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Pacific Division Preview: Anaheim Ducks focused on speed game amid injury concerns

For the second straight year, Anaheim will be forced to contend with injuries to key players heading into the regular season.

Arizona Coyotes v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As the regular season approaches, we’ll take a look at Vegas’ seven Pacific Division opponents to examine how they fared in 2017-18, what moves they’ve made in the offseason and what their lineups may look like to start the 2018-19 season. The Golden Knights have a full season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final under their belts, so no one in the NHL will be taking them lightly in Year 2. Here’s a look at the teams Vegas will face most frequently, starting with the Anaheim Ducks.

Anaheim’s offseason has been all about preaching the speed game. Over and over again. It was clear that the Ducks were lacking speed in their first-round playoff series against San Jose, and it’s something general manager Bob Murray has stressed frequently over the summer. Interestingly, Ducks bench boss Randy Carlyle prefers a physical game, but the Ducks supposedly will play a simpler game that focuses on quick zone exits, limiting cross-ice passes and much less dump and chase.

They will have to do so without Corey Perry, though. The Ducks announced Wednesday that the veteran winger is expected to miss the first five months of the season after undergoing knee surgery.

It’s unclear how this latest injury blow will affect Anaheim, but an injection of youth could actually make the transition to playing a more up-tempo game more seamless for the Ducks. The team made minimal offseason adjustments but retains a core of talented individuals who could put Anaheim in the running once again in 2018-19.

Season recap

The Ducks battled the injury bug like nobody’s business last season, with only three players on the entire roster hitting the 80-game mark (Andrew Cogliano, Josh Manson, Brandon Montour). Captain Ryan Getzlaf played just 56 games, Ryan Kesler missed nearly half the season (38 games) and Patrick Eaves missed all but two games with a medical scare originally diagnosed as Guillain-Barre syndrome but later determined to be a post-viral syndrome. Other key players who missed at least 10 games include Perry, Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Kevin Bieksa.

A mid-season trade with the Devils landed center Adam Henrique (and Joseph Blandisi) in exchange for defenseman Sami Vatanen; Henrique went on to score 20 goals in 57 games with the Ducks. It was his fourth season in five years with 20-plus tallies.

If not for goaltender John Gibson, though, the Ducks’ season could have been over very quickly. The American netminder had the best season of his career and preserved the Ducks’ playoff hopes with exemplary save after save. His desperation and fearlessness in the crease gave his team a chance to win every night, and he stole his fair share of contests. There were many times when the Ducks came away with a point solely because of the play of Gibson. He finished the season 31-18-7 with a 2.43 goals-against average, .926 save percentage and four shutouts, but those numbers don’t reflect just how valuable he was. Here’s just one example of his sensational play as he robs Alex Tuch with a glove save.

When Gibson was out of the lineup with various injuries, Ryan Miller stepped up and provided solid backup goaltending for the Ducks. He finished the season 12-6-6 with a 2.35 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and four shutouts of his own.

Rickard Rakell was another key player for Anaheim, seeing a rise in production for the fifth straight season with a career-high 34 goals, 35 assists and 69 points in 77 games. The 25-year-old Swede stepped up as the first-line center in Getzlaf’s absence; he is primed for another big year for the Ducks and will look to turn in his third consecutive 30-goal campaign.

Speaking of Getzlaf, the rugged captain managed more than a point-per-game pace despite suiting up in just 56 games, scoring 11 goals and a team-high 50 assists. He remains a warrior for Anaheim but needs more support from throughout the lineup.

Two players who took major strides last season were Ondrej Kase and Montour, who played quite well in their first full seasons at the NHL level. Kase scored 20 goals and 38 points in 66 games and figures to be a key cog in Anaheim’s top nine this season, especially considering he led the Ducks in Corsi For percentage last year (52.65) and finished in the top 2 among Ducks skaters in every major possession category (min. 5 games). Montour established himself as a solid top-four defenseman and secured a spot on the top pairing with Cam Fowler, chipping in nine goals and 32 points in 80 games with the big club.

On the flip side, Perry’s down year (17-32—49) was another indication of the forward’s rapid decline. The former 50-goal scorer is expected to miss the first five months of the season. While Anaheim still believes he possesses bounce-back capabilities, Perry has been a major disappointment over the last two seasons (despite ranking third on the team in points in that span) and could see further regression upon returning from the latest setback.

In the end, against all odds, Anaheim managed to qualify for the 2018 playoffs with 101 points, narrowly squeezing past the Sharks for second place in the division, trailing only the eventual Western Conference Champions (ICYMI, that was the Knights). Anaheim’s postseason was brief, though, as San Jose took the first-round series with a four-game sweep.

The Ducks’ postseason performance could be classified as sluggish, and many deemed it uninspired, especially considering they earned home-ice advantage. It seemed as though major changes were in store for a veteran core that took quite a step back after reaching the Western Conference Final in 2017.

Offseason moves

However, major moves were not in the cards for the Ducks this offseason. The top candidate for an offseason trade was the struggling Perry, but it’s difficult to move such a substantial contract (average annual value of $8.625 million with a no-movement clause), especially for a player in such a tailspin. Now he’ll be stashed on long-term injured reserve.

