The Ducks are 22 games into the season, Ducks fans have had a bittersweet experience.
On the sweet side, the caliber of play in the 2019-2020 season is much better than the last season of play and has produced much more exciting play. On the bitter side, the Ducks have been losing games lately with the Ducks going 3-5-2 in their last 10. The losses have come mostly due to costly injuries to Lindholm, Manson, Guhle and Kase, inconsistent performances from the youngsters, and surprisingly hot and cold goaltending. However, regardless of their recent struggles, the Ducks are still in striking distance of being a playoff team this year because of the uncertainty of the Pacific division outside of Vegas.
With the Ducks hanging around the bottom third of the league in points, the question starts to get asked what the best outcome for this season would be for the Ducks. Obviously, Ducks fans would prefer to see their team win a lot of games and march to the playoffs for a chance at the Cup in a haywire division. However, despite the progress, the team has made this season compared to last, it’s not very realistic to expect this team to contend for a conference title let alone a Cup.
So what should Ducks fans be hoping for in this season? Realistically the answer to that question is one word. Progress.
The Ducks’ Present
The Ducks are in an odd place as a franchise. They have elite talent on their roster in Gibson, Lindholm, and Rakell, so they want to capitalize on that talent; however, they are also very young, and many of the key players on their roster are just getting acclimated to NHL hockey and still need to develop a bit more. They have a new coach that has brought promising new systems and a much more hospitable environment for growth as a team, but it takes a while to get a team working well within a system and could take as long as 50 games before fans can finally see it successfully utilized. So with that being said, the Ducks will likely continue to have a bit of a rollercoaster season caused by growing pains that are buffered by some elite skill in their lineup.
Based on this probability of inconsistent play this season, Ducks fans should probably expect their team to land somewhere right outside of the playoffs or even in one of the two wildcard spots. If everything breaks right and Eakins systems get fully implemented before the 50 game mark, and the youngsters start putting up points on a more consistent basis the Ducks may even find themselves in a divisional playoff position. However, it’s hard to say if a spot barely in or out of the playoff picture is where the Ducks should want to end up for the betterment of the franchise’s future.
The Ducks’ Future
Despite a lot of the Ducks’ top prospects more or less graduating onto the main club in Steel, Terry, Jones, Guhle, and Comtois, there are still quite a few prospects with NHL potential that has yet to break in.
The First Wave
The first wave of the Ducks future is a few names that the fans have seen in Ducks uniforms already. Those names are Lundestrom, Sprong, and Mahura. These three have all had varying levels of NHL experience, Mahura the most recently, and all of them have had games where they look poised to be in the top half of the roster on most nights.
Daniel Sprong was an NHL regular last season, and when he was given an opportunity to shoot in the offensive zone he made goalies sweat with his elite release and uncanny accuracy. The thing likely holding back Sprong from being a regular this season was his skill-set not fitting what Eakins believes he needs in a 4th line right-winger as Silfverberg, Kase, and Terry all currently take up the top 9 right winger positions. If he can start putting up big offensive numbers in the AHL again he should be able to force himself into the Ducks roster and maybe make Bob Murray make some difficult decisions regarding his top 9.
Isac Lundestrom has played very sparingly in the NHL over the last two seasons. Most recently, he started the season in between Silfverberg and Rakell on the 1st line, and he did not look out of place. How much of that is because Rakell and Silfverberg are just outstanding players and how much of that is Lundestrom being a good player is hard to say, however, in a very small sample of three games that line put up their highest shot rate numbers and xGF numbers with Lundestrom in the middle. If Lundestrom can continue to improve his offensive game in the AHL this year he could very realistically be the 3rd or 4th line center for the Ducks in 2021 and possibly force Murray to move his newly-extended center Henrique.
Josh Mahura has just recently played in a seven-game stint with the Ducks in which he has had 1 goal and 3 assists and very good relative shot rates and xGF statistics. He likely isn’t ready for a full-time role on the Ducks, however, if Murray finally gives up on the Jacob Larsson experience, Mahura could become a third-pairing defenseman that doubles as a powerplay specialist in 2021.
