Much has been made about this new season being perhaps the dawning of a new era for the Ducks. The long awaited “Transitional Period” or shall we dub it “The Rise of the Kids”.
You can then see my predicament in defining “Bubble Players” for this upcoming season, given that pretty much everybody but the returning veterans can be considered as such.
So with that firmly in mind, let us begin.
Starting with the obvious. If either of John Gibson or Ryan Miller go down with an injury then the Ducks will recall either Kevin Boyle or new signing Anthony Stolarz. In preseason action so far, both young goaltenders have performed relatively well, with Boyle recently turning aside multiple high danger scoring chances in the three on three overtime session in the 4-3 loss to the Coyotes.
Last season he saw a record 43 games with the Gulls - posting a career low 2.90 GAA and .907 Sv% and ending the regular season with a 24-13-2 record. He also saw five games with the Ducks, including his NHL debut, a win, and a shutout, joining John Gibson as the second Ducks goaltender to ever do so. At age 27 and in the final year of his two year extension, he needs to have not only a career year but stay healthy in the process as late season injuries were largely responsible for his decline in performance.
Wherein previous years the formula seemed to be providing Boyle with a grizzled veteran to share the Gulls’ net, this year the signing of the younger Anthony Stolarz to a two year contract seems to indicate that the Ducks are sending a signal to the New Jersey native.
The younger Stolarz also has more NHL experience than the previously mentioned Kevin Boyle, but he also comes with a disclaimer. In total he has seen 25 games of action in the NHL going 6-6-4 and posting a 3.04 GAA and .908 Sv% with two shutouts, but the former Philadelphia second round pick has a fairly disastrous history with injuries. He needed 55 stitches to close a cut opened by an opponent’s skate blade during an OHL game. In 2017-18 he saw just four total games of action after a torn meniscus saw him out pretty much the entire season. Last season was no different, eventually seeing just twelve games with the Flyers, five with their AHL affiliate and a further six with Edmonton after being dealt at the trade deadline.
He will be looking for a change in fortune in his new home with the Ducks, and here is hoping he can stay healthy this season.
In his first pro season the young Mahura surprised many by making his NHL debut when the perfect storm of a rash of injuries and underperforming veteran depth signings contributed to his call-up from the Gulls. The 2016 third round pick had put together nine points in fourteen games with the Gulls before making his NHL debut, and although he looked raw at times, he held himself well through his total seventeen games with the Ducks, contributing a goal and four assists.
An injury toward the end of the season derailed what success and development he had made up to that point, and he could not quite seem to regain his mojo for the Gulls’ Calder Cup run where he played in just nine games and did not factor on the scoresheet.
The Ducks have high hopes that the smooth skating defender can restart that development curve with the Gulls this season and when needed, provide a more consistent game in his second pro year.
One of the few feel good success stories to come out of last season, Benoit is the underdog personified. Undrafted and attending the Ducks’ post-2018 prospect development camp, the Laval native turned heads with his cool, composed, yet chaotic physical style. From there he got invited back to training camp and survived some of the first few cuts before eventually joining the Gulls, where he again stuck around and earned a PTO contract.
Seizing every opportunity he was presented with, he played in 65 total games for the Gulls, beating out several veterans for starting opportunities and eventually finishing the season second on the team in games played; only Chase De Leo more. He and De Leo co-lead the team in +/- and his 16 points placed him third behind Mahura and Welinski for scoring from the blueline. He figures to get a long look at Ducks’ camp but should ultimately lead the Gulls’ defensive corps to start the year. I would not be surprised if he gets a call to the Ducks should one of the backend go down with injury.
Drew has drawn quiet comparisons to Josh Manson, and over the last season he has generated quite the groundswell of support as another potential late round steal for the Ducks. The 6’2” 192lb right shooting defender had a very good showing at last month’s Rookie FaceOff where he saw action in all three games and did not look out of place playing among peers with vastly more professional experience.