Some thought Jakob Silfverberg could be on his way out, especially as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer; the Swedish winger saw a nine-point drop in production but played a largely defensive role with a 40.74 offensive zone faceoff percentage, the second-lowest on the team (min. 5 games). With Perry sidelined, Silfverberg presumably will play out the final year of his contract, which carries a $3.75 million cap charge. The Ducks preserved enough cap space for his future should the two sides come to an agreement prior to July 1 (assuming he doesn’t get traded during the season).

However, several players were rewarded with multi-year extensions this offseason. That includes Gibson, who signed an eight-year, $51.2 million extension (AAV: $6.4 million) that kicks in next season, as well as Henrique, whose five-year, $29.125 million extension kicks in for the 2019-20 season as well. The young Kase signed a very team-friendly bridge deal for three years with an AAV of $2.6 million, and Montour earned a two-year bridge deal with an AAV of $3.3875 million.

Other offseason additions include defensemen Andrej Sustr ($1.3 million) and Luke Schenn ($800,000), both signed to one-year deals, as well as forwards Carter Rowney (three years, $3.4 million) and Brian Gibbons (one year at $1 million).

Key departures include veteran defensemen Bieksa (not re-signed) and Francois Beauchemin (retired) as well as forwards Chris Wagner (traded at the deadline), Derek Grant (signed with Pittsburgh as UFA), Antoine Vermette (not re-signed) and J.T. Brown (signed with Minnesota as UFA).

Lineup preview

With Perry out for five months and Kesler’s status unknown at this point in the preseason, there are several question marks in Anaheim’s lineup, especially to start the season. It was reported earlier in the summer by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that it’s possible Kesler will miss the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign due to complications from last summer’s hip surgery, but nothing has been confirmed either way. Eaves, while recovered from illness, has a shoulder injury and reportedly will not play in Anaheim’s season opener. Nick Ritchie remains a restricted free agent, so his availability is in doubt as well. Defenseman Korbinian Holzer is listed as injured, though he would be on the bubble regardless.

That leaves room for prospects like Sam Steel, Troy Terry, Kiefer Sherwood, Isaac Lundestrom, Kevin Roy and Max Comtois (forwards) as well as defensemen Marcus Pettersson and Jacob Larsson to land one of the available slots out of training camp. Don’t count out Kalle Kossila, who could also contend for a spot after a good showing last year.

Terry has played with Getzlaf in preseason and could be the likely replacement for Perry, at least until Eaves is healthy. Comtois turned out a three-point performance last night against the Kings, but Lundestrom and Sherwood have been impressive as well, leaving Anaheim’s coaching staff with some difficult decisions. Assuming Ritchie does not re-sign in the next week, here’s one possibility for how the lines could shape up to start the season:

Rakell — Getzlaf — Terry
Kase — Henrique — Silfverberg
Cogliano — Steel — Sherwood
Comtois — Rowney — Gibbons

Fowler — Montour
Lindholm — Manson
Pettersson — Sustr

Gibson
Miller

Quick hits

2017-18 record: 44-25-13—101
Position in standings: Division-2, Conference-5, League-9
Pacific Division record: 15-7-7
Record against Vegas: 1-2-1
Playoff result: Eliminated in first round by San Jose (4-0)
Leading scorers: Rakell (34-35—69), Getzlaf (11-50—61), Perry (17-32—49)
Top Corsi For %: Kase (52.65), Lindholm (52.55), Getzlaf (51.98)
Power play (NHL rank): 17.8 percent (23)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 83.2 percent (5)
Goals for (NHL rank): 231 (18)
Goals against (NHL rank): 209 (29)
Team MVP: Gibson (31-18-7, GAA: 2.43, SV%: .926, SO: 4)
Season opener: Oct. 3 @ San Jose

Bottom line

Anaheim was considered a Cup contender at this point last summer despite injuries that would keep three key players out of the lineup for an extended period of time (Kesler, Lindholm, Vatanen). Last season’s trade for Henrique gives the team much-needed insurance up the middle, and if Kesler is unfit to play better hockey than he did upon returning to the lineup last December, Anaheim may be better off with him on LTIR. The same can’t really be said of Perry, even if he has been underachieving.

The issue for Anaheim is that many teams in the Pacific Division did more this offseason to improve, especially Arizona, Calgary and San Jose. Los Angeles brought in Ilya Kovalchuk and will have a healthy Jeff Carter, Edmonton could have a bounce-back year and still has arguably the most dynamic player in the league in Connor McDavid, Vancouver is putting the team in the hands of its young stars and there’s no contest between expectations for Vegas this year compared to last season.

The Ducks have made the playoffs with at least 100 points in each of the past six seasons, and Gibson could be on the verge of a Vezina season IF he can remain healthy, which has been an issue throughout his career. That being said, Anaheim is in a tough spot in a young, competitive division. The team will need more from secondary scorers like Silfverberg and Ritchie, who remains stuck in contract limbo, and there are some question marks on the back end outside of Fowler, Montour, Lindholm and Manson. The Ducks will continue to be a playoff contender in the Pacific, but the window could be closing on the Getzlaf/Perry era.

Golden Knights vs. Ducks schedule

Oct. 20 vs. Anaheim
Nov. 14 vs. Anaheim
Jan. 4 @ Anaheim
Mar. 1 @ Anaheim