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Pacific Peeks: Anaheim Ducks

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A bounce back is all but certain, but to what end?

April 3, 2019; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks goaltender Ryan Miller (30) celebrates the 3-1 victory with left wing Max Jones (49) and defenseman Hampus Lindholm (47) against the Calgary Flames at Honda Center. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

While the Anaheim Ducks had a bad 2018-19, it seems unlikely that they don’t improve in 2019-20, even if by pure regression upwards. Beset by injury, miserable puck luck, a streak of 19 losses in 21 games and a strangely long leash on historically ineffective head coach Randy Carlyle, the Ducks’ misfortunes last season were numerable, and resulted in a swift trip to the basement of the weakest division in the NHL.

This season, don’t expect the Ducks to challenge for the Cup or dominate the NHL or anything, as their roster is pretty wanting, but a bounce back from last season is all but inevitable. Anaheim is not likely to lead the league in man games lost again, or to suffer such a remarkable stretch of misery again, and new head coach Dallas Eakins has to be better for a roster of veterans and young up-and-comers than Carlyle was, even if only due to his strict dietary regime for growing bones.

We won’t need to wait long to find out what this team will look like on the ice, as the Ducks visit our very own San Jose Sharks for each team’s first preseason game tomorrow night, the first of two, and the grownups will face each other for the first of four games on Saturday, October 5. They’ll also close the season together in what will likely be a pretty meaningless contest given the disparity between these two teams, on April 4.

Where we left off

The Ducks struggled last year, to put it politely. Their 80 points was 24th in the NHL, and sixth in the Pacific division, only saved from the bottom by the combined ignominy of the NHL’s latest Todd McLellan tour, the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers. We don’t have to dig too deep to find the reason these Mighty have fallen so far: Anaheim’s -52 goal differential was the fourth worst in the league, powered there by their league-worst 199 goals for.

There are a few things we can learn from this. First, injuries took a heavy bite out of this team, and project to take another one in 2019-20. The Ducks led the league in man games lost to injury. Maybe general manager Bob Murray tripped over a black cat under a ladder into a mirror or something, but Ryan Kesler was limited to 60 games, Ryan Getzlaf played 67, Cam Fowler was limited to 59, Derek Grant and Corey Perry 31, and the team’s best skater, Ondrej Kase, suited up for just 30 games. In 2017-18, Getzlaf, Perry and Kase were the team’s second, third and fifth leading scorers, respectively, and Grant and Fowler were 10th and 11th. Aside from Kesler and Patrick Eaves, who are already slated to miss all of the coming season (not a great start), it’s pretty unlikely the team suffers such massive holes in their lineup for such long periods of time.

IRVINE, CA - JUNE 17: The new Anaheim Ducks Head Coach Dallas Eakins, left, was presented with a Ducks jersey by General Manager Bob Murray during a press conference at Great Park Ice in Irvine, CA on Monday, June 17, 2019. Eakins is the Ducks 10th head c Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Even more unlikely is another contributor to the team’s woes: the ineffable wisdom and indispensable tutelage of Randolph Robert Carlyle (yes, that is his real name). The Ducks’ 21-26-9 record through February 9, the day before Carlyle’s ouster, is awful, and largely due to a 21-game stretch from December 18 to that fateful February morning during which the team won a total of two (2) contests. That streak finally forced Murray to fire Carlyle (of course), and take over behind the bench himself (of course ... wait). Under the general manager’s steady hand, the team managed to put together a 14-11-1 record to end the season, good enough for a 91-point pace, a pace which, if it had been maintained over the full season, would have relegated the 90-point Colorado Avalanche to the dustbin of history.

Eakins is all but guaranteed to coerce a better record out of this squad than the GM could, and that alone could account for an extra four or five wins.

2019 Entry Draft

With the Chicago Blackhawks jumping to third in the NHL Entry Draft lottery in June, the Ducks slid down to ninth overall. Luckily for them, it appeared as if one of their men was still available. Heading into the draft, Murray talked about looking for centers, notably: “at nine, if any one of three guys is there we’re going with them. I need somebody to jump in there.” Looking at the draft board, he was probably referring to three of Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens, Trevor Zegras and Alex Turcotte.

Chicago jumped up to take Dach third, the Kings took Turcotte fifth and the Buffalo Sabres took Cozens at seven, leaving Zegras for the Ducks at nine. Maybe Murray’s early position-based draft strategy is related to Getzlaf’s inexorable dance with father time — if so, the shiny-headed Olympian will have to tough it out for a few more years: Zegras is committed to Boston University for at least one more year. Zegras at nine is a strong pick, he wouldn’t have drawn many glances askance at five or six, the center’s vision and playmaking ability were ranked by many scouts second only to American phenom and first overall pick Jack Hughes. When he’s ready, it’s not crazy to expect him to lead this team back to relevance within the next five years.

The Ducks’ second first-round pick originally belonged to the Sharks, but was sent to the Sabres in the Evander Kane trade, and then to Anaheim for Brandon Montour at this year’s trade deadline. Left wing Brayden Tracey is an interesting pick in the first round. Ranked 73rd among North American skaters by NHL central scouting mid-season, Tracey jumped up to 21st after placing 16th overall in points per game in the WHL with 1.23 as a rookie. He’s a risky pick, but could have high upside.