Our own Jonathan Gleeson-Soloman wrote about him this week in a brilliant piece that breaks down his comparisons and realistic hopes for NHL potential. He likely won’t see duty with the Ducks this year, but by the same token I couldn’t exclude him from this list because the same thing was thought of Josh Mahura last year, and as we all know the Ducks are very short on talented right-shooting defencemen.
There is where things get murky. My better conscience voted against placing Larsson among this list as I firmly believe he will secure the third pairing spot on the left-side and spend the entire year with the Ducks. However, there is also the minor detail of waiver exemption for which Larsson still has one more season left. Should the Ducks acquire another left-shooting defender (why?) or decide that playing Del Zotto on his off-side isn't working and would prefer the less skilled but more experienced duo of the former with Holzer on the right side, Larsson would be the first on the bus back to San Diego.
Those two scenarios feel pretty unlikely to me, and based on how well the young Swede finished the year with the Gulls I can confidently say that he will be with the Ducks full time this year.
Jani “Coco Pops” Hakanpää
Hakanpää had a rough start to the preseason and his efforts to erase that initial impression have only served to show that he is at best a slower, bigger version of Korbinian Holzer.
There was one play in the second Sharks game that stood out to me when he made a nice spin move to shake off an attacker and then threaded a nice pass up ice, but other than that I don’t think he impressed Ducks’ management enough to warrant giving him a spot over the more experienced Del Zotto, even playing on his off-side. I don’t believe he will accept an assignment to the Gulls either, so much like European try-before-you-buys of seasons past (see Rodin, Anton and Rasmussen, Dennis) I can see him heading back to Finland early in the piece never to be remembered or thought of again until Murray tries it again next year.
You may feel that Sherwood does not belong here - [editor nods ferociously!]- but with the way things shake out on the right wing, it’s a numbers game that the Columbus, Ohio native narrowly loses on account of his waiver eligibility status.
That said, due to his surprising season last year, his now 50 games of NHL experience means he has only ten left before he must also clear waivers. So, as I stated in a tweet a few weeks back, it might be wise for the Ducks to keep him in San Diego at least until a permanent spot is able to be cleared in Anaheim lest they lose him to a waiver claim. The 6’0” 194lb hard-working forward had twelve points in 50 games for the Ducks and a further eighteen in 29 for the Gulls. He proved to be a strong playoff performer for the Gulls, who counted on him for eight points in 16 games. He will look to have an even bigger year in his second full pro season.
When I spoke of it being hard to define bubble players due to the transitional period of flux we suddenly find ourselves in - the best example to paint that picture is the battle for left wing. In one corner we have the slightly more experienced, slightly more speedy and unafraid to score a goal between his legs - Max Jones.
The Michigan native who many saw as a potential injury prone bust heading into his first pro season surprised all doubters by putting together 29 points in 43 games for the Gulls, and potted a further five points in 30 games for the Ducks. He may not have had quite the immediate impact that his competitor in the other corner had, but you could see the kind of talent he has and what kind of a force he can be if he puts it all together.
Given how strong his preseason showing has been thus far as well as his advantage in experience, I would give him the edge to get one of the few remaining left wing spots, but competition is tight.
In the other corner is the slightly less experienced, slightly less speedy, master of scoring monumental goals (first shot of first shift of first NHL game? Sure. First AHL goal in first AHL game? No problem. First OT winning goal in the 5th longest game in AHL history? Whatevs) - Max Comtois.
Despite both Comtois and Jones playing a power game, they employ vastly different styles. Whereas Jones fits the more deke with soft hands mold, Comtois is raw power with a shoot first mentality. He appears to be most comfortable when hammering opponents and forcing turnovers.
Last year was not even his first official professional season and he still managed to fill it with feats that most rookies can only dream of. In addition to the list of “firsts” documented above, he also not only made but led the Canadian team at the World Juniors - where he found himself in the center of a social media sandstorm of controversy and unjustifiable bullying when he failed to score on a penalty shot that would have seen Canada go through to the semifinals. The young nineteen-year old has taken all of the undue attention in his stride and used it for good - affiliating with Telus for their campaign against cyber bullying.
