The Anaheim Ducks are in a rebuild.
Well, not really.
Thanks to some hefty, protected contracts on their books, a total makeover is just not an option. So let us call it a re-design. Or, as most of the hockey world, and Ducks’ general manager Bob Murray would call it, a “re-tool”.
There is no glory attached to the term, whatever incarnation you so choose to utilize. Typically, it signifies that some type of competitive holding pattern has been reached and, without further action, may spiral into a total holding pattern without the “competitive” qualifier.
Anaheim is uniquely positioned as they embark on this new chapter. Thanks to skillful drafting in recent years, they have accumulated a stockpile of young players who could potentially all become full-time NHLers as early as next season. That type of widespread potential is rare around the league, but even still, there remains a degree of uncertainty attached.
Max Comtois, Sam Steel, Troy Terry, Max Jones, Daniel Sprong and Kiefer Sherwood all could become impact players. But, despite some promising results last season, this is far from a guarantee. Murray, faced with the self-imposed task of remaining competitive, needs to add a bit more certainty to the equation, especially as veterans like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry begin to fade, while in the case of Ryan Kesler, disappear completely.
Jason Zucker, the 27-year old left wing for the Minnesota Wild, has embodied certainty over the last few seasons, where he can be penciled in for around 20 goals and 40 points. Last season’s output of 42 points would have tied him for third on the Ducks in point production, while his 21 goals would have only trailed Jakob Silfverberg. Those numbers came as a bit of a disappointment after a career year of 33 goals and 64 points in 2017-18. Pair that recent letdown with a contract that will net him $5.5 million a year for the next four years, and it becomes easy to understand why the Wild have now unsuccessfully attempted to trade him twice.
The Athletic’s Michael Russo reported earlier in the week that Anaheim was one of the teams in on Zucker as trade talks heated up. Now that a deal between Pittsburgh and Minnesota has been nixed by Phil Kessel’s no-trade clause, Anaheim could return to the negotiating table, and justifiably so.
Why were the Ducks at the table in the first place? Where does adding a veteran like Zucker fit into a re-tool? Again, think back to the idea of certainty. What sure values do the Ducks have on their roster, specifically up front?
Ryan Getzlaf should still be a reasonably productive first-line center. Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell should be fine in their roles once again. Adam Henrique has become quietly reliable, yet a bit on the expensive side. Corey Perry has become almost impossible to predict, thanks to injury and age-related decline. Ondrej Kase has struggled to stay in the lineup. Past those names, you then have a swathe of youngsters and depth players. Not really the kind of roster Murray would like to hand off to whoever becomes Anaheim’s next head coach, especially with the hopes of remaining competitive.
From a hockey standpoint, Zucker eases Murray’s calculus. He is reliable at five-on-five, posting respectable underlying shot-share numbers of 53.04% shot attempts for and 55.17% scoring chances for. He can produce offensively, and probably still has a few more high-end seasons left in him.
The real question for Murray becomes how to make such a move work financially. Anaheim, with $9.125 million in cap space (before any potential escalations), has some room to maneuver. Backup goaltender Ryan Miller, now age 38, is an unrestricted free agent. He either gets re-upped, or the Ducks go shopping for a capable secondary who can lighten John Gibson’s work load. That endeavor should cost them roughly $1 to 2 million in cap space. On the blueline, Anaheim has essentially five spots locked up between Cam Fowler, Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm, Brendan Guhle, and Jacob Larsson. Another $1 to $2 million probably gets them that sixth defenseman.
So without moving any money around, the Ducks could simply move out picks or prospects to obtain Zucker. Of course, that’s not what Murray intends to do, nor should it be. Wild general manager Paul Fenton would probably like some type of young asset, and maybe another veteran piece so that his team can take another crack at the playoffs. That’s what going after a name like Phil Kessel certainly indicates. The Ducks, meanwhile, probably want to shed some of their future money, even if those savings end up being marginal. For a smaller market team like Anaheim, every penny counts.
Nick Ritchie, still on his team-friendly second contract, is starting to look like a potential odd man out with Anaheim’s log-jammed left wing depth. The likes of Jones, Comtois, and Devin Shore now crowd the left flank after Rakell on the first line. Although Ritchie is a fine player in his own right, it’s not hard to imagine him having to fight for playing time come the fall. The relationship between him and the front office might not be the cheeriest either, after what was a prolonged contract negotiation that saw him sit out the early portion of the 2018-19 campaign. Another battle awaits the two sides in a couple of seasons, and Ritchie will have arbitration rights to work with by then.
Ritchie would be a nice get for Minnesota. He would add a strong five-on-five presence, and another young-ish guy to re-structure their left side. Kevin Fiala’s role would presumably increase as well in Zucker’s absence. Henrique, however, could be the piece to make it all work for both sides, a name that has also consistently been in the rumor mill for the last few months.
The Wild are not particularly deep down the middle, and a 29-year old Henrique would inject the type of proven veteran value to bridge the gap between a 34-year old Eric Staal and 22-year old Joel Eriksson-Ek. Anaheim’s second-line center is locked up through the 2023-24 season at a yearly cap hit of $5.825 million. Although Henrique is a fine player, that’s probably money a re-tooling team like Anaheim would like to move off of. Add in Ritchie’s $1.49 million cap hit into the mix, and the Ducks would open up $1.82 million of cap space. To boot, Zucker’s contract is one year shorter than Henrique’s, giving Anaheim more back-end savings.
The final cost-benefit analysis here is up for interpretation. Anaheim adds a proven piece in Zucker, opens up space for their youngsters, and picks up a little more long-term flexibility. Devin Shore could return to center, giving the Ducks a center line of Getzlaf-Shore-Steel-Rowney. Not quite as exciting, but there’s also reason to believe that another center will be added into that mix with Anaheim’s first-round pick at ninth overall this June.
Additionally, both Henrique and Zucker would have to waive their no-trade clauses to make any deal work. Given that Minnesota has now tried to trade their man twice, part of that equation should not be much of an issue. Murray will have to make some difficult decisions as he attempts to thread the needle of competitiveness and construction. Although this specific move probably does not happen, it is a fair bet that there will be a version of it at some point down the line. Shifts in an NHL game are very short, but the length of Anaheim’s overall organizational shift will be decided by Murray’s execution in these deals.