February 29, 2024

Zellweger aims to play big with Ducks despite small stature

IRVINE, Calif. — Olen Zellweger prefers to focus on what’s within his control, such as getting stronger, faster and learning the idiosyncrasies of a new system with the Anaheim Ducks.

He’ll leave his size (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) to genetics.

So far, the 19-year-old hasn’t let that derail his emergence as one of the top prospects in the Ducks organization.

The offensive-minded defenseman, selected by Anaheim in the second round (No. 34) of the 2021 NHL Draft, quickly emerged as one of the best players in the Western Hockey League and won the Bill Hunter Trophy as the top WHL defenseman the past two seasons.

Last season, he was named the best defenseman in the Canadian Hockey League — comprised of the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — and became the first Anaheim prospect to win the award. 

“I don’t think I ever want to set an expectation of what I can and can’t do,” Zellweger said at Ducks development camp this month. “I want to keep pushing myself and keep proving to myself that there’s another level to my game.”

Shaun Clouston, who coached Zellweger with Kamloops of the WHL for 32 games last season after the defenseman was acquired in a trade with Everett on Jan. 9, said he has never seen a player as intense, physically fit and competitive.

“He’s all-in,” Clouston said. “He’s committed, he’s driven, passionate. He puts a lot into his game. He works and he competes. He just keeps finding ways to get better.”

Zellweger was the second-highest scorer among WHL defensemen last season with 80 points (32 goals, 48 assists) in 55 games (one point behind Benjamin Zloty of Winnipeg), including 52 points (22 goals, 30 points) following the trade to Kamloops.

He also had six assists in seven games to help Canada win the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Scott Niedermayer, a four-time Stanley Cup champion and the 2004 Norris Trophy winner voted as the best defenseman in the NHL, has been closely eyeing Zellweger since becoming the Ducks special adviser to hockey operations last year.

“He wants to do something every time he’s on the ice,” Niedermayer said. “When you get to the highest level of hockey, sometimes that can be a challenge, and you have to figure out when and where you do that, but you love to see it.”

Zellweger said he prides himself on being the most competitive player on the ice, whether it’s battling for the puck or position.

He has been trying to make up for his lack of height ever since he began playing competitive hockey. Zellweger suspects he’ll need to adjust parts of his game when he moves to San Diego of the American Hockey League and possibly the NHL next season.

“I’ve done a very good job at that throughout the levels I’ve been playing at so far,” he said. “When I’m on the ice, I don’t even notice. When I’m playing against a bigger player, I try to use my body and my skating to really defend them.”

Zellweger has long been a fan of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, who is also on the smaller side (5-11, 187 pounds), but that didn’t deter him from winning the Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy voted as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2022.

He also strives to emulate the games of defensemen Samuel Girard of the Avalanche and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators.

“They can defend, they can break the puck out, they can do a lot of everything,” Zellweger said. “That’s how I want my game to develop.” 

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