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The problem with the Ducks defense

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The Ducks have put themselves in a tough position on the blueline. What can they do to address it?

Anaheim Ducks v Los Angeles Kings

As you have probably seen by now, the Ducks are exploring the option of bringing in a right-handed defenseman. They went after Kevin Shattenkirk unsuccessfully and are currently in a, “will he, won’t he” situation with whether or not Justin Faulk will waive his no trade clause to come to Anaheim.

The biggest questions we are faced with: how did the Ducks get into this situation? From having one of the deepest bluelines to struggling to find more than three reliable defense options.

Let’s take a time machine back to the summer of 2015. There was hope in the air after a deep conference final run, and many fans were anticipating great things for the 2015-2016 season. The Ducks defensive group, both in the NHL and the AHL, was very deep with all the following players:

  • Cam Fowler
  • Sami Vatanen
  • Hampus Lindholm
  • Josh Manson
  • Shea Theodore
  • Simon Despres
  • Clayton Stoner
  • Kevin Bieksa
  • Korbinian Holzer
  • Brandon Montour

Say what you will about both Bieksa and Stoner, but that is a very deep group even with the likes of Theodore and Montour only being 20 and 21 years old respectively at the time.

Over the course of the next several years, that group of players dwindled down to Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, and Korbinian Holzer. One of these things is not like the others.

Simon Despres sadly was never able to fulfill the potential he showed in the 2015 playoffs due to numerous concussions, leading the Ducks to buy him out in June of 2017.

Shea Theodore, along with Clayton Stoner, were casualties of the 2017 expansion draft. The move in hindsight can be looked at with great scrutiny. Due to Kevin Bieksa’s no movement clause, the Ducks were forced to protect him. And in order to prevent Vegas from taking one of Sami Vatanen or Josh Manson, Anaheim traded Shea Theodore in order to ensure Vegas would select Stoner in the expansion draft.

Sami Vatanen was traded in November of 2017 to the Devils along with a conditional third round draft pick for Adam Henrique, Joe Blandisi, and a third round pick, with the condition on the pick being met once Adam Henrique signed his extension. This was a move made out of necessity at the time, with the Ducks being woefully injured at center and relying upon Derek Grant to be the number one pivot.

Kevin Bieksa was not re-signed in the summer of 2018.

Brandon Montour was traded at the 2019 deadline to Buffalo for Brendan Guhle and a first round pick that became Brayden Tracey. This was a very good move by the Ducks to pick up a younger and potentially better defenseman in Guhle, along with adding a first round pick that has turned into a promising young scoring forward. The only downside to this trade is that it left a gaping hole on the right side of the defense, with Josh Manson being the only top four right-handed defenseman.

A lot of these moves in a vacuum are not that bad, but when looked at as a group, the end result is very lackluster. The two worst moves of the bunch were losing Shea Theodore due to Kevin Bieksa having a NMC and with hindsight being 20/20 moving Sami Vatanen for Adam Henrique. Having Sami Vatanen on the current blueline would make a world of difference, along with the fact that it appears Sam Steel is ready to take a top nine center role on the team.

To sum it up: the Ducks turned Sami Vatanen, Simon Despres, Shea Theodore, Clayton Stoner, Kevin Bieksa, and Brandon Montour into Adam Henrique, Brendan Guhle, and Brayden Tracey, That is very underwhelming.

That's how we’ve arrived at this crossroads. Now, we can look at how the Ducks will fill out their lineup this season, especially without having a second right handed top four defenseman. The three options are: promote from within and utilize the current roster, continue to explore trade opportunities, or sign a current UFA.

Option 1: Utilizing the Current Roster

For this option, it would require the Ducks to start playing a left handed defenseman on his off side, whether that be Brendan Guhle, Cam Fowler, or Michael Del Zotto. This is less than ideal because a common held belief within the hockey community is that you do not want a left handed defenseman playing the right hand side. Why do so many believe this is an issue?

  • When the puck is dumped into the zone, a left handed defenseman would need to utilize his backhand along the boards, which is a much more difficult play than having the puck on the forehand.
  • When carrying the puck out of the zone, left handed defenseman could wander too much towards the center of the ice (this was an issue Fowler had early on in his career while attempting to play the right side).
  • In the offensive zone, if the puck is rimmed around by the opposing team, a left handed defenseman at the point would need to utilize his backhand on the boards, which as mentioned earlier is a more difficult play.

Having said all of that, Bob Murray has made it known in the past that he believes left handed defenseman should be able to play the right hand side with minimal issues. While I do agree with him to an extent, I believe the issue is that it’s not optimizing your lineup. It’s possible that player excels on his off side, but there are often too many question marks with that strategy.

With the current roster and noted lack of right-handed defensemen, the most likely pairings as of the current moment are:

Hampus Lindholm - Josh Manson

Cam Fowler - Brendan Guhle/Michael Del Zotto

Michael Del Zotto/Brendan Guhle - Korbinian Holzer/Jani Hakanpaa

While this set up is serviceable, it is nothing to write home about. Guhle is not an established top 4 defenseman yet, but could potentially become one this season, and Michael Del Zotto is best suited for a bottom pairing role.

