Ducks Secure Best Odds in NHL Draft, Dallas Eakins Out

The Anaheim Ducks have the best odds at drafting Connor Bedard in the 2023 NHL Draft.

It’s a new day in Orange County.

The worst season in Anaheim Ducks franchise history is over. The 2022-23 Ducks were a historically bad team by almost every possible measure, highlighted by their minus-129 goal differential.

That’s all in the past now, though, and the future has gotten considerably brighter in the last 24 hours.

The Ducks secured the best odds at drafting Connor Bedard in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft thanks to their loss against the Los Angeles Kings Thursday night, and a 13-game winless streak to round out the season.

Bedard is a generational talent that belongs in the rarified air of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. His story has been well documented, but it cannot be overstated how he could single handedly shift Anaheim’s fortunes, should the Ducks win the lottery.

However, the real victory lies in the fact that the Ducks can fall back no more than two spots in the draft order. Thus, they will be picking third overall at worst.

The 2023 Draft is loaded at the top. Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson, and Matvei Michkov all have the potential to be franchise-altering picks in their own right. Yes, Bedard is the hope, but having to “settle” for one of the best college hockey freshmen ever in Fantilli, or an all-time great Swedish pro in Carlsson is more than just a consolation prize. Michkov, despite some of the contractual uncertainty in Russia, has shown he too can be a franchise player.

Anaheim has arguably the best stable of prospects in the NHL. Olen Zellweger and Pavel Mintyukov headline an embarrassment of riches on the back end. Drew Helleson and Jackson LaCombe showed they were ready for the big leagues in their late-season stints in Anaheim. Tristan Luneau, Noah Warren, Tyson Hinds, and Nathan Gaucher are all intriguing projects.

Notice how many of the aforementioned names were on the blueline. Anaheim’s system, for as good as it is, needs an injection of talent up front. Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish have already graduated, leaving sparse headliners in the pipleline.

There is simply no better way re-invigorate that forward pool than to insert one of Bedard/Fantilli/Carlsson/Michkov. There’s been great debate as to whether hockey is a “strong-link” or “weak-link” sport (strong: top-end talent drives success, weak: depth drives it). Whatever links tickle your fancy, the Ducks’ chain will get irrefutably stronger through the 2023 Draft.

Dallas Eakins Out as Head Coach

Feb 20, 2023; Sunrise, Florida, USA; Anaheim Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins looks on during the second period against the Florida Panthers at FLA Live Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately for Dallas Eakins, the sheer ineptitude of the 2022-23 Ducks would spell the end of his tenure as head coach. The club announced Friday morning that Eakins’ contract would not be renewed.\.

By every account, Eakins was a phenomenal leader, which makes discussing his time in Anaheim all the more difficult. Current and former players rave about his ability to communicate, and how he truly cared about them. Nobody is twisting a player’s arm to heap praise on their coach, so their accounts should be trusted.

Unfortunately, that only gets a coach so far in the modern NHL, which is the real shame in all of this. With all of the horror stories about former, old-school coaches and general managers that have been exposed in recent years, it would have been nice to see one of the truly good guys in the business succeed in the win column as well, showing that basic human decency doesn’t need to be checked at the door in order to win hockey games.

Yes, Eakins was dealt a strange hand. He arrived at a time where former GM Bob Murray was in denial about the team’s need for a full rebuild. Murray provided him with teams that weren’t quite bad enough to be abhorrently bad, but also not good enough to be playoff contenders. Eakins’ team showed promise with a hot start to the 2021-22 campaign. That was never sustained though, and Pat Verbeek’s hiring spelled the end of that roster.

Anaheim’s roster going into 2022-23 was by no means that of a Cup contender. But, with the additions up front of Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano, as well as John Klingberg and Dmitry Kulikov joining the fray on the back end, there was at least a realistic hope of modest improvement. Most projection models had the Ducks as a team on the outside of the playoff picture, but nowhere near the league’s cellar.

Evaluating Eakins from a Tactical and Development Lens

Eakins never really “coached up” his teams. The Ducks throughout his tenure were never better than the sum of their parts. Even worse, they often weren’t as good as the sum of their parts. For all the modernity in Eakins’ off-ice leadership approach, he was strictly an old-school type when it came to the on-ice product.

The now-former head coach never seemed to trust his top offensive talents. Troy Terry was regularly scratched prior to his breakout year, despite excellent defensive metrics. Even by the eye test, it was clear that Terry belonged in the lineup. Eakins may have helped Terry’s mindset off the ice, but the reality is that he was already a good player before the breakout season. His coach just didn’t see it yet.

Eakins, like most old-school coaches, would be loathe to keep a player in the lineup that wasn’t a classic “grinder” if the goals and assists weren’t there. Such was the case for Terry for a long time.

Trevor Zegras presented another challenge to Eakins’ old-school mindset. To be sure, Zegras bends most old-school hockey dogma, but he was truly treated with kid gloves in the early going. Eakins would constantly take him off the ice in late-period and late-game situations, often having Derek Grant or Nic Deslauriers out there instead, even for offensive zone draws.

The inherent mistrust of Zegras’s defensive game never really went away. Even as recently as this season, Eakins has shifted Zegras to the wing in order to take defensive responsibility off his plate. As such, it’s hard to see how Eakins helped Zegras develop away from the puck. Strictly from an on-ice perspective, Terry and Zegras developed as NHLers in spite of their head coach.

The End of Eakins’ Tenure

Maybe Eakins was never coming back after this season anyway. Verbeek as a new GM probably wanted to get someone of his choosing at some point. But had the Ducks been competitive, conversations may have been had about Eakins sticking around, especially given how much ownership seemed to be fond of his work.

Instead, the Ducks looked like they had no game plan for 82 games. The total lack of any defensive or offensive cohesion was truly remarkable. From Game 1 to Game 82, this year’s rendition of the Ducks gave up Grade-A scoring chance after Grade-A scoring chance, with zero evidence of any defensive structure to fall back on.

It’s well and good to say that the locker room stayed positive during a difficult year, but maybe they wouldn’t have had to work so hard to remain positive if they actually had a defensive structure that prevented some truly embarrassing performances. Therein lies the great Eakins dilemma. A great leader, and a poor tactician.

Looking Ahead

The Ducks’ future outlook has dramatically shifted.

Sure, the future already looked bright. Now though, it’s just much brighter. They are guaranteed to draft a player in the top-3 that will instantly become their best prospect and potentially alter the franchise’s fortunes. They may even draft Bedard, who would completely change the way we think about Anaheim’s future timeline. Bedard, Zegras, McTavish up front, with Drysdale, Zellweger, Mintyukov on the back end? That’s the foundation of a Stanley Cup contender.

Verbeek made the correct decision to move on from Eakins. The team desperately needed an upgrade in tactical acumen behind the bench. Now though, Verbeek has to show that he can identify a coach who can fill that need. That decision will be one of the most important that Verbeek has had to make in his still very early tenure as GM. He also needs to start building the roster back up, after a season where it was truly burned to the ground.

Regardless of who the Ducks draft, the clock will start ticking on building a team that can compete. Should Anaheim be in the Macklin Celebrini sweepstakes in 2024, then that would mean something truly went wrong along the way.

The common refrain amidst all the losing this season was that better days were ahead; that the Ducks still had an exciting future to look forward to despite the struggles. Well, that future has officially begun. It’s time to get excited about this franchise again.

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