Cam Fowler lost the security blanket of veteran defensemen around him. It hasn't mattered. He found himself.
The 22-year-old fourth-year defender is a primary reason the Ducks lead the Pacific Division with a 22-7-5 record.
Fowler has played in all 34 games, leads the team in minutes per game (24:03) and is regularly assigned against the opponents' first line, including defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago's duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who were kept goal-less by Fowler and teammate Ben Lovejoy this month.
Fowler, once only a fringe candidate for Team USA's Olympic hockey team, is now in the final conversation about who will be selected early next month.
"He's our leader out there, the future and present of the Anaheim Ducks," Lovejoy said of Fowler.
Fowler, the 12th overall pick of the 2010 NHL entry draft, was an offensive-minded defenseman in past seasons. He scored 10 goals in 76 games at age 18, and was minus-25 and minus-28 in goal differential while on the ice during his first two seasons.
This season, he's transformed — plus-six with three goals and 16 assists.
Lovejoy calls the smooth-skating Fowler a "shutdown defenseman" who has allowed the Ducks to thrive despite the lengthy injury absences of veteran defenders Sheldon Souray, Francois Beauchemin and Luca Sbisa.
Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said this is Fowler's "breakout" campaign. The coach kept Fowler on the ice for 32:33 in the Nov. 30 shootout loss at San Jose.
"Being able to learn from my mistakes has been big," Fowler said. "I've been forced to play some big minutes. When you're playing against the caliber of players we're playing against, it forces you to be aware at all times."
Lovejoy said Fowler has not "cheated" once this season by vacating his defensive duties for an offensive chance.
"I was a victim of taking a couple seconds off here or there in the previous years and got burned," Fowler said. "With the types of minutes I've been playing and the situations I've been put in, that can't happen."
Fowler's skating grace has a parallel to that of his mentor, Ducks assistant coach Scott Niedermayer, who was elected to the Hall of Fame this year and who allowed Fowler to live with him as a rookie.
Niedermayer also knows how to win, his four Stanley Cups being evidence.
"It's easy for him to relate to me because of the similar styles — not being the big, bruising, stay-at-home defenseman," Fowler said. "We talk every time he's at the rink; it's very helpful."
Fowler said his quick skating was honed at youth power-skating clinics. But it's mostly "something I've been gifted with since I've been young," he said. "Some guys have great shots, some can skate."
The best can think too, and Fowler credits Lovejoy's accountable nature and dislike of "sugarcoating" failure as further inspiration.
"Our first game, we went to Colorado with high hopes and got our butts handed to us, 6-1," Fowler said. "To get that message sent early … it put things in perspective. I played terrible that game. But ever since, I've been in a different place mentally and it's helped me prepare for every game. That was a real turning point for this team."
Boudreau, reflecting on Fowler's growth, said, "The NHL, it's a tough place for an 18-year-old to learn. It takes some time," recalling an assistant coach once telling him it requires 300 games to learn NHL defense.
Fowler now has 229 complete.
Earlier this fall, Nashville General Manager David Poile, the Team USA GM, mentioned Fowler as a candidate for the Olympic team. On Thursday Poile said a group of young up-and-coming players will be strongly considered.
"I know there's a lot of great players and not too many spots," Fowler said. "We're all fighting for our spot, doing the best we can. With the way I've played, the consistency I've shown, hopefully I've put myself in a good spot.… I'm working for it every day, and it's a dream of mine."