Center has typically been a position of strength for the Anaheim Ducks in recent years. With Ryan Getzlaf still leading the charge offensively and Ryan Kesler bringing his renowned two-way game, there haven’t been many question marks down the middle in Anaheim. That all seemed to change in the 2017-18 campaign, where both Getzlaf and Kesler missed prolonged periods of time. To kick off Anaheim Calling’s position preview series, here’s a look at what to expect at center for the Ducks going into the new season.
Unlike his long-time linemate Corey Perry, Getzlaf has fought off father time quite admirably. He’s aged about as well as anyone in the Ducks’ organization could have hoped, putting him in the rarefied air of elite players who manage to stay dominant well into their 30’s.The 33-year old played at a nearly 90-point pace last season, carrying Anaheim’s hopes with him.
Even at his age, Getzlaf remains the most important player on this team. The Ducks will remain competitive as long as he can continue to elevate essentially everyone who plays with him. He may be getting some more help this year, as it looks like Corey Perry may come off the top line. Should a younger set of legs in Ondrej Kase or Troy Terry claim that spot, the Getzlaf-Rickard Rakell duo should get even more ammo. Anaheim’s captain has yet to show signs of aging, and insulated by guys on the ascent in Rakell, Kase, and Terry, that trend should continue this season.
Remember all the certainty Getzlaf brings to the table? That’s essentially thrown out the window when discussing the 34-year old Kesler. Anaheim’s perennial second-line center looked a step behind in his return from reconstructive hip surgery last year. He had to excuse himself from practices just to make it through the season physically, and his on-ice results took a hit from their usual lofty standards.
Even with a summer of rest and rehabilitation under his belt, it was announced that Kesler would be sidelined for most of the pre-season. Although recently cleared to participate in contact drills, it still remains to be seen if and when the veteran center will return to the lineup. Expectations should be kept at a minimum for him this season as he finds his footing again.
Fresh off a newly-inked five-year, $5.85 million AAV contract, Henrique now assumes the de facto second-line center role until Kesler returns to full health — and perhaps even after that. The 28-year old performed admirably for Anaheim after being acquired in exchange for Sami Vatanen. The then-impending free agent put up 20 goals in 57 games in a Ducks uniform, nearly guaranteeing himself an extension from the club that sought him out to begin with.
Although Henrique was unquestionably productive in his first Anaheim stint, it’s unclear if he can be the true second-line center that the team needs. He wasn’t a play-driver in more of a middle-six role last year, seeing his on-ice shot-share numbers crater away from Kase and Nick Ritchie. He’ll be productive once again given the minutes and power play opportunities he’s sure to get, which should mostly validate his new deal in the eyes of the club. Under the surface, however, things may not end up being quite as rosy.
The 29-year old Rowney was signed as an unrestricted free agent by general manager Bob Murray last summer as part of the club’s overall shift towards speed down the lineup. Rowney, though not really known for his wheels, does fit that mold more than the since-departed Derek Grant.
Although the Penguins were largely out-shot and out-scored with Rowney on the ice — granted he was skating mostly with Ryan Reaves and Tom Kuhnackl — his prowess in the faceoff circle (52.9 winning percentage) probably gave Anaheim the confidence to give him a depth role, much like they did with Antoine Vermette in years past. As long as Kesler remains out, Rowney seems like a lock to be in the lineup.
The much-heralded Steel is getting a real opportunity to make the team right out of the gate. With Kesler currently out, Anaheim’s prized prospect may end up being the third line center. The former first-round pick didn’t end his junior career with the bang most expected, but by all accounts it sounds as if he rounded out his game in the process.
Steel won’t necessarily wow observers, but he does all the little things that coaches tend to love. He wins battles along the boards, doesn’t hold on to the puck too long in the neutral zone, and gets back on defense. His skating, though not mesmerizing, has improved in the past year along with his strength. This should be the year Steel makes the jump to the big club, and although it’s hard to project rookies, he should do well in the role he’s stepping into.
Uncertainty is the name of the game down the middle for Anaheim. Kesler’s health status remains a constant riddle, leaving Randy Carlyle to lean on a guy in Rowney who has limited NHL experience, and a total rookie in Steel. Henrique will need to deliver in a second-line role to mitigate some of that uncertainty, although that’s far from a sure bet.
Steel makes this all the more intriguing, as he is considered by many to be the crown jewel of Anaheim’s prospect pool. A strong rookie campaign from him will go a long way, as although Isac Lundestrom seems promising in camp, there aren’t any other blue-chip centers on the way. Lundestrom, Anaheim’s first selection in the 2018 draft, has the opportunity to shuffle the entire deck here by stealing Steel’s job. He’s looked great in pre-season action, but barring some insane offensive output, the plan for him seems to be another year in Sweden.
Of course, if Kesler returns to full health and is even 70% of what he once was, much of these question marks fade away. The old saying of, “Getzlaf can cure all ills” will be put to a serious test this season, perhaps etching another stand-out season in what is looking like a Hall of Fame career.