The future of six NHL teams were on display last weekend at the Rookie Faceoff Fest hosted by the Ducks at their new $115 million Great Park Ice facility in Irvine. The Ducks rookies were joined by prospects from the Golden Knights, Kings, Sharks, Coyotes, and Avalanche in an event that unofficially kicks off hockey season.
While this tournament did not determine which Ducks rookies will be introduced by Honda Center PA announcer Phil Hulett with the big club, it gave new San Diego Gulls head coach Kevin Dineen, Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins, and General Manager Bob Murray a close look at the players that they hope will guide Anaheim back to a Stanley Cup.
The Ducks had a unique roster compared to the other teams; Anaheim players had more NHL games played than the rest of the rosters combined many times over. As such, many of the top performers on the team include names you would expect.
The Usual Suspects
What if I told you that seven players with a combined 212 NHL games under their belts would be the best players in a tournament populated by prospects? You wouldn’t be surprised. Of course you wouldn’t, that was a rhetorical question.
Right out of the gate, Max Jones reminded everyone why they should be excited for his future. He scored the Ducks’ first goal of the tournament on a textbook power forward move, cleaning up a rebound in the first period after starting a blistering rush up ice. He finished out the tournament with two goals and an assist, notably being one of only two rookies with NHL experience to play all three games.
Jones played the entire tournament the way Ducks fans had come to know him last season: explosiveness on the ice, fantastic board work, dangles for days, but the occasional lack of finish. While three points in as many games is very good, it felt like he could have had more with how close he was to converting on several plays.
Dan Wood, the Ducks radio color broadcaster was apt in his evaluation: “When his hands catch up to his feet, he’s going to be a special player.”
Kiefer Sherwood, while not as skilled as Max Jones, played with just as much intensity and energy as his younger teammate. With a surprisingly hard shot and a relentless forecheck, the former undrafted college free agent used his skating and aggressive stick to control an effective two-way game, tallying two goals and an assist in the process.
Troy Terry, while not as dominant as one would have hoped, showed some of the same flashes of brilliance fans saw las season, including two breakaways on Tuesday, that have him sitting at or near the top of Ducks fans heads when thinking of the Ducks bright future. Make no mistake, Terry is developing into one of the Ducks most important playmakers, and this tournament showed why.
Sam Steel, like the others, demonstrated his NHL muscles with several smart and eye-popping plays. Perhaps the best one was a goal reminiscent of the New York Rangers Kaapo Kakko’s amazing overtime goal against the Minnesota Wild on Monday.
A couple of laps around the offensive zone maintaining possession before the wraparound attempt and own rebound cleanup brought Tuesdays crowd to their feet in the game against Vegas.
Max Comtois, who did nothing but dominate the QMJHL last season after a seven points in 10 games stint with the Ducks, along with Isac Lundestrom, both demonstrated a knack for using their legs as an offensive catalyst. Lundestrom was especially effective protecting the puck.
Jacob Larsson showed off a consistently responsible game, especially with the fact that Dineen played him on his off wing. Unless the rumored Justin Faulk trade doesn’t go through, it would appear that the Ducks are seeing who might be able to fill a gaping hole on the right side blueline.
With Larsson’s third training camp right around the corner and plenty of experience under Dallas Eakins in San Diego, the 22-year-old Swede had positive words to say about the new San Diego boss.
“I like him, he’s a really good coach,” Larsson praised. “I liked the way he wanted us to play and how he wanted us all to compete.”
The Newest Ducklings
One of the most interesting prospects in the tournament was Brayden Tracey. With the second of the Ducks 2019 Entry Draft two first round picks at number 29, Scouting Director Martin Madden and General Manager Bob Murray took a player with great offensive instincts who plays a hard-nosed game but has lower than average skating ability. Sound like a certain late round 2003 Ducks draft selection?
Tracey’s offensive skill became very evident in a critical moment when he tied Saturday’s game against San Jose late in the third period with a goal scorers curl-and-drag shot that beat Sharks goaltender Zachary Sawchenko cleanly.
Tracey had spent the majority of the game before that breakthrough firing off several shot attempts and using some impressive hockey smarts to find the open ice. While his below-average skating resulted in defenders closing in on him fast in foot races, he made up for the lack of speed by reading plays effectively and anticipating where ice would open up.
“Just play whatever role they give me,” Tracey answered when I asked him if there was anything in particular he was trying to show off to Ducks management during his first rookie camp. “Whether I’m on the first, second, third, or fourth line, I can fit in well. I have a big heart that I think I can bring with me every game.”
On the younger defenseman side, Hunter Drew surprised many fans with how well he performed as a 2018 sixth round pick. But the Ducks may have found yet another late round gem in the 20-year-old from Kingston, Ontario. After breaking out for 50 points (16G, 34A) in 61 games last season with Charlottetown in the QMJHL last year, albeit as an over-ager, Drew followed up his second rookie camp by creating plenty of scoring chances for his team, including this impressive goal.
He had plenty of examples of smart defensive instincts as well, maintaining good gap control and cutting off plays as they were developing. He wasn’t without mistakes and showed that he could use some grooming in the AHL by missing a couple of defensive assignments, but his ability to create good transitions out of the zone overshadowed those issues this weekend.
With all three goaltenders on the roster getting only one start each, there was limited time to show off for Ducks brass. Lukas Dostal made the most out of his by stopping 28 out of 29 shots against the Kings while showing a calmness and poise in net reminiscent of Carey Price. The Czech goalie has played his way to the top of Anaheim’s goaltending pipeline with great numbers and experience against adults over the past year.
Dostal reinforced those in attendance that he was named the Czech Republic’s best player for last year’s World Juniors and gave Ducks fans some hope that he might be gunning to take over Ryan Miller’s spot as John Gibson’s backup in 2020-21.
The Coach’s Thoughts
New Gulls head coach Kevin Dineen took over Dallas Eakins’ old post as bench boss for rookie camp this year as fans and players got their first look at how Dineen runs a hockey team on the ice. When I asked Drew if there were any differences between Kevin Dineen behind the bench and Dallas Eakins, he didn’t believe there were many.
“I think it’s all similar since it’s stays in the same organization,” Drew noted.
The former Blackhawks assistant and one-time Ducks AHL affiliate Portland Pirates head coach was impressed with his group of players and specifically liked how they fought back in Sunday’s game against San Jose.
“As a whole, you get down a couple goals, I think your group pushed back hard,” Dineen said. “I thought the overtime was as entertaining as you’d want, it was like when it first came out and it went back and forth.”
Even with several of the Ducks having much more NHL experience than their opponents, the team as a whole showed the world some promising signs of a healthy farm system. Now, with NHL training camp beginning this week, the rookies will get a chance to convince Bob Murray that they deserve a spot on the opening night roster on October 3rd.