The Second Wave
The second wave for the Ducks has a few more prominent names with more elite skill and possibly a few guys that won’t ever be full-time NHLers. Fans could see these guys in the lineup next year, but they could also have to wait as long as 2022 before seeing them. This wave is made up of Zegras, Tracey, Drew, Groulx, and Benoit.
Simon Benoit is a name that may be less familiar to Ducks fans as he was an undrafted free agent signing. He was just called up for a short stint in the press box for the Ducks-Oilers game on November 10th; however, he did not play in that game and was sent down promptly afterward. Benoit plays a game not dissimilar to Josh Manson. He may not have the physicality that Manson possesses, but he plays a very effective two-way game and has a bit more speed than Manson does while still possessing a bit of grit. Benoit is in a difficult position as a Ducks prospect because he doesn’t have the draft pedigree of a Larsson or a Mahura, and he plays on the left side. He does seem to have the tools to compete in the NHL, though, so maybe he could find a job as a steady two-way third pairing defender and push a player like Larsson or Mahura to their off-wing.
Benoit-Olivier Groulx is a player that Ducks fans should be hoping pans out just because of the way he plays. He’s the atypical big-bodied, two-way, skilled centerman that plays the type of hockey Ducks fans are used to. The year before Groulx’s draft year, he was projected to be a 1st round selection, however, because of a lackluster performance in 2018 he dropped to the second round, and the Ducks were able to pick him up. Since he was drafted Groulx has done his best to prove his detractors wrong by putting up 108 points in 84 games. He has been playing on the first line for the Mooseheads since being drafted, and he’s been dominant on both sides of the ice, putting up points while limiting scoring chances against. Groulx is in a similar position as Benoit though in that Anaheim’s system is clogged up down the middle with the likes of Steel, Lundestrom, Zegras, and Morand all vying for spots; if Groulx is going to play in the NHL as soon as 2021 he’s going to have to put up a truly spectacular season for the Mooseheads.
Brayden Tracey is a name that many Ducks fans were shocked to hear called for the 29th selection of the 2019 draft when there were names like Arthur Kaliyev and Raphael Lavoie still on the board. But it seems that Murray and his scouting staff may have made the right pick if Tracey’s early performance is any indicator (although the writer still believes Kaliyev would have been a better selection). Through 12 games, Tracey has put up 10 goals (2 hat-tricks) and 12 assists all while playing on a Moose Jaw team that has mostly under-agers and over-agers that were never drafted. Tracey is a shifty player with a good shot and incredible hands. The challenge for him will be breaking through a very crowded Ducks roster on the leftwing. Tracey’s chances of breaking into the league in 2021 are fairly slim as the Ducks will likely want to see how Comtois and Jones perform on the leftwing after a full season of NHL experience. However, in 2022, if Tracey keeps his upward trajectory he should be given an opportunity to force Bob Murray to make another tough decision regarding the leftwing of his roster.
Hunter Drew is on an island of his own in the Ducks system, and that island is right-handed-defensemen. Drew is the only prospect of note in the Ducks system who is right-handed which bodes well for his chances of breaking into the Ducks’ roster in 2021. Drew was initially drafted because he was a good responsible two-way defender in junior, however in the 2019 season following his draft year he put up respectable offensive numbers with 50 points in 61 games. Drew impressed in the preseason competition with his improved skating and good hockey IQ, if he has a respectable year in San Diego this season he should be able to earn himself a spot on the third pairing for 2021.
