While names of defensemen and a few pie-in-the-sky forwards have been dancing through the heads of Ducks fans in the run up to the trade deadline on March 3, the opening salvo from Anaheim is decidedly smaller. For all the talk of Keith Yandle (sound the alarm), Andrej Sekera, and Zybnek Michalek, the first deal completed by general manager Bob Murray was with a cohort whom he'd already done business with this season in the Montreal Canadiens' Marc Bergevin. Your newest member of the Anaheim Ducks? 22-year old rookie Czech forward Jiri Sekac, with rugged playoff hero of last season Devante Smith-Pelly sent to don the rouge, bleu, et blanc.
In 50 games with the Habs this season Sekac has tallied seven goals and nine assists, averaging 13:48 of ice time. For a Montreal side that ranks 21st in the league at even strength averaging 49.4% of a game's shot attempts, Sekac is 21st on the team with the Canadiens taking 46.8% of the shot attempts when he's been on ice at five on five. Part of the reason this may be the case beyond just his former club's play style is he's primarily been used in a lower line role. He ranks eighth among Montreal forwards with his teammates averaging 16.5% of ice time, and 12th in the forward group with a -4.6% relative zone start percentage, meaning he's seen the majority of his starts on the defensive end of the ice. While the numbers may not look great, they're a fair reflection of how he's been deployed by a team that regularly tends to get out-shot and out-attempted, relying on the goaltending of Carey Price and moments of offensive brilliance from the likes of Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, and P.K. Subban.
As is the case with any rookie the projection looking forward is as important as initial production, and in Sekac's case the ceiling could be a high as a regular top-six scoring forward. He spent the past three seasons in the KHL, cutting his teeth with Lev Poprad for a season before spending 2012-14 with HC Lev Praha. Sekac put up 11 goals and 18 assists over 53 games and contributed a goal and seven assists in 24 playoff games for Praha, taking part in a run all the way to game seven of the Gagarin Cup Final in 13-14. His play attracted the attention of 12 teams this past offseason, with Montreal winning the bidding war for his services. Eric Engels recently wrote on Sportsnet how well liked he's been in his debut season with the Canadiens, with highlights about his maturity and work ethic, as well as conditioning:
"I've never had to settle him down," says (agent Allan) Walsh. "We've talked about it at times during the season and it's important not to overreact to what's happening today as opposed to tomorrow or yesterday. Obviously, it's not good news if you're scratched from a game. He's not happy about it. Like all players, he wants to play and he wants to play a bigger role."
Walsh knows the way out. He confirms that Sekac knows too. "He's one of the hardest working players in the gym and on the ice. He won't stop working."
He compounded an excellent showing at rookie camp by posting the best score at the Habs' main camp for a fitness challenge known as the beep test, in which a player runs to a series of beeps that incrementally increase in speed until the player can't keep up. Sekac kept rhythm for 14.5 beeps.
Having appeared at All Star weekend this year as one of the rookie selections, Sekac finished sixth in the fastest skater competition. He carries a reasonable cap hit of $1.35mil and is signed through next season, after which he'll be a restricted free agent. There's also the matter of his father, whose passion for the game and his son should fit in quite well with the other Ducks dads.
Though Smith-Pelly lead the Ducks with five goals last postseason, he never fully settled into a role this season in averaging 14:38 of ice time, but in recent games seeing his time on the sheet shrink dramatically. DSP put up three goals and 12 assists in 54 games with Anaheim this year, and while his imposing 6'0" 220 pound frame and wrecking ball style will be missed in the playoffs, his 47.3 SAT% at evens was the lowest amongst all regular Ducks forwards.
Games against Eastern Conference opposition this season have exposed the Ducks at times due to their inability to handle speed on the forecheck and in transition. In particular facing the Rangers, Lightning, and last night the Red Wings illustrated the trouble this team can have against teams that have the capability to send multiple men high on the forecheck, as well as stand up the Ducks at the blue line and force dump-ins thanks to a lack of speed through the neutral zone. Sekac himself won't be the key to solving those issues, but he gives the Ducks another speedy piece that teams will have to worry about getting behind them while having shown some of the skill and finishing touch to take advantage when he does.
Fans have been clamoring for additional scoring punch in the lineup, and this deal gives Anaheim a slight upgrade at the moment but with potential for much more down the road. While there is still certainly a need to add more skill and shot suppression rather than size and physicality on the backend, any deal that turns a lower line player into one with skill and top six potential has to be looked at as a positive. Sekac could make his Ducks debut as early as tomorrow night against Ottawa, though per LA Times' Lance Pugmire it may be on Friday against Los Angeles due to work visa issues.