He has had a relatively strong preseason so far, but not quite as good as the other Max, so he may start the season in San Diego, but I have no doubt we will see him up with the Ducks soon enough. On the other hand, with news of Daniel Sprong being waived, he might just have a spot on opening night.
Like Hunter Drew, I am adding Kopacka here as a potential candidate even though the odds of him seeing NHL time this year are slim. The 6’2” 196 lb Michigan native had a rough start to his professional career when he went down with a scary wrist injury after just three games with the Gulls. The 2016 fourth-round pick was riding a two game point streak at the time of the accident and would not return to action until late January. By season’s end he had amassed a respectable 14 points in 32 games as a rookie and contributed a further three points in six games of postseason action.
As I wrote about at Defend The Nest, Kopacka will be looked upon to step up this year to fill the holes left by departed forwards such as Kalle Kossila, Kevin Roy and Adam Cracknell.
The 2018 23rd-overall pick made a splash last year when he made the Ducks out of camp, which would have been even bigger news had Comtois not stolen the limelight slightly by doing something similar but in more spectacular fashion. Expected to head back to Sweden once the Ducks veteran line-up returned to full-strength, the youngster accepted an assignment to the Gulls where he played throughout November and December, playing in twelve games total and putting up six points as an eighteen year old.
Midway through December he joined Sweden for the World Junior Champs, getting four points in five games, then stayed in Europe to play with his Swedish club and join their playoff drive, where he compiled eight points in ten postseason games. After all of that, he still found the energy to come back to San Diego to join the Gulls for their playoff run, seeing seven games of action and getting three points.
Seeing him play in person at the Rookie Faceoff was a joy, and I was very impressed with his ability to cut neutral zone defence assignments to pieces with his smooth effortless skating. He has translated that strong showing by once again making it hard for Ducks’ management to make him one of the earlier cuts despite his age, and with Sam Steel currently nursing a (hopefully) minor lower body injury, he has been elevated to top six minutes between Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg. At this point he could start the year in Anaheim once again, but once Sam Steel is healthy, I can see him being sent to San Diego to get top line minutes with the Gulls.
The veteran center has hung around, but was waived yesterday. He was a huge part of the Gulls’ success last year and their unofficial captain whenever Jaycob Megna was either up with the Ducks or out injured. He led San Diego in scoring with 61 points in 61 games and was second on the team in scoring during the playoff drive with 14 points in 16 games. He appears to have embraced the mentorship role he has been placed in since coming over from Chicago in a deadline trade in 2017. Coach Dallas Eakins seemed to reward his hardwork both last season and thus far in the preseason with a long hard look at potentially the fourth line center role as well as a spot on the second power play unit, and Carrick responded with showing his willingness to stand up for teammates while also potting an empty netter in his second preseason game. If the former Toronto fifth-round pick can clear waivers, he will likely stay in San Diego, likely as their third captain in re-booted franchise history.
Pietila is a bit of an unknown commodity given he was acquired in the off-season, but in his first preseason game with the Gulls he pulled off a hat-trick seemingly with little to no effort while skating on a line with Alex Dostie and Justin Kloos. He and Dostie already appear to have some great chemistry from the highlights I saw, so that is a very encouraging sign for any Gulls fan feeling a tad anxious about the mass-exodus that took place over the off-season. Pietila had 46 points in 50 games with the Binghamton Devils last season and had one assist in 19 games with New Jersey. He was drafted in the fifth round, 129th overall in 2011 by the Devils making this the 26 year old’s fifth pro season.
I found it interesting he did not appear to get a look at the Ducks’ camp or at least it was not reported about, and I wonder if that had to do with the DUI charge he got in July. He would require waivers to come back down to San Diego if he were to be recalled by Anaheim during the season.
Another offseason acquisition, Poturalski comes in with slightly more expectations than Pietila. He was named playoff MVP for the Calder Cup winning Charlotte Checkers, leading all skaters in goals (12) and points (23). The 25-year old Williamsville, NY native was signed by the Hurricanes as an undrafted free agent after his sophmore year at the University of New Hampshire where he compiled 52 points in 37 games. Like Pietila, he would also need to clear waivers if he were to be recalled to Anaheim at some point during the season.