The seven eliminated teams, excluded from the NHL’s 24-team play-in tournament, include all three California squads. We’ve already covered the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings in this 2019-20 postmortem series. Next up: the Anaheim Ducks (29-33-9), who sit in the early stages of a rebuild or at least a retool. After making six straight post-seasons from 2012-13 to 2017-18, they’ve missed the big dance twice in a row. They finished 2019-20 with a .472 points percentage, their lowest since 2003-04. The question now is whether the Ducks have bottomed out. A second important question: do they want to bottom out yet? Last year’s playoff miss helped them snag a great prospect in Trevor Zegras, and they’re destined to land another in the 2020 draft, but maybe they need to stay bad a bit longer to build a critical mass of young talent.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The 2018-19 Ducks didn’t know they’d be bad, as they were fresh off a 101-point season in 2017-18. After the 2018-19 playoff miss, expectations were far more modest last off-season. In May 2019, centre Ryan Kesler underwent major hip surgery that cost him all of this season and may end his career. In June 2019, GM Bob Murray bought right winger Corey Perry out. The losses of those two major veterans signalled a culture change. The old guard was on its way out, save for captain Ryan Getzlaf. The Ducks avoided bringing in any high-impact UFAs, keeping roster spots open for youngsters. Their opening-night lineup included forward prospects Sam Steel, Max Jones and Troy Terry.
The plan was that 2019-20, while not expected to deliver a playoff berth, could at least provide major opportunities for the kids to develop. But they didn’t progress as hoped. Steel needed 18 games to score his first goal of the season. Terry fractured his fibula in a knee-on-knee collision in December, which cost him multiple weeks and led to him spending several more weeks in the AHL once he returned. Because newly promoted coach Dallas Eakins had worked with the kids coaching the AHL affiliate in San Diego, the hope was to see some youngsters break out at the NHL level this season, but no Duck under 25 years old even topped 10 goals or 25 points. Murray expressed his frustration with the team’s younger players in early June, claiming they were “allowed to get away with murder this year,” though he later clarified he didn’t intend to criticise Eakins. What Murray meant is he felt he didn’t support Eakins enough.
It’s not like the veterans lit it up, either. Anaheim had two 20-goal scorers in Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg, and Henrique’s 43 points led the team. With Getzlaf in decline, turning 35 in March, and top sniper Rickard Rakell having a down year, plus the Ducks lacking a truly dynamic offensive defenceman at the NHL level, this team had a heck of a time scoring. Anaheim sat 29th in goals per game, 30th in power-play percentage, 27th in shots on goal per game, 18th in 5-on-5 scoring chances per 60 minutes and 15th in high-danger shot attempts per 60.
Just as big of a problem: the defence wasn’t there to back the weak offence. Even with steady Hampus Lindholm around, it wasn’t enough, especially with rugged Josh Manson limited to 50 games because of an MCL sprain. Anaheim allowed the ninth-most shots on goal per 60, the sixth-most scoring chances per 60 and the fifth-most high-danger attempts per 60. Their penalty kill ranked 26th in the league.
Goaltender John Gibson had kept the team afloat with his tremendous play despite difficult workloads in the recent past, but he just couldn’t carry the team this year. Among 54 goalies who played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 in 2019-20, Gibson faced the 12th-most high-danger shots against per 60 minutes, the 12th-most rush attempts against per 60 and the second-closest average shot distance. The result was the roughest season of his career. He posted career worsts with a 3.00 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. Across the previous three seasons, among goalies with a least 100 games played, Gibson ranked third in the league in goals saved above average per 60. This year: 43rd.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
You have to dig to find something exciting about Anaheim’s season. Defenceman Cam Fowler had his best year in a while. The Ducks outscored opponents 45-37 at 5-on-5 with him on the ice, which is pretty remarkable considering how few goals they scored. Among 99 defencemen who played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Fowler had the 21st-best goals-against per 60 at 2.17. He also ranked eighth in the NHL in Corsi relative to teammates among D-men. Fowler’s season was all the more impressive considering he had noted possession drainer Erik Gudbranson as his most frequent partner.