Jackson LaCombe out of Shattuck-St. Mary’s in the second round and Henry Thrun from the US National Team Development Program in the fourth are pretty clear attempts to restock the team’s woefully shallow defensive prospect depth. Maybe they could have taken bigger swings on high upside forwards, but having some solid defensive prospects never hurt anyone. Trevor Janicke in the fifth at 132nd overall is a safe, high value pick, as he was ranked 119th among North American skaters by central scouting.

Overall, the Ducks had a pretty solid draft, helped by Zegras’ fall to nine. It will probably be a few years of continued obsolescence in the NHL before any of these names are household, but there’s upside for pieces of a new young core there in a few years.

Roster

Remember when the Ducks’ top six blueliners were Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore and Sami Vatanen, one of the most potent group of young defensemen in the NHL? Those days are over, with the latter three of those players victims of futures-building trades and the former three underperforming to a huge degree in recent years. Lindholm and Manson are still around, and likely to continue to be pretty effective this season. There’s hope that Brendan Guhle, part of the return from the Sabres in the Montour trade, can step up and be a legitimate top-four option, but with Fowler declining in efficacy in each of the past three years, depth on the back end (also depth everywhere) is a concern.

Additionally, the off-season re-acquisitions of players like Anthony Stolarz and Michael Del Zotto is curious, as he’s likely to take time away from younger blueliners like Jani Hakanpaa, and not likely to be terribly effective doing so. There are holes all over the roster, and it would behoove the club to fill those holes with players on their way up the aging curve rather than down it.

With the decline of Getzlaf, and Perry’s buy out and subsequent signing with the Dallas Stars, Anaheim will be looking for big steps forward from ducklings Sam Steel, Troy Terry and maybe Maxime Comtois. Terry put up 13 points in 32 games in the bigs last season, spending a plurality of his time centered by either Derek Grant or Adam Henrique. He’s likely to line up with Henrique again on the third line, and will probably be given ample opportunities to contribute. Former first-round pick Steel will be expected to step up as well and continue to center Jakob Silfverberg and either Rickard Rakell or Devin Shore on the second line in his D+4 season. Both players spent most of last year in the AHL under Dallas Eakins, so his promotion to the big club bodes well for their development.

ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 21: Ondrej Kase #25 talks with John Gibson #36 of the Anaheim Ducks after scoring a goal during the second period of a game against the Vancouver Canucks at Honda Center on November 21, 2018 in Anaheim, California. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

On the ice, the Ducks will fly as high as John Gibson and Ondrej Kase can carry them. Gibson’s dominance over the past few years is getting silly, and the lack of help he gets from his skater group all but ensures he won’t be rewarded for it any time soon (51 million dollars notwithstanding). Gibson faced the most high danger shots in the league per 60 minutes in 2018-19, and saved 28.63 goals above average (GSAA) in that time. That’s tops in the league by a fair margin, and his GSAA ranked second in 2017-18 and fourth in 2016-17. The fact that the Ducks weren’t dead last in the NHL last year is largely due to Gibson’s play (and the play of the Ottawa Senators, of course).

Kase will probably be the best skater on this Ducks team in 2019-20, if he isn’t already, and if he doesn’t spend the year as the third best skater on the Carolina Hurricanes instead. Rumors are swirling that Kase is the key return in a hypothetical Justin Faulk trade, which, depending on what else could be packaged of course, would be very bad for Anaheim. Not Hall-for-Larsson bad, but bad enough that it seemed relevant to mention Hall-for-Larsson. Faulk is still a serviceable blueliner, but he’s declined in effectiveness over the past few years, and is not likely to get better before he gets worse. Kase, on the other hand, is a catalyst for success.

Without Kase in the lineup, the Ducks started the season 7-8-3. As soon as he returned, they went on an 11-2 run as part of a 13-11-6 stretch that would be Kase’s entire 30-game contribution for the season. They finished the season in his absence playing at a 77-point pace, 15-18-1. The color that Kase wears in October could determine where the Ducks end up in April.

What can we expect in 2020?

The Ducks will almost definitely play better than they did last season for a myriad of reasons, but if they go through with this very silly Kase-Faulk trade, a lot of that is right out the window, and they’re likely to fall into a full tank. The Pacific contains multitudes: playoff sure things like the San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights and Calgary Flames, pure joy-inducing bottom feeders like the Kings and Oilers, and who-the-hell-knows mysteries like the Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks and Ducks. In a division like that, where the top three spots are all but spoken for already, and sharing a conference with the Thunderdome that is the Central, the postseason seems like a distant fever dream for Anaheim this year. The Ducks should be looking for their young players to take steps into leadership positions, and opportunities to siphon off draft picks in savvy trades.

With the stacked talent in the Sharks’ top-six and top-four, the Ducks should present eight easy points, but Gibson will have a lot to say about that. The Sharks will need to solve the great American wall the Ducks have built in net. Historically, great goaltenders have been a problem for the Sharks (a problem unique to this team, I’m sure), but there’s so much scoring talent in teal, the Ducks are not likely to pose any significant threat on any given night.

The first of those given nights is right around the corner, as the teams lace up on October 5.

Get hyped. It’s happening.