Ducks rebuild at critical stage as offseason looms

Anaheim will miss playoffs for sixth straight year but GM Pat Verbeek says team is ready to 'take a step.'

LOS ANGELES — After falling 3-1 to the LA Kings at Crypto.com Arena Saturday night, the Anaheim Ducks’ season has just one game remaining: a Thursday night farewell in Las Vegas against the defending Stanley Cup champion Golden Knights.

Regardless of Thursday’s outcome, it’s evident the Ducks and general manager Pat Verbeek have arrived at a crossroads. Anaheim is 52-96-17 in two seasons with Verbeek has been at the helm.

The Ducks have not reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in six seasons and they have been categorized as sellers at the trade deadline in each of the last three, having jettisoned the majority of players remaining in Anaheim from the Bob Murray era.

Since Verbeek took the team’s reins on Feb. 3, 2022, he has made an annual ritual of trading expiring salaries (and the players attached to them) on or around the deadline. The result of this extended purge cycle is a very young hockey club peppered with veterans who yet again find themselves in the NHL draft lottery.

Is there a plan to fix this? Evidently there is.

A month ago, Verbeek was asked if the team’s rebuild is complete. More specifically, he was asked by Ducks TV analyst Brian Hayward if Anaheim is “no longer a seller.”

“We’re in a transition phase,” Verbeek said. “I don’t say it’s a rebuild. A rebuild is when you’re just tearing down. I feel we’re at a place now where we can take a step. Our good young players are already in place, and some more are arriving, like Cutter Gauthier. We’ve got a couple more for next year, young players, like [Tristan] Luneau, who will probably step into the lineup and be a full-time player.

“We’re taking steps. And now, for me, I want to push to where these guys are pushing forward to get into a playoff race. That’s going to be our goal, to be fighting for that right down the stretch.”

Anaheim Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek fields questions from television analyst Brian Hayward at a season ticket holder event in March 2024.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is bluster. How exactly does Verbeek, a first-time GM, think he’s going to transform a team that finished third from the league’s bottom this year into a playoff team in one offseason?

The notion becomes a little less absurd when one looks at the young talent Verbeek has already amassed. Despite the Ducks’ dismal record, there were stretches during the season that appeared cohesive, organized and downright entertaining. The team’s young core is potent and exciting, and adding a talent like Gauthier to the mix next season conjures some thrilling possibilities.

Sill, there are gaping holes. Verbeek has said specifically that he would like to improve the team’s bottom six forward group. And a decision must be made about the wisdom of continuing to pay John Gibson $6.4M per year (for three more years) when he may no longer be the best goalie on his team. Here are some of the avenues Verbeek may take to improve the Ducks:

Free Agency

Anaheim needs forwards who score goals, and a number of players who fit that mold will be unrestricted free agents this summer. The biggest name available is Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose 39 goals and 77 points this season would have led the Ducks in both categories.

Stamkos and Verbeek do have history together: the latter was the assistant GM in Tampa during the former’s earlier days, so one suspects there is at least a sliver of a chance that Stamkos gives Anaheim some consideration. He was also a teammate of Alex Killorn’s in Tampa. But as his team’s captain and a two-time Stanley Cup Champion, drawing Stamkos to Anaheim would require a lot of zeros.

Other free agent goal-scorers available this summer include Florida’s Sam Reinhart (54 goals), Vegas’ Johnathan Marchessault (42), Winnipeg’s Tyler Toffoli (31), and Dallas’ Matt Duchesne (25).

On the blue line, where Verbeek may seek replacement for Jamie Drysdale’s lost production, possibilities include Tampa Bay’s Matt Dumba, former Duck Brandon Montour (Florida), and Vancouver’s Tyler Myers. With the strong early returns from Olen Zellweger and the expected arrival of Luneau, Anaheim’s defense could be vastly improved next season.

2024 NHL Draft

The Ducks have two first-round picks in the June 28 NHL Draft in Las Vegas: their own (slot to be determined in NHL Draft Lottery during the playoffs) and Edmonton’s, which they acquired in the Adam Henrique/Sam Carrick trade. The Oilers are a playoff team with title aspirations, so their pick will likely fall toward the end of the first round.

Two first-rounders afford Verbeek a bevy of options. If he doesn’t like Anaheim’s lottery slot (Anaheim twice has had the best odds to win the lottery and twice missed out on the first pick, robbing them of chances to draft both Sidney Crosby and Connor Bedard), he could package both picks to move up for a player he may covet. He could also trade the pick(s) for a current NHL player or prospect. Or he could simply stand pat and further bolster Anaheim’s prospect pool. This season, the Ducks will finish with the third-highest odds of winning the first pick, trailing only Chicago and San Jose.

No jaw-dropping, Bedard-like prospects are available in this year’s draft class. Boston University’s Macklin Celebrini, who was awarded the Hobey Baker Trophy on Friday, is widely regarded as the top overall player in the 2024 NHL Draft. Russian right wing Ivan Demidov, Michigan State defenseman Artyom Levshunov, and Medicine Hat forward Cayden Lindstrom are also expected to be lottery picks.

RFAs and Trades

According to CapFriendly.com, Anaheim has just under $33 million in projected cap space for next season. Jakob Silfverberg’s $5.75M annual salary comes off the team’s books, and several Ducks will become restricted free agents at season’s end: Isac Lunderstrom, Max Jones, Brett Leason, Bo Groulx, Gustav Lindstrom, Jackson LaCombe, and Urho Vaakanainen.

On the trade front, Verbeek has already demonstrated his prowess. Virtually no one saw the Drysdale-for-Gauthier trade coming, and when one is able to examine that deal without the Flyers front office drama attached, it seems both teams can claim victory (although Drysdale has been injured again). But the stealth, low-profile manner in which Verbeek consummated that deal is fair warning to Ducks fans to be ready for almost anything this summer.