Trevor Zegras is the player that almost all Ducks fans are anxious to see. He’s a creative player with elite passing ability and high-level skill and is the only real elite prospect that the Ducks currently have. While he plays for a weak team in Boston University that doesn’t have an elite duo like Wisconsin’s Turcotte and Caufield, Zegras has still managed to put up very good numbers with 4 goals and 9 assists in 11 games, putting him on pace for a 50 point season if he was to play 42 games. To put that into perspective the only 18-year-olds that have scored more than 50 points in the last five years have been 71 points by Eichel in 2015, 60 points by Boeser in 2016, and 71 points by Connor in 2016. All three players had NHLers on their team, Connor had Compher, Motte and Werenski, Boeser had Schmaltz, Caggiula, Ladue, Wolanin, Stetcher, and Poolman, and Eichel had Rodrigues. Obviously, Eichel is the exception to this group as the rest of his team was fairly forgettable except for Rodrigues, who’s a bottom 6 forward for Buffalo. However, both Boeser and Connor had multiple future NHLers on their teams, which would have helped boost their numbers.
Although we cannot predict perfectly that Zegras’ teammates will not be future NHLers, it seems very unlikely that any of them save for maybe 20-year-old David Farrance will become NHLers. This means that if Zegras does reach 50 points it will be just as, if not more impressive, than Boeser and Connor’s totals, however, still a clear step below Eichel’s totals.
If Zegras reaches 50+ points this season, there is a strong possibility we would see him in the NHL in 2021 much like what happened with Eichel, Boeser, and Connor. If that were to happen he could possibly push for the 2nd or 3rd line center position right away.
How the “Now” Affects the Future
Although the Ducks have good depth in their prospect pool there is still an evident lack of elite talent with Zegras being the only true elite talent coming up the ranks. This isn’t to say that Ducks couldn’t get by with what they already have in their depth chart as a plausible 2021 lineup of…
…would still be a serviceable roster that could contend most nights, especially when accounting for the Gibson factor. However, if the Ducks got a game-changer in a top 5 selection in the 2020 draft (which has been compared to the 2003 draft) it could drastically change the Ducks roster for the better in various ways.
Let’s assume, for instance, that the Ducks end up with a lottery pick that puts them within the top 10 for the 2020 draft. Unlike most draft years, this year, almost all of the top 10 projected players have either special (Patrick Kane-like), elite (Auston Matthews-like) or high-end (Gabriel Landeskog-like) potential. So even if the Ducks don’t get a top 5 pick in this draft there’s a good chance they’re still going to get a player who’s better than all their other prospects, except maybe Zegras.
Because of this incredible depth in the 2020 draft, it’s not a hot take to say it would be better for the Ducks to miss the playoffs this year from a future success perspective.
Plausible Scenarios for the 2021 Season (Sans Playoff Berth)
In Scenario #1, the Ducks miss the playoffs by a hair, they end up finishing 24th overall in the league standings due to a much stronger Eastern Conference and are optimistic about their lottery chances. They end up not moving up or down in the rankings and get the 8th overall selection. At the draft, they select right-handed defenseman, Jamie Drysdale. Drysdale is an elite skater with incredible awareness on the ice, his greatest comparable in the NHL right now would be Cale Makar, except Drysdale is further along in his development than Makar was at his age.
If the Ducks selected Drysdale, they would shore up their defense for the foreseeable future. With how gifted Drysdale is it wouldn’t be that surprising to see him step into the NHL early. Although Drysdale would still likely not step into the lineup until at least the year after his draft year, however, the presence of Drysdale in the Ducks’ system and the graduation of other prospects could allow Murray to make other moves.
With Drysdale in the system, it makes losing a player like Larsson much less painful, and with the graduation of players like Zegras and Sprong could allow Murray to package Larsson and a player like Jones or Ritchie for a higher quality player. Meanwhile, the defense core would become something like:
In Scenario #2, the Ducks injury woes and inconsistent play by their youngsters take a toll on them, and they end up finishing in the bottom 5 of the league. They end up with the 5th overall pick. With the 5th overall pick, they select leftwing Cole Perfetti. Perfetti is a smaller player, but he has elite hockey sense, an incredible shot, and is an offensive dynamo. He projects as a player in the same arena of skill as Johnny Gaudreau.
