Better Days Ahead in Anaheim

Despite a difficult start, the future remains bright for the Anaheim Ducks.

The Anaheim Ducks needed all of their initial 20 games to register their first regulation win. The game of hockey is so prone to variance and bad luck that a win-loss record can often deceive. Yet, for these Ducks, the 6-15-2 record they have amassed through 23 games is indeed reflective of their on-ice play. Anaheim is getting its just deserts, having been one of the National Hockey League’s worst clubs both at five-on-five and on special teams. There have been moments of encouragement as well, but how the franchise reacts to a largely dismal start could have significant long term ramifications.

Thanks to a slew of off-season moves, expectations for a rebuilding Anaheim team modestly increased heading into this season. Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek stated on a recent podcast that he expected the club to be at or near a .500 record at this juncture, demonstrating there was some internal expectation of competitiveness.

Off-Season Additions Struggling

With the additions of Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, and John Klingberg, along with a youthful core poised to take another step forward, there was a sense that the Ducks could at the very least avoid being the league’s punching bag, and maybe even show a competitive streak that has gone missing the last three years. Perhaps that was too lofty.

Strome was penciled in to the second-line center role from day one, a task that he has struggled with. In his tenure with the New York Rangers, the veteran pivot played almost exclusively with the all-world Artemi Panarin, a high-octane play-maker who often had the puck on his stick. There, Strome could be a fine play connector, leaving the initiating to the talented Panarin. In Anaheim, he’s played well over half of his five-on-five minutes with Vatrano, who is a far cry from Panarin as a play-driver, where the Ducks have only generated an unsightly 35.65 percent of the on-ice expected goals.

Intuitively, it makes sense that Strome might not be as impactful in his current situation, as Vatrano is much more of a play connector with quick touches than someone who will carry the puck in transition and do the heavy lifting offensively. The third forward on that line has been a revolving door, with Mason McTavish struggling as an out of position winger, Jakob Silfverberg getting a stint, and now Derek Grant being the latest to get a shot.

McTavish, the high-profile rookie center, got all of one period to show what he could do centering Strome and Vatrano, before head coach Dallas Eakins pulled the plug on that line. McTavish, at only 19 years of age, has already shown an ability to generate offense all on his own, particularly by carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. Should that idea ever be revisited, perhaps Strome’s numbers improve. Eakins seems committed to keeping him with Vatrano, a duo which remains very much a work in progress.

Klingberg’s season has not gone at all to plan. The veteran blueliner was brought in on a one-year deal, where he could recoup his value on the open market and get a lucrative deal next off-season. In an ideal world, Klingberg would arrive to Anaheim, put up a bunch of points on the power play, and either get dealt at the trade deadline to a playoff contender, or entrench himself as an indispensable piece to the franchise moving forward. In either scenario, he would be able to command the kind of pay day in the off-season that he was unable to secure last summer.

The production has not been there, and although Klingberg remains an established name who can fetch a fine return at the deadline, the prospects of a larger contract on the other end of things have hit a momentary snag. There’s plenty of blame to be levied towards the player, but Klingberg was never the kind of defensive ace that could be plugged into any situation and immediately shine. The Ducks, with an underlying system and defensive structure that remains very much a work in progress, have not offered him the kind of environment that will insulate his weaknesses. In that regard, the coaching staff has done him no favors.

Nov 15, 2022; Anaheim, California, USA; Anaheim Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins watches game action against the Detroit Red Wings during the third period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching Decisions Not Bearing Fruit

Dallas Eakins is now in his fourth season as Ducks head coach. On the last year of his contract, this was supposed to be the year where he would show that he could succeed with a refreshed roster and a general manager that would give him more room to breathe. The fact that the Ducks have looked so devoid of any structure at times at five-on-five (they currently hold the league worst shots-against rate), with special teams being equally dismal, has to land at his feet, at least in part. Even if the off-season additions may be playing in situations over their heads, and even if young players dot the lineup, the end result simply should not be this catastrophically bad.

Most statistical projection models had the Ducks in the low to mid-80 point range going into the season, which felt about right. 22 games in, Anaheim is playing at a 48-point pace. To Eakins credit, he has come around to permanently uniting Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry, some of the lone bright spots on this team, to great results.

Even so, he resisted that move for a significant stretch, which is proving costly. Strome and Vatrano remain inseparable on the second line, even thought the end result of their play continues to sink the team at five-on-five. Eakins is undoubtedly a stand up individual and by all accounts a great motivator, but his tactical choices, coupled with strategies that are currently yielding league-worse results, simply must be the subject of criticism.

Verbeek has held that there are no impending changes to the coaching staff, as he believes that a longer runway is needed. While that could be fair, it’s also fair to wonder if the Ducks aren’t getting the full picture of their current roster under Eakins. Former Ducks such as Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, and Josh Manson have all gone on to look rejuvenated on their new clubs, after looking like their best days were behind them in Anaheim.

While their new situations are undoubtedly more conducive to individual success, it does leave one to wonder if their environments in Anaheim were hindering their potential output. At a certain point, Verbeek needs to confidently know what pieces of this roster outside of the young core deserve to stick around once this team is truly competitive again, and the current environment may be shrouding his ability to do so.

Better Days Ahead

As much as the Ducks’ start has been mired in failure, there are positives to pick out as well. Terry continues to show that he belongs as a true first-line offensive threat. Zegras has been an excellent pay-maker in a first-line center role. McTavish looks like he belongs in the NHL. Pavol Regenda has been a sneakily solid off-season addition. Adam Henrique is having a quietly productive season at age 32. And of course, Anaheim still possesses one of the deepest prospect pools in the league, and is armed with six picks in the first three rounds of the 2023 Draft.

Lastly, 22 games, although a significant sample, is still just 22 games. There is time for this team to prove it’s better than it has shown. Although it’s been as bad of a start as possible in Anaheim, the future is still promising for the franchise, as it possesses a number of impending free agents that it can swap for assets at the deadline.

Should things continue to spiral, the prospect of a Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli donning a Ducks sweater come draft night is a pretty good consolation prize, too. As much as this season has been a drag at times, there is still really no bad outcome for this franchise.

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