ANAHEIM, Calif. — There was no inkling or tip-off for Olen Zellweger to pick up on. Matt McIlvane, the coach of the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls, did a good job keeping the lid on the life-changing news until the team exited the bus after a game against the Abbotsford Canucks.
“You’re just focused on your career and team, right?” Zellweger said Tuesday in the Anaheim Ducks’ dressing room, hours before his first NHL game. “I wasn’t thinking about this until now. Yeah, it’s a pretty great opportunity.”
The Ducks introduced their best prospect to the Honda Center audience Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres. The game had the interesting subplot of the Sabres’ Tage Thompson and Ryan Johnson playing in front of their fathers, Anaheim Ducks assistant coaches Brent Thompson and Craig Johnson.
It was the first time the elders had gone against their sons in the NHL. Brent Thompson, who is in his first season with the Ducks, had coached against his younger son, Tyce, when the two were in the AHL. Ryan Johnson has long-standing Southern California ties, having grown up in Irvine. He played for Craig while in the Jr. Ducks program and at the high school level with the Santa Margarita Eagles.
The four gathered for an on-ice photo before getting their competitive juices going. Tuesday’s matchup belonged to the coaches, who can hold some bragging rights over a 4-2 Ducks victory in their next father-son conversations. But there is only one first NHL game for a player, and Zellweger made the most of his moment.
Thompson, who runs the Ducks’ defense, managed his minutes and used the benefit of a home game and the last change that comes with it to put Zellweger in as many advantageous situations as he could without exposing him to regular shifts against Buffalo’s top forwards. Ducks coach Greg Cronin also got him on the power play because impressive rookie Pavel Mintyukov was sidelined. It was a logical move given Zellweger’s prowess with quarterbacking the man advantage at lower levels.
“I think it was a really good baptism for him in the NHL.”
🎥 Coach Cronin spoke on our win and the debut of Olen Zellweger. pic.twitter.com/ZhmqYtsemB
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) January 24, 2024
The payoff came in the second period. One of the best tools in Zellweger’s box is his knack for getting shots from the point to the net without defenders getting a piece of them. It allowed him to score 32 goals in 55 games of a dominant Western Hockey League season in which he was honored as the league’s top defenseman for the second straight year. Tuesday, Zellweger got a pass from Troy Terry and found a lane for his wrist shot. It created a rebound that net-front presence Sam Carrick batted in out of the air, giving Anaheim a 2-0 lead.
“I think that’s one of my better skills,” Zellweger said. “Finding that lane, especially from the blue line. It’s kind of something I’ve worked on. I kind of feel a calmness looking for that lane. … It’s something I think that’s valuable, and I’m going to continue to work on it so I can get these shots through.”
Mason McTavish fished the puck out of the net for Zellweger to recognize the moment of his first point. Who knows how many will come after this, but the 20-year-old was thrilled to be the latest member of the Ducks’ youth movement to work his way onto the big club — particularly with the cadre of talented defensemen in the system, which began with Mintyukov and Jackson LaCombe skipping past the AHL and playing key minutes right away.
Though those two are already gaining valuable experience and Tristan Luneau was making a favorable impression on the Ducks brass before being sidelined with a knee infection, Zellweger was establishing himself as one of the AHL’s top defensemen. He had eight goals and 25 points in 34 games, earning him a nod in the league’s All-Star game.
“I kept on being myself,” Zellweger said. “I didn’t want to worry too much about what’s going to happen in the future. Obviously, you want to be the best you can and be part of the team going forward, for sure. That’s important. It’s a great opportunity for me tonight. I’m looking to do my best and make the most of that.”
Zellweger might have logged only 13 minutes and 42 seconds of ice time Tuesday. But they were effective minutes. A couple of potential turnovers that could have made for some hairy moments early were covered up by nearby teammates. And as the game went on, Zellweger’s confidence with the puck began to reveal itself. His defense, which Cronin said would be the key to his playing critical minutes in time, was solid.
