An overview of the Ducks prospect pool: Defenseman, Part 2

Derek Lee-The Sporting Tribune
The Sporting Tribune's Derek Lee overviews the Ducks' defensive pipeline.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Let’s take a look at the rest of the Ducks’ blue line prospects. Many of these players are recent draftees while others have been in the system for quite some time.

Konnor Smith, 18

6-foot-5 | 208 pounds | Shoots left

One of the newest members of the Ducks organization, Smith was drafted by Anaheim in the fourth round of this year’s draft. He’s got plenty of size and in many ways is a polar opposite of the type of defenseman that frequents the Ducks’ pipeline.

“He likes to play a mean game,” Ducks assistant general manager Martin Madden said of Smith following the draft. Smith’s role for Peterborough in the OHL has been that of a shutdown defenseman, someone relied on to keep the opposition’s top players in check and keep the puck out of the high-danger areas for his team.

Though Smith has the size and strength to deal with players, his puck skills and skating ability still leave a lot to be desired. But, those aren’t traits that can’t be fine-tuned by any means either. He’ll be a big part of the Petes’ defense this upcoming season.

Jackson LaCombe, 22

6-foot-1 | 171 pounds | Shoots left

Though his collegiate career came to a heartbreaking end with an overtime loss in the NCAA championship game, LaCombe wasted little time in transitioning to the NHL shortly after by signing his entry-level contract with Anaheim. Though he played in just two games, he averaged nearly 19 minutes of ice time and even spent some time on the power play as the Ducks’ season wound to an end.

In the short amount of time that he’s been on the ice as an NHLer, LaCombe displayed the attributes that made him a second-round pick in 2019. The mobility, active stick and poise shown by a player who had just concluded four years of collegiate hockey with one of the top NCAA teams in the country.

Anaheim Ducks prospect Jackson LaCombe skates with the puck during a scrimmage at development camp. (Credit: Derek Lee-The Sporting Tribune)

It’s possible that LaCombe will have a leg up on players like Mintyukov or Zellweger for a spot on the opening night roster just because he has prior NHL experience, but that doesn’t guarantee that he’ll make the team out of training camp either.

LaCombe has the ability to play his off-hand—as he did many times in college—but the Ducks would prefer to keep him on his strong side, especially while he is still in the early stages of navigating the NHL.

Drew Helleson, 22

6-foot-3 | 205 pounds | Shoots right

Helleson concluded three years of collegiate hockey with Boston College after 2021-22, signing his ELC shortly after BC’s season ended to join up with the Gulls in San Diego. With two points in 17 regular season games and just as many points in two Calder Cup games, Helleson has integrated himself into pro hockey.

The first half of the 2022-23 season was a rocky one for Helleson, who––along with the rest of the Gulls’ defensemen––was struggling to defend his own zone and contribute at the other end at the same time. The acquisition of Michael Del Zotto in late December helped bring in a steady defense partner for Helleson, who began an upward trend shortly after.

Helleson isn’t the most offensive-minded blueliner but he has shown flashes at both Boston College and with the Gulls that he can contribute when needed. Comparisons have been made to Josh Manson, whose trade to Colorado during the 2021-22 season brought Helleson’s rights to the Ducks. Manson is a big, strong defenseman who likes to throw the body around but also isn’t afraid to join up on the rush.

Helleson is still finding his way on both ends but he earned a cup of coffee with Anaheim at the very end of this past season, skating in three games and scoring his first career NHL goal. Right-handed defense depth behind Jamie Drysdale is notably shallow, so Helleson may have an inside track at a spot on the NHL roster.

Vojtech Port, 18

6-foot-2 | 168 pounds | Shoots right

A right-handed shot out of Czechia, Port was drafted by the Ducks this summer in the sixth round from the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL. He began the 2022-23 season with the Red Deer Rebels but was claimed off CHL Import waivers by Edmonton in September after playing just two games with the Rebels.

Port skated in 46 games this past season for the Oil Kings, contributing 17 points. His season was stifled slightly by an upper-body injury in February which ruled him out for the remainder of the season, but the Ducks scouting department liked what they saw out of him in their live viewings.

Assistant general manager Martin Madden said at the draft that the organization views Port as more of a long-term project but that they like his hockey sense and ability to get out of trouble in the defensive zone. He’ll need to put on a lot more weight as he develops in order to become an NHL-caliber defenseman.

Rodwin Dionicio, 19

6-foot-2 | 207 pounds | Shoots left

Born in Newark, New Jersey to Dominican parents, Dionicio and his family moved to Switzerland when he was just five months old. He played youth and junior hockey in Switzerland all the way up until the 2021-22 season when he moved to Canada to play for the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL. He accumulated 38 points in 74 games for the IceDogs before being traded to the Windsor Spitfires this past January.

Dionicio turned up his offensive production once he got to Windsor, producing more points (43) in 33 games than he had during his entire tenure with Niagara. He has some dynamic tools offensively, namely his ability to handle and move the puck. However, his skating is still a bit raw and can plague him when he needs to defend in transition or get out of dangerous areas in the defensive zone with the puck.

For a fifth-round pick, it’s exactly the type of high ceiling prospect the Ducks should be targeting. Dionicio is certainly a long-term project, but the skills that he possesses are intriguing if the rest of his game can be refined. He also has extensive experience at the international level with Switzerland and recently represented them at this year’s World Juniors.

Will Francis, 22

6-foot-5 | 211 pounds | Shoots right

There isn’t a lot to write home about with Will Francis in terms of his play on the ice yet. But there’s a big reason for that. In March 2020, Francis was diagnosed with cancer. With COVID-19 quickly becoming a worrisome disease to worry about, this is what Francis thought he perhaps had picked up. It turned out to be leukemia.

Over the next two years, Francis spent hours undergoing treatment and many different doses of chemotherapy. During that time, Francis still attended classes at University of Minnesota Duluth and was even able to get back to playing hockey, attending a team camp during the summer of 2021. During the 2021-22 season, Francis appeared in five games for the Bulldogs. A major milestone that even continuous chemotherapy and endless drives for appointments couldn’t overshadow.

Summer 2022 brought a season of full recovery for Francis, who beat cancer and was then able to attend Ducks development camp for the first time since he was drafted in 2019. The 22-year-old skated in 28 games for Minnesota Duluth this past season and tallied his first career collegiate point at the tail-end of the season, an assist against St. Cloud State.

The next step for Francis will be to become a regular in the lineup and continue to improve his mobility and defensive play. He’s a big man, so being able to pair his size and strength with agility and anticipation will take him to the next level.