Another off-season is already in the books. Or, finally in the books, if you’re an Anaheim Ducks fan. After a four-game detonation against the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs Anaheim stood largely pat over a prolonged summer, adding only a few depth pieces to round out the roster.
Due to making only minimal changes, a nearly identical roster to the one that bowed out against the Sharks is set to take the ice today at the Ducks’ practice facility for day one of training camp. Depending on how things in camp shake out, it may effectively be a similar roster taking the ice for the 2018-19 campaign. For a team that was so quiet over the summer (emotional third jersey debates nothwithstanding), there are more than a few questions and puzzles to solve. Here are the most poignant points of discussion, ranked in no particular order.
- Ryan Kesler’s Health
On Wednesday, it was announced that Kesler would be sidelined at the beginning of camp. Naturally, that does not preclude him from eventually participating as camp winds down. Even so, it should be at least slightly concerning that Kesler still can’t go that after a full summer of rehabilitation and physical therapy. His absence could very well be a precautionary measure by the same training staff that kept him out of practices last season.
The merits of the pre-season as a whole have come under scrutiny in recent years given the amount of training players go through in the summertime, but hockey’s culture is still nowhere near the NBA’s, where sitting healthy players has become the norm. It stands to reason that if Kesler could truly be out there, he would be. It was famously reported by Elliotte Friedman over the summer that Kesler may miss the entire season, and this early absence does nothing to abate that report. How he looks in camp — if he eventually participates — will be something to monitor.
2. The Third and Fourth Line Center Roles
An absent Kesler forces head coach Randy Carlyle into making some difficult decisions. Adam Henrique — now locked in to a long term deal — is the logical choice to fill in as Anaheim’s second line center. Who ends up pivoting the third and fourth lines, however, is anyone’s guess.
Carter Rowney and Brian Gibbons were general manager Bob Murray’s free agent acquisitions up front. Presumably signed with a potential Kesler absence in mind. Rowney, who was limited to 44 games last season dealing with injury, seems like an early favorite to lock down the third line spot. He was excellent in the faceoff circle for Pittsburgh, which Anaheim’s coaching staff weighs quite heavily, and let’s just say teams don’t sign guys to three-year deals just to sit around.
The fourth line is where things could get interesting. Gibbons, though listed as a center, hasn’t taken all that many faceoffs in recent years. Kalle Kossila, seemingly the go-to center call-up last season in the face of injuries last year, is currently listed as injured. Unless Gibbons becomes a full-time center, that spot is wide open for one of Anaheim’s numerous prospects to take a hold of.
3. Which Center Prospect Stands Out
Speaking of prospects, the Ducks’ young guns handily dismantled their competition at the recent Vegas Rookie Faceoff “tournament”, winning all three of their games. The likes of Sam Steel, Troy Terry, Maxime Comtois, Isac Lundestrom, and Kiefer Sherwood provided some notable performances. Due to Anaheim’s hole at the fourth line center spot, Steel and Lundestrom have real shots at getting some NHL action.
The plan for 2018 first-rounder Lundestrom seems to be to go back and spend another year in Sweden, but more quality hockey in the face of a real team need could at least temporarily put that plan on pause. Steel seems like the favorite between the two to claim that spot, given that he’s set to join the San Diego Gulls on a full-time basis now that his junior eligibility has run up. Steel looked electric at times in the Rookie Faceoff, garnering some heavy praise from Gulls’ coach Dallas Eakins. Both players will have ample opportunity to carve out a spot.
4. The Third Defense Pairing
Anaheim’s first and second pairings are essentially locked in, with Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Cam Fowler, and Brandon Montour forming two excellent duos. The third pairing, however, is fully up for grabs.On the right side, Murray brought in veterans Luke Schenn and Andrej Sustr over the summer. Then there’s the seemingly forgotten Korbinian Holzer, who is listed as injured at the moment. NHL teams rarely trot out pairings with two defensemen of the same handedness, meaning that for the moment Schenn and Sustr will battle to claim that spot on a full-time basis
On the left side, there’s Marcus Pettersson, who seemed to win Carlyle’s trust as last season wore on. As admirably as he performed, he doesn’t feel like a lock to claim full-time duty, not with the presence of Jacob Larsson at least. Larsson, now recovered from a previous knee injury, seems primed to show Anaheim management why they made him their first selection in the 2015 draft. Known for his skating and passing ability, Larsson profiles as exactly the kind of defenseman Anaheim needs on its third pairing. He and Pettersson should have an interesting competition, one which the coaching staff will surely follow closely, as having two right-handed guys on the third pairing seems far from ideal.
