They’re back. Well, sort of. Just five months since skating off the ice at SAP Center in San Jose at the conclusion of a four-game playoff detonation, the Anaheim Ducks return to that very same arena to begin their 2018-19 campaign. The crest on the front of the sweater may be the same for the Orange County squad, but the names on the back are anything but.
Criticized for their lack of speed, that 2017-18 iteration of the Ducks is no more. Gone are Francois Beauchemin and Kevin Bieksa on the back end, while the likes of Jason Chimera and Chris Kelly have departed up front. To replace them are names that may be familiar in some circles, but perhaps not in most households. Sam Steel and Troy Terry, they of amateur hockey fame, will begin the season playing key offensive roles for Anaheim. Terry had a brief cameo last season, while Steel has much to prove after a strong training camp.
Kiefer Sherwood, an undrafted college free agent, cracked the opening night lineup by impressing Anaheim brass throughout the exhibition schedule with his quick feet and puck skills. He’d be a big story on most teams. For these Ducks, however, he’s just turning out to be one of many young, unfamiliar faces. Maxime Comtois, who tore up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year to the tune of 44 goals and 85 points, now finds himself skating alongside veteran forwards Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg. Few saw him making the team out of camp, let alone playing a significant role. Pontus Aberg, claimed off of waivers just days ago, adds another new name and number for the equipment staff to stitch onto a jersey. At 25, he’s yet to prove he can be a full-time National Hockey League player, much like Carter Rowney, Brian Gibbons, and Ben Street, who round out the newfangled group.
So how did the Ducks end up with such a hodge-podge of new faces? For starters, Ryan Kesler’s health status remains shrouded in mystery. He’ll travel with the team to San Jose, for whatever that’s worth. Corey Perry tore his meniscus while warming up for a pre-season game, sidelining him for up to five months. Patrick Eaves, although thankfully now recovered from a previous health scare, is recovering from shoulder surgery. Ond rej Kase, who looked to be a fixture in Anaheim’s top-six, took a Brandon Montour skate boot to the face in the Ducks’ final exhibition game, sidelining him with another concussion. Gibbons took a slap shot off of his hand in the pre-season, and has a bone bruise. Oh, and then there is Nick Ritchie, who has yet to sign a contract with the team that drafted him tenth overall in 2014 So, Anaheim will ice only five of the 12 skaters who played in that final playoff game in San Jose. Uncertain times, indeed.
Uncertainty shouldn’t faze these Ducks. John Gibson is still the man in net, Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell are still there to carry the offensive load, and the blueline remains unchanged. If anything, they’ve grown accustomed to strange starts in recent years. They survived a rash of injuries last season to eventually claim home-ice advantage in the post-season, dressing some truly Frankenstein lineups in the process – Korbinian Holzer at forward anyone?
This year’s edition of the team is much different, however. The Ducks now get to give their top prospects valuable NHL experience, learning what they may have in those players along the way. Even Isac Lundestrom — who no one saw making the team after being drafted just months ago – could get an opportunity to get some regular season action. There’s some anxiety that comes with that excitement as well. With the health of its veteran players ever-receding, it’d be nice for the franchise to see its young players excel when pressed into duty, or at least show that they’re not too far off from being full-time NHLers. Steel and Terry certainly look NHL-ready, but now they have to go out and prove it as well.
No, uncertainty wont phase these Ducks. Instead, this time, it will be an occasion for optimism, and a glimpse into the future.