ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Just when it appears his rookie season couldn’t get more remarkable, Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler keeps taking it to another level.
In a matter of eight months, Fowler has climbed back from a lengthy drop in the anticipated draft order to one who’s making offensive contributions not seen from a first-year blueliner in decades.
"You’ve got to pinch yourself every once in a while," Fowler said. "As a 19-year-old, it’s a dream come true."
In just the last two weeks, Fowler participated in the All-Star Skills Challenge in Raleigh, N.C., then spent some down time sharing laughs with league superstars. He returned to action last week and scored a power-play goal in his third consecutive game, becoming only the second rookie defenseman to accomplish that feat in league history and the first in 27 years.
He has become a key component on a team that’s in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race heading into Wednesday night’s game at first-place Vancouver, and if that doesn’t seem unreal enough, Fowler lives with his idol, former Ducks defenseman and Norris Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer.
"One of the best players to ever play the game and I get to see him walk around in his pajama pants," Fowler said.
If there’s one part of Fowler’s game that’s comparable with Niedermayer’s, it’s his flawless skating style that allows him to weave into the smallest of spaces at just the right time. Fowler is more offense-minded, however, owning a hair-trigger release with pinpoint accuracy. He also plays with the coolness of a 15-year veteran, teammates say.
"He doesn’t have a stress nerve in his whole body," said teammate and current defense partner Andreas Lilja. "He never gets stressed, never tosses pucks away. He’s really nice and calm. That’s the way you have to be if you’re going to play in this league."
He’s probably most visible as a point man on the power play, earning four of his six goals and 12 of his 22 assists with the man-advantage. He leads NHL rookies in power-play assists and points.
"The power play is the time to get your five or six best players out there and that’s what we’ve been able to do," Fowler said. "You have to know when to shoot and when to pass and that’s just part of my game that’s clicking right now."
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement.
Fowler is last on the team with a minus-15 rating, five points lower than the next closest teammate. He’s also last in plus-minus among the 171 rookies who’ve played this season. He hit a low point last month when he was a minus-eight over four games. To his defense, power-play goals aren’t reflected in the plus-minus rating, nor are Fowler’s constant adjustments to new defense partners.
"He can be stronger defensively, he can even shoot the puck more," said Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. "His strengths and the positive plays he makes on the ice far outweigh the negatives, so we feel very fortunate to have a young player like him."
Fowler was born in Canada and moved with his family to Michigan when he was 2 years old. A dual citizen, he was a bit of a late bloomer in hockey. Early on, his sport was baseball. He played up until four years ago, when as a sophomore middle infielder he led Farmington (Mich.) High School to its first state final appearance.
He reluctantly gave up baseball that fall when he was invited to train with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I’m not really sure what would have come out of [baseball] but some people say I may have been able to go Division 3 or maybe a small D1 Michigan school," he said. "I loved baseball, it was hard to give it up."
He faced another tough decision two years later after signing a letter of intent to play hockey at Notre Dame – he committed to the Fighting Irish when he was 15 – opting to play junior hockey with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.
"You’re playing a lot less games [at Notre Dame] but then again you’re more focused on the strength aspect of it and getting in the weight room," Fowler said. "They were both good options."
Along with Edmonton rookie forward Taylor Hall, they led the Spitfires to one major championship after another. Fowler never looked back.
Two years ago, many debated whether Fowler or Hall would be drafted first overall. Heading into the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Fowler was ranked No. 5 on the latest NHL Central Scouting list. The Ducks needed a defenseman with Fowler’s skill set, in part to replace some of what was lost by Niedermayer’s retirement last summer, but they didn’t have their first pick until No. 12.
But as teams tried to fill their needs with a forward, shut-down defenseman or goalie, Fowler’s name wasn’t called among the top five. He was still on the board after the top 10. When the Dallas Stars passed on Fowler at No. 11 and instead took Windsor goalkeeper Jack Campbell, it was Anaheim’s turn and the Ducks didn’t think twice about selecting Fowler.
"It was tough to sit there while it was happening, but I think Anaheim, out of any team, gave me the best chance to succeed and needed my skill set the most," Fowler said. "It’s important when the team is as happy to get you as you are to be drafted by them."
Fowler still needed to make the team, and that’s a longshot for any 18-year-old rookie. But he impressed Carlyle from the moment he stepped on the ice and has continued to progress.
"His learning curve and his growth are still on an upward tier," Carlyle said.
Two-thirds into this season, only four players drafted before Fowler are currently on NHL rosters and none are defensemen.
"Anything can happen on draft day," Fowler said. "It’s all just speculation before you get there."
Fowler said the biggest adjustment has been the rigorous schedule, and Anaheim had one of the busiest during the first half of the season. The schedule gets somewhat lighter with just 11 games in February but the intensity is sure to pick up as all but two of their remaining games are against Western Conference opponents.
Which gives Fowler plenty of time to take his game to a few more levels.