The Ducks and their newly minted GM Pat Verbeek whipped the door open for business a year ago and shoppers hunting for high-end product dutifully got in line.
Hello, Boston, Colorado and Pittsburgh.
Defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson and forward Rikard Rakell were all moved out, dispatched to the Bruins, Avalanche and Penguins, respectively.
In dispatching that trio, however, the Ducks were deliberately taking a step backward. Organizations do that in the hopes of eventually taking two steps forward
The burning question: When does the forward movement start?
That’s the unknown.
They may have been clearing out luxury items a year ago but now the landscape has shifted with the Ducks deeply committed to the rebuild. With the trade deadline one month away, Verbeek doesn’t have the assets of 2022, but there still are chips that can be utilized this time to secure prospects and/or draft picks.
If you want to turn the corner, sooner than later, the Ducks need to get more reliable defensemen than they have on the roster right now. They’ve allowed the most goals in the league (205) and have the worst differential in the league (-80).
Before last year’s trade deadline, they had two stalwart, minute-munching experienced defensemen in Lindholm and Manson. By subtracting them from the mix and replacing them with John Klingberg and Dmitry Kulikov, that’s a meaningful drop off.
(Lindholm, by the way, is leading the league in plus-minus)
The Ducks are lacking the kind of player who provides quiet, almost invisible minutes on the back end. They have talent on the blue line, but it is so high risk, they just give up too many high-danger chances. There’s not enough commitment to play that defense-first style
Grinding it out in the defensive trenches is not something they do well, a personnel issue as much as it is a systems issue.
Salary cap recap
The days of the salary-cap as something of a lesser concern will be changing this summer. On the first day of training camp, Verbeek said he would not enter contract negotiations during the season with the likes of Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, all in the final year of their contracts.
Terry, who will be playing in his second All-Star game on Saturday, will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights and is making $1.45 million this season.
Zegras also will be an RFA (without arbitration rights) and is in the final year of his entry-level contract, making $925,000.
These are two cornerstone players in line for big raises. Of note, the recent pattern in the NHL has featured teams trying to get players signed to max deals to lock them up for their prime years. The salary-cap strategy has fundamentally changed in the last 12 to 24 months.
But the immediate good news for the Ducks is that rookie Mason McTavish is in the first year of his entry-level contract. Another key is that they only have one more year on the Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg contracts. That would be just over a combined $11 million disappearing at the end of the 2023-24 season.
Potential trade assets
The biggest name on the trade board is Klingberg, whose career with the Ducks spans months, not years. Klingberg’s 42-game stint with the Ducks has been wildly up and down. The down: Minus 26, tied for fourth-worst in league. Up: Three game-winning goals and a highly watchable go-for-broke mentality in overtime.
At his best, Klingberg can anchor a power play, make a great first pass and at different times in his career has been a top defenseman in the NHL. That hasn’t been the case this season. Maximizing value for Kilingberg will be challenging because he has not had a good season. The expectation they could flip him for a first-round pick might be optimistic. There are organizations that might be able to take a deeper longer look. Maybe Anaheim was the wrong place at the wrong time and he could be a better fit elsewhere and figure out what his today value is.
Kulikov would bring interest from teams because of his versatility – the ability to play both sides- and a manageable contract ($2.25 million). He can be mistake-prone but could work in the right system and for a team seeking depth. He represents more of an insurance policy, rather than someone who would play top-four minutes. Per Cap Friendly, he has an eight-team, no-trade clause.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and backup goalie Anthony Stolarz also will be unrestricted free agents. Shattenkirk, 34, a right-shot D, has a Stanley Cup championship on his resume. He can help you on the power play and would be a seamless fit because of his personality, a well-liked teammate in the room. But he gives and takes every game and wouldn’t be an option for everyone.
Regarding Stolarz, the market for goaltenders is usually limited and there will be other better options if a team is looking for goaltending help.
It’s at least worth mentioning forwards Max Comtois and Henrique. Comtois, who will be RFA (with arb rights) hasn’t met the promise of the early stages of his career and is almost at the point where he might be better off elsewhere to kick-start his career. Henrique, a well-respected veteran who will turn 33 on Monday, could be hard to move due to salary, one more year at $5.8 million, and a modified no-trade clause (10 teams).Potential trade targets
History usually provides clues in any management situation, But Verbeek’s track record is still a short one. When he was selling off assets almost a year ago, he was looking for futures. That should be the case again in 2023 – looking for the same pieces, targeting additional draft choices or taking a prospect off an organization’s depth chart.
Already, the Ducks have six picks in the first three rounds of the 2023 draft – one in the first, three in the second and two in the third.
They will be trying to add options that are either premium draft choices or a prospect who could develop and mature into an NHLer. In a year in which the draft is deep, first-rounders will be harder than ever to secure. But teams in a win-now mode might be prepared to give up an A-minus or B-plus prospect.