“He’s a modern player,” said Jakob Silfverberg, whose two goals paced Anaheim in a game it never trailed. “He’s very agile. He’s very quick. He’s very quick with the puck, too. Got great hands. Good vision. He’s got a sneaky-good shot. The goal (Carrick) scored, it looks like a nothing wrist shot, but it’s got some heat on it. The goalie can’t control it, and before you know it, he tapped the rebound in. He’s going to be a good player, and nice to see him get a point tonight.
“I think he played a really solid game, and obviously, I think he’s just going to go from here.”
After the game and following the stick salute to the fans, Ilya Lyubushkin put his arm around Zellweger as the two were about to leave the ice. Lyubushkin was his partner in five-on-five play and not only provided the defensive counterbalance to the youngster but also talked him through different situations during play stoppages.
“It’s the best moment for you,” said Lyubushkin, talking about the first NHL game for any player. “He played a good game. It doesn’t feel like he was nervous. I just talked to him and (said), ‘Hey, man, just relax and enjoy this moment.’
“Good player. He’s so skilled and has a good shot. He can help out a lot.”
In the 2021 NHL Draft, the Ducks took Zellweger with the 34th pick — the second choice of the second round. They saw the kind of skills that made him a fast riser in his draft year and were impressed with how much of a difference-maker he was for Canada’s gold medal-winning U18 Worlds team. His smallish 5-foot-9, 182-pound frame (he’s now listed at 5-10, 189 pounds) didn’t deter them. His skating and smarts in the offensive zone and the power play wowed them.
Anaheim gave him a lengthy look in training camp before ultimately going with Mintyukov and LaCombe — two players who have more of the size that general manager Pat Verbeek has wanted — on a retooled blue line. It’s easy to forget that this is also Zellweger’s first pro season, as he got the AHL assignment to get more seasoning. And he’s found the value in starting there first.
With the Gulls, McIlvane has given Zellweger a lot of freedom to flourish and even fail on occasion in a system meant to mirror what Cronin has put in place with Anaheim while offering guidance along the way.
“And then when I get my chance,” Zellweger said, “I think I’ve been pretty good offensively to capitalize and join the rush when I can.
“I think they want me to play my game. We do a lot of coaching and stuff on the bench or behind the scenes to keep me in the right direction where they see I can improve. That’s always good for me where I can always keep learning and developing.”
Cronin talks to McIlvane periodically, but the two discussed Zellweger specifically Monday night to break down his game. The obvious part the coach points to in terms of Zellweger sticking in the NHL and becoming a big-minute player is whether he can effectively defend night to night at this level. Players such as the Colorado Avalanche’s Samuel Girard and Minnesota Wild’s Jared Spurgeon have shown they can.
“There’s some big guys on the ice, and when you’re on a smaller guy — he’s 5-9, he’s obviously in really good shape; he’s a thick kid — he’s at a disadvantage when it comes to size and length,” Cronin said. “People getting sticks around him and getting a step inside of his hands. If you don’t have the additional or the matching length, you’re not going to be able to knock pucks free.
“He’s aware of that. I think the big thing he’s going to have to manage in the NHL is what I call lane management. Getting between the attacker and the net and using his strength and his thickness to take away sticks and bodies.”
After Zellweger’s opening night, Cronin offered up a review.
“You know what, I didn’t notice him that much, which was really good,” he said. “When I did notice him, it was offensively. He was shooting the puck. He was sliding across the offensive blue line. I think Brent Thompson did a good job managing the matchups with him.
“I just know him from training camp. He’s tenacious, and I think he was focused on playing defense. I don’t think he was responsible for any chances against. And I think he almost scored there in the second period. I think it was a really good baptism for him in the NHL.”
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) January 24, 2024
In the dressing room, Zellweger’s parents, Kathleen and Grant, wore black No. 51 jerseys with the family name on the back as they waited for their son to finish his interview session. There is only one first NHL game, and they would soon enjoy all that came with it.
“It was great,” Zellweger said. “It was awesome to get the win. I was really excited there. The first few shifts were really good out there. Overall, it was a great experience. Great game.”
(Photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)