Option 2: Trading for a Right Hand Shot Defenseman

With the first option not being ideal, the second option is to acquire a right-handed defenseman through a trade. The following are the players that either the Ducks are currently targeting, or should attempt to target due to that team being having cap issues. All of the names brought up are pure speculation on my part besides Faulk.

  • Justin Faulk - While Faulk would immediately improve the Ducks lineup both at 5v5 and on the PP, having been above 50% in xGF% over his past three seasons along with consistently putting up 30+ points per year. The main issue with acquiring Faulk is the cost, with Ondrej Kase being the piece likely going back to Carolina and the extension that would need to be agreed upon in order for the trade to take place. This contract would most likely take Justin into his early 30s and could potentially hamstring the Ducks for when they hope to contend for a cup. In addition, Faulk is 27 years old, which means he is just starting to exit his prime production years and will not be at his best while the youth on the team entering their primes. He would be an upgrade in the short term, but long term could hinder the franchise.
  • Charlie McAvoy - He should be the number one target for the Ducks if he can be had. The Boston Bruins currently have $7 million and change in cap space and need to sign both McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. McAvoy is a right-handed defenseman who has put up 60 points in his first two NHL seasons while being above 50% in xGF% and worth nearly 2 wins above replacement in each of the seasons. He is also only 21 years old, so his prime production years will align with the likes of Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Jones, etc. and bring a much needed younger element to the Ducks defense that is quickly getting closer to age 30. The main issue here is the Bruins are not likely to move him, with Bruins general manager Don Sweeney stating today, “Still a work in progress. We continue to communicate every day and we remain hopeful that we can find the landing spot for both players.” Sweeney said via a team-provided transcript. “‘Obviously they’re important to our hockey club and we’re going to continue working at it.’” per NESN. Obviously this is a pipe dream, but the Ducks should be willing to give up a fair amount to try and make this deal happen.
  • Brandon Carlo - If McAvoy does indeed sign with the Bruins to potentially the same deal as Zach Werenski, three years with a five million AAV, that would leave the Bruins with only around 2 million dollars in cap space to sign Carlo, with Evolving Wild projecting Carlo to get roughly 4 million dollars AAV. Carlo is only 22 years of age, so his prime years like McAvoy would align well with the prospects coming onto the roster. Also similar to McAvoy, Carlo has been very good for the Bruins in terms of xGF% and WAR, having put up above 50% numbers each of his first three seasons and being worth more than one win above replacement in two of his first three seasons. Unlike McAvoy, though, he is not exactly known for point production, having put up 32 points in his first three NHL seasons. Carlo would not be as flashy of an acquisition as McAvoy would be, but he would have a very positive impact on this roster and could provide a steady partner for Cam Fowler, allowing the tenured Duck to excel. If McAvoy cannot be had from Boston, the Ducks should see if Carlo is available instead.
  • Anthony DeAngelo - The Rangers, having just finished the downward trajectory of a rebuild, should be prioritizing keeping youth on their roster. But DeAngelo (23 years old, right-handed) might become an expendable piece with the Rangers only having $1.16 million in cap space. DeAngelo just had his most productive season, putting up 30 points in 61 games and 10 power play assists, providing good value for the Rangers with 1.4 WAR. The only downside to his season was that he was below 50% in xGF%, but this can mainly be chalked up to the Rangers as a team being...well...less than good. If you dive slightly deeper, DeAngelo posted positive relative xG numbers, which shows that the Rangers were a better team with him on the ice despite their poor numbers overall. The Rangers should be trying to keep him on the roster, but having just given Jacob Trouba a massive 7 year, $8 million AAV contract, that may not be a reality for them. The Ducks should jump at the opportunity to acquire him if he becomes available.

Option 3: Signing an Unrestricted Free Agent

For this option, there are not many desirable free agents left, but below are some notable ones with handedness not being considered:

  • Dion Phaneuf
  • Marc Methot
  • Dan Girardi
  • Ben Hutton
  • Adam McQuaid
  • David Schlemko
  • Alex Petrovic
  • Luca Sbisa

These are not exactly players that will step in and immediately improve the Ducks defensive group, with the majority of them potentially making it worse. While we cannot write off option three, it is the path that least improves the Ducks.

General Manager Bob Murray should realistically should be looking to find some help for the blueline, with the current group being less than ideal. But they need to be looking for the correct fit.

A guy like Justin Faulk will improve the roster immediately, but long term, will not help the team significantly as he ages. There is also the potential cost of Kase in the price to acquire Faulk. The players the Ducks should be targeting are right handed defensemen around 22-24 years of age, like McAvoy, Carlo, and DeAngelo, and those do not exactly become available often.

The Ducks should remain patient and wait for the right player to become available and then do everything in their power to make that deal happen. There is a chance that might happen in the next month if the Bruins or Rangers struggle to lock up their young defensemen.

All statistics per Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference. All salary cap figures per Cap Friendly.