as if Fowler has been around forever, his best might still be to come.