Not often associated with big splashes, it’s rare that the Anaheim Ducks make major waves in the trade market.
There’s been a few franchise-altering moves, like when Teemu Selanne was acquired from Winnipeg in 1996 or when Chris Pronger arrived from Edmonton in 2006. Others have boosted the franchise, even if momentarily, into contention status, like when Sandis Ozolinsh came over from Florida in 2003 or when Ryan Kesler was brought in from Vancouver in 2014. There’s even a few stingers, like shipping Kyle Palmieri out of town in 2015.
It’s been about a year since the Ducks made the swap that sent Sami Vatanen to New Jersey in exchange for Adam Henrique. Which category that deal falls into remains to be seen, but 80-ish games is enough to assess how it’s affected the Ducks so far.
It’s important to recall where the Ducks were when Henrique was acquired. Anaheim was injury-plagued all over the lineup, but in particular at center; Ryan Getzlaf had only appeared in six games because of a facial fracture, while Ryan Kesler had yet to appear in a game following off-season hip surgery (and it can be argued he’s still recovering). Without those two, there were times in which Chris Wagner and Derek Grant were, legitimately, Anaheim’s top two centers.
The defense wasn’t in perfect health either — Cam Fowler missed an entire month with a knee injury — but the long-term availability of that unit was far more secure. Both Fowler and Josh Manson signed long-term extensions that off-season, while Hampus Lindholm was in only the second year of a six-year deal signed in 2016. Those veterans, along with Brandon Montour and a handful of prospects waiting in the pipeline, made the back-end a perceived strength. Because of the defensive depth and lack of bodies up front, it was only natural to seek out ways to improve the hurting forward group.
Why was Vatanen deemed the expendable defenseman? Between he, Fowler, Manson and Lindholm, Vatanen’s contract had by far the least term remaining. His skillset — strong skating ability, right-handed shot, ability to quarterback a power play — was the most replaceable because of the ascension of Montour.
Like Vatanen, Henrique found himself a replaceable and redundant player in New Jersey. With top draft pick Nico Hischier in tow and Travis Zajac still kicking around, Henrique, with only a year left on his contract, was the odd man out. After scoring 30 goals while averaging 19:50 of ice time in 2015-16, Henrique’s ATOI dipped to 18:10 in 2016-17 and 18:15 through 24 games in 2017-18.
Match made. On Nov. 30, the Ducks sent Vatanen to New Jersey, along with a conditional draft pick, for Henrique, prospect Joseph Blandisi and a third-round pick. Henrique was a boost from the moment of his arrival, recording points in each of his first five games with Anaheim. Getzlaf returned 11 days after the trade, while Kesler played his first game later in December. The Ducks went 33-15-9 following the deal, finishing second in the Pacific Division to earn their sixth straight playoff appearance. Individually, Henrique was one of only three players to reach the 20-goal plateau, and he did so in only 57 games in Anaheim. His connection with Ondrej Kase, another 20-goal scorer, provided the Ducks with some offensive potency after Getzlaf’s line.
Vatanen was helpful for New Jersey too, leading the Devils in average ice time en route to their first playoff berth since 2011-12. But both teams were promptly knocked out off the playoffs in the first round, the Ducks bowing out in spectacularly poor fashion in a sweep by the San Jose Sharks.
Did the Ducks win the trade? Is Anaheim a better team with Henrique and without Vatanen? That’s difficult to say, especially considering the unknown with the rest of the pieces involved in the deal. Blandisi has appeared in just six games with the Ducks and will likely settle in as a career fourth-liner or AHLer. The Ducks used that third-rounder acquired from New Jersey to select Blake McLaughlin, a winger from the Chicago Steel of the USHL; it’ll be a few years before McLaughlin is considered at the top level, if ever.
Remember the term length of both Henrique and Vatanen at the time of the deal: Vatanen still had all of 2017-18, plus two more years, at a cap hit of $4.875 million, while Henrique would be under team control only through 2018-19. Considering Kesler’s health situation, a lack of NHL-ready centers in the system and the asset that was surrendered to acquire Henrique, the Ducks rewarded the 28-year old with a five-year deal worth $29.125 million this summer.
Henrique is a decent player, but not a great one; while scoring 20 goals for the Ducks in 2017-18, Henrique shot at an unsustainable 19.6 percent. His shooting percentage has always been on the high side: his career average sits at 15.5 percent, while his career low for a single season is 12.6 percent. Even a minor dip in his shooting percentage from last year, down to 17. 2 this year, has resulted in five goals in 23 games. Considering the Ducks have enough trouble consistently scoring as it is, that production isn’t good enough for a player that will make nearly $6 million a year, especially with another costly and severely overpaid center on the roster.
It’s possible that General Manager Bob Murray’s assessment of his defense minus Vatanen was quite a bit off. Montour hasn’t developed into the consistent offensive threat he was billed as, Marcus Pettersson (albeit being a different style of player) is likely a bottom-pairing defenseman at best, while Jacob Larsson has been unable to stick in the NHL so far. Losing Vatanen (via trade) and Shea Theodore (expansion draft-related trade) in the same calendar year dealt a legitimate blow to a once-fantastic set of defensemen that is now closer to league average.
Vatanen’s fearlessness to use his skill in his own zone and his puck-moving ability have been dearly missed, and it’s likely a strong correlation that the power play has struggled since his departure too. In the five full seasons that Vatanen was with the Ducks, the power play had two years above 20 percent, including a league-leading 23.1 percent in 2015-16. In 80 regular season games since the trade, the Ducks rank 26th in the league at 16.8 percent. The Devils, in 78 games since, are 10th at 21.2 percent.
Really, it all comes back to the ramifications of signing Henrique to a long-term deal to help further justify the trade. While Murray has done well in securing some of his young core players, like Lindholm or Rickard Rakell, to financially sound deals, his investments in veteran, middle-six forwards cancel out a lot of the good work he’s done. When Henrique’s deal begins in 2019-20 the Ducks will have three centers making almost $21 million, with two of them well over 30 years old and the other just a year away from that hill. At the moment, the only team that will owe more to it’s top three centers is the Edmonton Oilers, and that’s largely because of Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million cap hit (though Toronto’s top three will likely cost more too after Auston Matthews signs his next deal). That’s a lot of money to pay one position group; while Getzlaf continues to age like a fine wine, it’s hard to justify paying Kesler and Henrique those salaries.
Instead, in hindsight, it would’ve been wiser to keep Vatanen (or let Vegas claim him in expansion and keep Theodore) and maintain the defense as the true strength of the club. Call it The Nashville Method. In recent history, the Ducks were at their best when they could roll three reasonably strong defensive pairings and hope the forwards could scrap their way to two or three goals.
Remember that second-round series against Edmonton in 2017? The Ducks fell behind in that series 2-0 after dropping both games on home ice, and in the process veteran defenseman Kevin Bieksa was injured. In the absence of the much-maligned defender, the Ducks suited up a defensive group of Fowler, Lindholm, Manson, Montour, Theodore and Vatanen.
With all six of those defensemen in the lineup, the Ducks roared back to win three straight and take a 3-2 series lead over the Oilers. In those three games, Anaheim outscored Edmonton 14-9 and outshot the Oilers 131-97. Even for a franchise that once rostered Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger on the same team, that group of six was the deepest in team history and likely the deepest in the league at that time. Less than a year later, both Vatanen and Theodore were playing elsewhere.
Would the Ducks still be contenders with Vatanen still around? It’s impossible to say. Instead with Henrique, the Ducks are much like the centerman acquired a year ago: exceptionally average.