If the Ducks selected Perfetti, he would likely need another year in juniors before getting his shot in the NHL. But further bolstering of the Ducks left side would make it necessary for them to make a big move to free up leftwing. Murray could decide to move one of Comtois, Jones, or Ritchie as they all play a similar style of game. Or, if he has faith in those three to shore up his bottom 9 for the foreseeable future and have Perfetti eventually take over the first line position, he could consider shopping Rakell for a quality top 4 right-handed defenseman. A deal with Carolina may work sending Rakell for 24-year-old Brett Pesce. Pesce is an excellent two-way defenseman and Carolina would be reluctant to part with him, but with Rakell the Canes offense becomes all the more potent, especially with his very team-friendly contract, and the Canes have defensemen like Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury waiting to become full-time defensemen.
If the Ducks selected Perfetti and subsequently made a trade like Rakell for Pesce their lineup would look something like this in 2021:
The forward group would initially take a big hit, but with the youngsters further developing and the new greatly improved defense core, the Ducks would likely become a surefire playoff team in 2021.
In Scenario #3, the Ducks finish in the bottom third of the league, but they are very lucky, and they end up with the 2nd overall pick. Although there is some discussion of who will be the first overall selection this year between Lafreniere and Byfield, the likeliest scenario is that Lafreniere gets selected 1st overall. So with Lafreniere taken, the Ducks select 6’4” center Quinton Byfield with the 2nd overall selection. Byfield is everything that a team wants in a player; he’s big, strong, a great skater, and he has elite hands and a great shot. With Byfield, the Ducks have a player who will be their franchise player for the foreseeable future.
If the Ducks are lucky enough to select Byfield, there would be a lot of changes that come from the trickledown effect. Byfield would likely start the season on the 3rd line for the 2021 season, but it’s very possible that a prospect of his size and skill could find himself on the first line 20 games into the season. With a newly found glut of high-level center talent in the system, the Ducks would have to consider moving some of their centers out for other assets. A possible roster configuration that could appear as a result of these changes could be:
In this roster configuration, Henrique gets traded away to the Florida Panthers for Mackenzie Weegar and a 2nd. Weegar is a very underrated defenseman in Florida. He leads the entire team in xGF% with 59.45%, and he’s second in shot attempt generation controlling 59.22% of the shot attempts while he’s on the ice. The reason why the trade is Weegar and a 2nd is because Weegar is an RFA after this year, and Henrique is on pace for a 60 point season while signed for the next 5 seasons. And although Weegar is having an amazing season analytically, he still hasn’t gained the name cache that seems to boost players’ trade value in the NHL. Therefore a trade of Weegar and a 2nd for Henrique works because it solidifies Florida’s top 9 centers for the foreseeable future and gives the Ducks trustworthy defensemen in their top 4.
Moving forward into 2022, the addition of Byfield may make it more sensible to move Zegras over to the leftwing where he has played occasionally through his time in the USHL and college. Otherwise, the Ducks would need to look at moving one of Steel or Lundestrom because they would be forced to play 3rd and 4th line roles if Zegras remained a center. This movement of Zegras to leftwing makes a player like Rakell a tradeable asset to shore up other areas of the lineup. Trade like the Pesce trade-in Scenario #2 could again make sense.
So, What Is Best For the Ducks?
Considering the high level of talent at the top of the 2020 draft and the implications that such a pick would have on the Ducks roster, it stands to reason that missing the playoffs is the best outcome for the Ducks’ 2020 season. Even though Ducks fans want to see their team win and it’s counter-intuitive to hope for losses, the reality of the situation is that the Ducks still need another elite piece in their organization to be Cup contenders again, and the best way to get that elite piece is through the draft.
By selecting within the top 10 in the draft, the Ducks don’t just get the added boost from an elite player in their organization; it also opens up their options for trading away packages of good players for elite ones in order to free up roster spots for the incoming draftees. And with a full year of adopting Eakins’ systems and restarting the locker room culture, the Ducks should be better positioned to succeed in 2021 anyways.
Despite the depressing reality of watching a bottom feeder team night in night out, Ducks fans should take solace in the fact that every loss brings them closer to a brighter horizon found in a top 10 pick in one of the deepest drafts since 2003.
Featured Images: - Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG - Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images