Ducks getting a glimpse of their future with new additions

The Anaheim Ducks took the ice for their final practice of the regular season Wednesday ahead of their regular season finale.

IRVINE, Calif. – The Ducks took the ice for their final practice of the season on Wednesday ahead of their regular season finale Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings. It was a short practice, with most of the team’s veteran players leaving the ice after about 30 minutes while others stayed on to get some extra work in.

Among those that stayed on were Nikita Nesterenko, Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Drew Helleson and Jackson LaCombe. All of them are considered part of the Ducks’ future and it is practice habits like these that head coach Dallas Eakins certainly won’t complain about.

New faces getting a shot

LaCombe made his NHL debut last night against the Vancouver Canucks. Helleson, who scored his first NHL goal in the game, was playing in just his second NHL game. Groulx made his season debut after spending most of the season in the AHL with the San Diego Gulls and Nesterenko played in his eighth game since joining the team last month after closing the book on his collegiate career.

With numerous additions to the roster and lineup, simple mathematics will tell you that players have to come out of the lineup in order to accommodate these new faces. There have been no complaints from players who have had to sit out either, says Eakins.

“The guys that we’ve had to keep out of the lineup or scratch have just said, ‘Hey, I get it. I understand where we’re at. I’m excited for the kid’”.

The end of the season always presents opportunities for new players to crack the lineup, whether that’s joining the team after the collegiate season ends—as the case was for Nesterenko and LaCombe—or being called up from the minors like Helleson and Groulx were.

Close friends are now close teammates

For Helleson and LaCombe, their first steps into the NHL were something they’d talked about for a long time as childhood friends. “We both lived together for three or four years and always dreamt about playing together in the NHL or even just making the NHL,” said Helleson. “Now, to be here on the same team, we couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”

“For me to be here to see his first game and for him to be here to see mine was really special, and I know both of our parents are super proud of us. We’re both super thankful to them. They sacrificed so much for us so it’s special for all of them to be here.”

LaCombe’s college season ended last Saturday when Minnesota suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss in the national championship game to Quinnipiac. He flew back with the Golden Gophers to Minnesota before boarding another plane to Southern California. He was able to watch Helleson’s first NHL game this past Sunday from the stands.

“I think I learned so much about leadership,” said LaCombe of his time with Minnesota. “Being one of the older guys on the team and (learning) so much about teamwork. The kind of camaraderie that our group had, I think that was something that was super special with our team, and that’s something I kind of want to take and move forward with moving onto the next level.”

LaCombe and Helleson both had praise for their veteran defense partners, the former playing with Kevin Shattenkirk and the latter playing with Nathan Beaulieu.

“Beau’s been great,” said Helleson. “My first game he helped settle the nerves a lot and just told me to trust my instincts. ‘We’ve played hockey our whole lives and we’re here for a reason, don’t get too nervous about it’. If I have any questions, he’s always there to answer them for me. He’s kind of been that rock for me to lean on if I need something so I can’t thank him enough for how good he’s been.”

“(Shattenkirk had) so many tips throughout the whole game,” said LaCombe. “Just positioning-wise and he kept telling me to make plays quick, get the puck moving up north fast. If (joining the rush was) available, jump up in the play and get involved. He was great to me the whole night and before the game too.”

Nesterenko adjusting quickly to the NHL

Dallas Eakins said that he was surprised at how quickly Nikita Nesterenko had adjusted to the pace of the NHL game and that he had exceeded his initial expectations.

“AHL games and college games and junior games, they are a little disjointed at times and I thought Nikita had a skill set. But, I just wasn’t sure how he would do at this level and so he has certainly surprised me. As his strength grows and as his skating improves, he’s going to have a legitimate chance to play at this level.”

“I noticed that the better defense you play, the harder you get on the forecheck and disturb their offensive play, the more offensive chances you’ll get,” said Nesterenko when asked about what he’s been able to take away from his first several games as an NHLer.

“And then just getting to the net, a lot of goals are scored in the house. If you just get to the net, the puck will find you. Then, it’s just about finding your finish.”

The “house” that Nesterenko speaks of is the area from the goalposts to the faceoff dots to the top of the circles. It’s where Nesterenko scored his first NHL goal and it’s an area he’s found himself in more consistently with every passing game.

BO Knows

Benoit-Olivier Groulx, known simply as “BO”, skated in 18 games last season for the Ducks, putting up three points during that span. One of those points was his first NHL goal, scored into an empty net against the St. Louis Blues.

Eakins said that that call-up may have been a bit premature at best but that he loved the plan that general manager Pat Verbeek had set up for Groulx this season.

“Just get him down there (in the AHL), let him play and have a full season there,” said Eakins. “Haven’t seen him for a year personally—I’ve been down to San Diego to watch him play a few times—but it’s amazing to see how much he matured just as a person and as an athlete, as a young man.”

Jesper Froden, 28, fights for the puck for the Coachella Valley Firebirds against Benoit-Olivier Groulx of San Diego at Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, Calif., February 3, 2023. Firebirds V San Diego 7

“I thought he did really well last night,” continued Eakins. “He was excellent in the faceoff circle. He did a good job when he was out there on the penalty kill. He got moved around a little bit with McTavish going down so I think that really boded well for him and it’s great to see him continuing to develop.”

McTavish, who exited last night’s game with an upper-body injury and did not return, will not play tomorrow night and finishes his rookie season with 17 goals and 43 points in 80 games.

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