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POSITION PREVIEW: The Center of Attention

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Anaheim’s play at center is a major question, let’s look at some of the possible answers.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Edmonton Oilers
Anaheim Ducks’ prospect Sam Steel faces a season of expectation.
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

With the loss of Ryan Kesler for at least next season, there are more questions than answers surrounding the Ducks’ center depth. The same thing can be said of the roster at large. As such, the center position provides a unique snapshot of an Anaheim roster in flux. In fact, it can be seen as Bob Murray’s thesis for the season ahead. There are no significant hurdles stopping Anaheim’s young players from seizing the opportunities in front of them, but should they fail to meet expectations, there are cheap, if mediocre, alternatives in place to bridge the gap to next summer.

Ryan Getzlaf

2018-2019 Stats: 67 GP, 14 G, 34 A, 50.63 CF%, 46.21 xGF%

Ryan Getzlaf remains the most impactful forward on the Anaheim Ducks roster. Even in the midst of a historically bad season for both himself and the franchise, he managed to lead the team in assists and points despite not playing a full season. That can be seen as either an encouraging sign with regards to Getzlaf’s continued ability to be an impact player, or a rather discouraging sign about the quality of the roster outside of the aging playmaker. The upcoming season is a transition year for the franchise to say the least. That sentiment holds true for the team captain as well. Was last year simply a down year for all involved and we should expect him to bounce back to being the almost a point per game player (career average of .93 points per game) he has been for much of his career? Or is the end of Getzlaf’s prime at hand and will Anaheim be in need of a new star to take the mantle? Only time will tell. As long as Bob Murray is in charge there is going to be a mandate to compete, and how competitive the Ducks can be is still largely dependent on Ryan Getzlaf.

Adam Henrique

2018-2019 Stats: 82 GP, 18 G, 24 A, 46.22 xCF%, 47.47 xGF%

Once again Adam Henrique will be tasked with helping to stabilize a center depth chart with major concerns. Brought in two years ago amidst a rash of injuries to Anaheim’s top players, Henrique has played a steady and consistent two-way game for the Ducks. He optimally rates out as a high end third-line center. However, with Sam Steel yet to play a full season in the NHL he will likely be tasked with taking on the more difficult match ups to help the young centerman transition into the league. Head Coach Dallas Eakins will have the choice of using him to provide veteran mentorship to young, up and coming wingers, or playing him with more established veterans to provide an all situation line he can lean on late in games. Either way Henrique has proven to be a strong middle-six center capable of scoring 20 goals and approaching 50 points. That might not win the Stanley Cup on it’s own, but it’s not nothing.

Derek Grant

2018-2019 Stats: 31 GP, 2 G, 7 A, 48.29 CF%, 49.95 xGF%

After a career year with the Ducks in 2017-18 (66 GP, 12 G, 12 A), Derek Grant signed with Pittsburgh Penguins as an UFA, which was brief and largely underwhelming. The Ducks traded a highly productive AHL player to bring Grant back into the fold in Anaheim, and he responded by scoring nine points in 31 games and providing a competent and familiar depth option for Head Coach Bob Murray. If Sam Steel struggles to transition to the NHL early in the year, Derek Grant is the player who will be filling in for him in that third line role. If that’s what the season ultimately comes to, it’s a tragedy but not a disaster. Despite modest production, Grant has solid underlying numbers. Take a look at any number of NHL rosters and you’re likely to find names you’re unfamiliar with and Hockey-Reference pages that don’t impress. Finding one as competent as Grant in such a limited role, isn’t necessarily that easy. He is very much a “Break Glass In Case of Emergency” third-line center. But I’ve never heard anyone who needed a fire extinguisher complain about it afterwards.

Carter Rowney

2018-2019 Stats: 62 GP, 7 G, 13 A, 48.87 CF%, 48.12 xGF%

If you were to ask any Ducks fan, the 2018 off-season was largely the disappointment it was rumored to be. There were no major additions via trade or free agency, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the summer came when the team announced it had signed the largely anonymous Carter Rowney to a shocking 3-year $3.4m deal. While the deal had little cap significance carrying a lowly $1.13 AAV, signing a 29-year old free agent who’d played less than a hundred games to a multi-year deal was an eye-raising decision to say the least. And yet, Rowney proved to be a reliable and useful depth piece for a struggling team last season. Playing both through the middle and on the wings throughout the season, Rowney finally settled in to the 4th line center role to end the year. Along the way he reached career highs in Games Played (66), Goals (7), and Assists (13). Another depth forward with decent underlying numbers despite unremarkable production, he ultimately justified the contract and repaid Murray’s faith. The goal this season is surely to have him and Grant sharing a 4th line role with either being scratched or moved to the wing to accommodate other players. But as noted above, most of that will probably depend on Sam Steel.

Sam Steel

2018-2019 Stats: 22 GP, 6 G, 5 A, 44.12 CF%, 36.54 xGF%

New Kids On the Block have been singin’ and dancin’ for over thirty years now, and it feels like it’s been almost that long since Sam Steel was drafted in 2016. Along with the recently drafted Trevor Zegras, Steel will be expected to be a part of the next core of Ducks players that lead the team back to being a perennial Stanley Cup contender. The first step in that journey was last year with Steel getting his first real taste of life in the NHL. This year he will be asked to contribute to a team that is in serious need of a major infusion of talent, speed, and youth. Should he emerge from camp with a roster spot like almost everyone expects, he will be put in a hybrid middle-six role. Early reports say that he has spent time in camp on a line with Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg, and the recent exhibition game supports this. Both are highly skilled players who are going to see major minutes this season, and further lend credence to projections about Steel’s potential role. The young center seems to have more than enough ability to succeed at the next level and already has a working relationship with new coach Dallas Eakins after spending time in San Diego the last few years. Does he have enough for a dark horse Calder Trophy push? Anaheim is certainly hoping so.

The Ducks spent years searching for the long-term solution to their second line center problem. Matthieu Perreault, Nick Bonino, and a host of other players all failed to provide the kind of support needed. And then Bob Murray traded for Ryan Kesler, and Kesler filled that role perfectly, helping to propel the Ducks into a sustained period of success and legitimate cup contention. Now with his absence, and Ryan Getzlaf entering his fifteenth season in the league, Bob Murray is searching for answers once again. Bounce back years from both Getzlaf and Henrique in Dallas Eakins’ new system will go a long way to keeping this team respectable. But there is a limit to how far a team can go when its playing Derek Grant and Carter Rowney over ten minutes a night and on separate lines. Enter one Sam Steel. The difference between surprise playoff appearance and late lottery team doesn’t entirely come down to how well he alone can play this season, but almost. Should he not be ready, there are players in place to help fill the gap for another year. But these questions will just come up again next summer, and another season will have passed in the meantime.

All salary numbers courtesy of CapFriendly.com.

All statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and Corsica.Hockey.