Henrique had a shockingly good year, too. His 26 goals in 71 games put him on pace to equal his career high of 30 before the NHL’s COVID-19 shutdown in March. It wasn’t a puck-luck thing, either. Henrique scored on 15.4 percent of his shots. His career shooting percentage: 15.4.
Only Lindholm averaged more minutes than Fowler among Anaheim regulars. The Ducks generated 51.68 percent of the shot attempts and scored 54.88 percent of the goals when Fowler was on the ice. He had the strongest impact, albeit Lindholm faced tougher competition and started his shifts in the offensive zone 13.3% less often.
Murray was busy. He wasn’t swimming in attractive rental assets, but he turned right winger Ondrej Kase, an analytics darling who underachieved largely because of injuries, into a 2020 first-round pick plus right-shot defenceman Axel Andersson, who immediately slotted in as a top-five prospect in Anaheim’s 2020 Future Watch rankings. The key to securing that haul from the Boston Bruins was doing them a solid by taking on David Backes’ contract, which includes one more year at a $4.5-million cap hit, with the Bruins retaining $1.5 million of Backes’ true cap hit of $6 million.
That was Anaheim’s one major “futures” trade, but Murray made a couple more hockey deals with intriguing potential. He sent bruising left winger Nick Ritchie, who never met his potential as 2014’s 10th-overall pick, to the Bruins for left winger Danton Heinen, who’d regressed and lost some confidence over the past couple seasons after a promising rookie campaign in 2017-18. Anaheim also sent centre Devin Shore to the Columbus Blue Jackets for left winger Sonny Milano, a dazzling but enigmatic dangler who went six picks after Ritchie in 2014 and never found a footing in Columbus. Will Heinen and Milano spread their wings as Ducks? At the very least, they need to provide legit roster competition to push the prospects.
The Ducks hold a ho-hum seven picks for 2020, but two of them are first-rounders. Since the Bruins own the Presidents’ Trophy slot and are considered elite Stanley Cup contenders, the pick Anaheim got in the Kase trade could end up as low as 31st overall. With their own first-rounder, the Ducks have an 8.5 percent chance of winning the June-26 lottery and can only fall as far as eighth overall. Unless they trade down, they’ll have their highest pick since nabbing Lindholm sixth overall in 2012.
It’s still relatively early in Anaheim’s rebuild. The group that has graduated to the NHL – Steel, Terry, Jones, Max Comtois, Isac Lundestrom, etc. – consists of players selected later in the first or even in the middle rounds during years when Anaheim was contending and not picking in plum positions. On the whole, it’s a good but not great-looking group. Our scouting panel of active NHL scouts and team executives graded it the NHL’s 14th-best farm crop in Future Watch 2020. The exception, however, is Zegras, whom the Ducks nabbed ninth overall in the 2019 draft. The smooth play maker really impressed for Team USA at the 2020 world juniors and hovered north of a point per game as a freshman at Boston University. The Future Watch voters rank Zegras as the No. 2 NHL-affiliated prospect in the world right now, trailing only Colorado’s Bowen Byram.
Still, the Ducks need more blue-chippers, especially on defence. The 2020 draft is important.
With Backes’ salary in tow, the Ducks are tight against the cap for 2020-21. A flat cap of $81.5 million would give Anaheim less than $6 million of space on paper, though keeping Kesler on long-term injured reserve would free close to $7 million. The killer is the Perry buyout. The buyout cap hits for him by year: $2.625 million, $6.625 million, $2 million, $2 million. Next up is the $6.625-million year.
In this case, the lack of cap space might be a blessing. The Ducks aren’t a team on the rise yet and wouldn’t be helping themselves by bringing in expensive win-now veterans. It’s about shedding that salary right now. By not adding, the Ducks keep spots open for younger players but also should avoid getting too good too soon. Another down year followed by another top-10 pick in 2021 might be what’s best for this team in the long run.