Through 28 games, the Anaheim Ducks sit dead last not only in the Pacific Division but the entire league. Their 7-18-3 record and -50 goal differential include just one regulation win and pair of special teams units that are 31st (second-to-last) among all teams.
They concede the highest amount of shots per game (37.5) league-wise by a significant margin and both of their goaltenders currently hold save percentages under .900. Their latest result was a 6-1 drubbing to the 27th-placed San Jose Sharks.
There are some positives as well. Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras are on track to outpace their point totals from their breakout performances last season. Mason McTavish is perhaps in the midst of his own this year. Defenseman Cam Fowler, too, has quietly put together a solid offensive campaign. He’s on track to break his career-high in points for the second time in three seasons.
But a few glimmers of hope are not enough to overpower the looming darkness that has begun to surround this team with every passing game. Let’s be clear: the defense has been nowhere near to standard, which in turn has resulted in erratic goaltending.
The penalty kill specifically has been a major issue when it comes to defending. Anaheim currently averages 12.5 penalties in minutes (PIMs) per game, the third most in the league. With a 66.67 penalty kill percentage, you can imagine a lot of those penalties taken lead to goals against.
Some of the offseason additions have not fared well to this point either. With Jamie Drysdale almost certainly lost for the rest of the season due to shoulder surgery, a key component of the future is no longer manning the blue line this season. Beyond Fowler, the Ducks introduced the likes of Dmitry Kulikov, John Klingberg and Nathan Beaulieu this season after bringing in all three during the offseason.
Kulikov, who was acquired from Minnesota for future considerations, began the year paired with Drysdale but now finds himself regularly playing his off-hand next to Fowler. The disparity of NHL-ready right-handed defensemen in the Ducks’ system has necessitated a handful of their left-handed counterparts to play their off-hands on occasion.
One of those is Beaulieu, who came into training camp on a PTO. His subsequent performances during camp were enough to earn him a spot on the opening night roster and send Josh Mahura onto waivers—Mahura was claimed by Florida the next day. With defensive options down in AHL San Diego either banged up or not yet ready for the NHL level of play, Beaulieu has found himself regularly paired with Kevin Shattenkirk on the third defensive pair. The recent return of Urho Vaakanainen may reduce Beaulieu to a seventh defenseman, with the Ducks now as close to being fully healthy on the blue line as possible.
Klingberg was quite possibly general manager Pat Verbeek’s crown jewel out of his free agent haul this past summer. After not being able to find the long-term deal he desired, Klingberg inked a one-year, $7 million deal with the Ducks. His contract includes a full no-trade clause, which converts into a 10-team no-trade clause on Jan. 1.
The thought behind the signing seemed obvious. If he performs well on a short-term deal, either try to lock him up long-term or ship him out at the deadline for assets that will become part of the rebuild. As it stands, it appears that neither option is feasible. Klingberg has underwhelmed and his shortcomings in his own end haven’t been masked either due to his meager offensive production so far.
Verbeek’s two other major signings––Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano––have also been slow to adjust to life in Orange County. Strome scored the overtime winner in Wednesday night’s game against Carolina, but he has just two points in the last 10 games. Vatrano has come to life a bit recently, with three of his 10 points coming in the last four games. Typically a shoot-on-sight player, the goals haven’t yet come for Frankie V––he has just four on the season. Both of the former Rangers were signed to multi-year deals and while rumors of Vatrano being dealt elsewhere have already begun to swirl, there’s a high probability that he still finishes the year off in Anaheim.
Compared to last season, it may seem that the Ducks have regressed severely. However, the stripped-down version of the 2021-22 Ducks post-trade deadline finished out the season on a 4-11-3 run with a -18 goal differential. That evens out to about an 18-50-14 record and a -82 goal differential if you calculated those totals for an entire season. That’s good enough for 50 points, just about what the Ducks are projected to finish this season with.
There’s a laundry list of reasons you could conjure for why this season’s team has been so subpar. They added a handful of new players into a system that they don’t yet know. Numerous injuries have forced lineup changes and therefore line chemistry can’t be developed.
But these are also professional athletes and the major additions Verbeek made are all veterans. Who’s to blame, the coaching staff or the players? It’s a little bit of both, quite frankly. While the coaching staff can do as much as possible to prepare, the players are the ones who have to execute and at times, they’ve fallen short in that aspect.
That isn’t to say that head coach Dallas Eakins isn’t responsible for some of it either. Seen as the bridge across the gap of tearing things down to return to contender status when he was appointed head coach in 2019, the Ducks appear to have stagnated during his tenure. The team has failed to reach .500 during any of his seasons in charge to this point and that’s unlikely to change this season.
The pulse of the Ducks’ fan base has been red hot in terms of what the future holds for Eakins. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that he will depart when his contract expires at the end of this season and Verbeek is assuredly keen to bring in someone whom he can instill his ideology into. Who exactly that could be remains to be seen. Verbeek cleaned house down in San Diego after just one season of a new coaching staff so it’s clear that he wants everything in the organization to follow his blueprint.
For now, the Ducks continue to battle on. Though most nights, it has resulted in a losing one. It would be unprofessional to question the commitment level of the players, that much can be said. However, the team does tend to get outmuscled and outworked on a nightly basis. It’s a continual work in progress, one of the many factors when going through a rebuild.
The prize at the end of this long, arduous race could be the first overall pick in the draft—and with it, Connor Bedard. The potential of combining another high-caliber talent with the likes of Zegras, Drysdale and McTavish is a salivating thought and fans are willing to endure what they’ve seen this season if it means the Ducks have their first player with No. 98 on the back of his sweater next season. There’s plenty of season left to play, but Anaheim is on the right course in that regard.