5. Speed, Speed, Speed (Or Something Like That)
Speed — you may have heard of it once or twice over this Anaheim off-season. Murray cited it as a primary reason why the roster he assembled looked so disassembled against San Jose in round one. Speed of player movement, zone exits, zone entries, this entire system needs a fast-forward according to Murray. In his view, that’s where the league is going — and he’s not wrong. It’s easy to conflate getting faster with simply signing faster players. If only the NHL were that simple.
Look no further than the Vegas Golden Knights, who tore up the league as a first-year expansion team by playing an up-tempo skill game. Vegas didn’t have a roster full of speedsters, but they played like one that did thanks to quick passes out of their own zone and through the middle third of the ice. That quickness in execution can make all of the difference. The second-round series between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators was also a prime example of this, as both teams played at a torrid pace.
For Anaheim to play a style closer to the aforementioned clubs, they’ll need to fundamentally change the way they play. Gone must be the days of being content with dumping the puck out of their zone and chipping it into the corners of their opponent’s. Quick, short passes up ice must become the norm, with maybe the threat of a stretch pass sprinkled in. It won’t be easy, and it remains to be seen if an old-school type in Carlyle is the man to bring that change, but the Ducks have talked this one to death. Let’s see how it plays out on the ice.
6. Patrick Eave’s Recovery
Eave’s health struggles have been well-documented now, and if nothing else, it’s great to see that he’s recovered from illness. He’ll participate in camp without contact to start, and should be getting game action in the latter stages of the pre-season. That should be welcome news for the club, as it seemed uncertain at times last year if Eaves would even play again.
How he recovers, however, could have a sizable impact on his team’s fortunes. Eaves was excellent when first brought over from Dallas in 2017, re-igniting Anaheim’s top line. Since his absence, Carlyle has been constrained in composing his forward lines. A fully healthy Eaves — who can play either wing — would give him one more quality option and free up his decision-making.
7. Nick Ritchie’s Contract Negotiation: Where Is It Headed?
One would think that a disappointing 2017-18 season would have eliminated most of Ritchie’s leverage in contract negotiations. The former tenth overall pick struggled with ill-timed penalties, and lack of production, in his second full season. Ritchie posted only 10 goals in 77 games, taking a step backwards after an encouraging 14-goal outburst in his rookie season. Restricted free agents hold little negotiating power as it is under the current collective bargaining agreement, and so dragging out talks has become their de facto defense mechanisms in recent years (just ask Hampus Lindholm).
It remains to be seen if this will eventually reach a Lindholm-style holdout, but it’s already a bit of a shocker that Ritchie remains unsigned. He didn’t do himself any favors in the court of public opinion with some brutal penalties over the last campaign, making his solid five-on-five game go almost completely unnoticed. There’s no excusing a lack of discipline, but Ritchie has already established himself as solid player who fits in nicely to the Ducks bottom-six. He may never live up to the lottery hype, but he certainly has a place on this team.
8. How Will The Power Play Change?
Gone is Steve Konowalchuk, who was charged with drawing up last year’s power play. The Anaheim man-advantage never felt like a strength, even with a roster that featured enough talent to presumably formulate a potent attack. Randy Carlyle will now be directly handling the pwoer play, making it unclear exactly what to expect. Brandon Montour’s heavy one-timer felt like an under-utilized resource in the left faceoff circle, so it’ll be interesting to see if that gets featured more often.
9. Will Troy Terry Crack The lineup?
Terry looked sharp in limited NHL action last year, and he looked dominant in the Rookie Faceoff Tournament. Simply put, Terry has the exact skill set that Anaheim needs more of in its lineup. He has the exact skill set that the Ducks need more of in their lineup, and it’s hard to imagine that he gets passed over in favor of full-time duty for Brian Gibbons. Terry can seamlessly fit into any of the top three lines, and although he may not be a true impact player yet, his injection of playmaking should give this roster a jolt.
10. Can Sam Steel Make An Early Leap?
Steel is widely considered Anaheim’s best prospect, and he looks to have added strength and foot-speed over the off-season. He’ll have every opportunity to make this team, and the money here says he gets a look out of camp. As long as Kesler’s health remains in question, Steel’s candidacy as a center on this team remains a realistic one. If he doesn’t make the team out of camp, it will probably have more to do with the franchise’s continued dedication to patience with prospects than his own play.