Gudas, Killorn bring snarl and skill to Anaheim

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
The Anaheim Ducks improved in free agency after the additions of Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas.

The Anaheim Ducks have signed Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas on the first day of unrestricted free agency to four-year, $6.25 million annual average value (“AAV”), and three-years, $4 million AAV contracts, respectively. Both signings represent a further shift away from Anaheim’s rebuild, and an added emphasis on the immediate future.

General manager Pat Verbeek just witnessed 82 games of his club playing some of the worst hockey in NHL history. He has a young core in Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale, and Troy Terry that is about to get far more expensive.

As bad as Anaheim’s season was — netting them the second overall pick that turned into Leo Carlsson — the time for full-on rebuilding has effectively passed due to the roster’s changing financial structure. If there was any doubt about that, Verbeek swiftly vaporized it by signing two aging veterans to term-laden deals. Both contracts carry risk to the players’ respective ages, and how they pan out will have an outsized impact on Anaheim’s fortunes in the coming years.

Radko Gudas’s Impact on the Blueline

Florida Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas (7) skates with the puck against the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at FLA Live Arena. (Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Gudas, who turned 33 in June, fills the void left on the right side by Kevin Shattenkirk’s departure to the Boston Bruins. As the Ducks transition into a new era that could feature multiple young defensemen, Gudas represents a perfect foil at a key inflection point.

The dust has very much yet to settle. Verbeek could still add more proven NHL talent on his blueline, but there is a real possibility of Anaheim’s back end featuring up to three unproven, young blueliners on any given night. Take your pick from a list of Jackson LaCombe, Drew Helleson, Olen Zellweger, and Pavel Mintyukov.

Of course, that’s without even factoring in the now 21-year old Jamie Drysdale who missed nearly all of last season. Anaheim’s GM needed to bring in a stabilizing force to that influx of youth, but also one that wouldn’t slow them down given the plethora of mobility and skill among that group. Gudas potentially fits that mold to a tee when looking at his tracking data from hockey analyst Corey Sznajder.

As the data demonstrates, Gudas excels at defending his blueline, rating above league average in denying opposing attackers’ attempted zone entries. Although he did not excel at retrieving the puck in his own zone, Gudas rated highly in breaking the puck out once he got it on his stick. Despite Gudas’s reputation as a stay-at-home defenseman, the number show he was actually quite involved offensively, rating highly across play-making metrics and rush offense.

Given how Anaheim’s blueline projects to look both next year and beyond, that all feels like a perfect fit. The veteran Gudas will bring some much needed snarl and physicality to the Ducks’ back end, sure. More importantly, though, he’ll bring a competence and offensive flair to elevate the group and establish its impending high-octane identity.

Granted, there’s risk here. Gudas just endured a grueling Stanley Cup Final run that saw him have to sit games out. Should his physical decline steepen, there’s real downside potential for a player whose game is built around his physicality. However, as far as next season is concerned, Gudas unquestionably makes Anaheim a better team and one that is going to be far less enjoyable to play against.

The Alex Killorn Gamble

Verbeek and Killorn have a connection dating back to their shared time in the Tampa Bay organization, so the fact that he’s now a Duck should not come as a huge surprise. Killorn just enjoyed one of the most successful team and individual- level runs anyone has enjoyed in the NHL, with the Lightning going to the Cup Final three seasons in a row and winning back-to-back Stanley Cups.

To boot, he just set a career-high in goals, assists, and points at age 33. There are few players around the league whose names seem to carry as much respect as Killorn’s does. He’s won, and by all indications, he’s still going strong, even when peeling back the layers in his game.

Sznajder’s tracking data shows a player who even at age 33, is still bringing a ton of value on the ice. He rates out as well above average in almost all defensive metrics, excelling in retrieving the puck and then breaking it out. Not that it needs repeating, but the Ducks sorely lacked forwards who could do that last season.

The offense in Killorn’s game seems to stem from his ability to both enter the offensive zone with control of the puck, and then create offense off of the cycle. He’s clearly not someone who will get out on the rush a la Zegras or Terry, but one he’s in the zone, he excels. In addition, he’s a good forechecker, hounding the opposition while also recovering dumped pucks at an above average rate. All in all, the Nova Scotia native checks a lot of boxes that Anaheim needed checked.

Of course, there’s a catch. The AAV of Killorn’s deal is just a hair off of the $6.1 million Evolving Hockey had projected, but the four-year term is the real kicker, in addition to a full no-trade clause in the first two years and a 15-team NTC in the final two years. Killorn has been impressively durable, having not missed a single regular season game in the last three seasons all while playing a ton of playoff hockey.

That’s an encourage sign, but can it last? Killorn will turn 34 before the season starts, and will be 37 in the final year of his contract. How long can he keep up this level of play? Could a 37-year old making $6.25 million hamper the Ducks’ plans as they presumably are well into their competitive window?

Those are questions that Verbeek surely grappled with, and was ultimately satisfied by the respective answers. There are mitigating factors that surely were at play. Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg’s combined $11 million-plus cap hits will come off the books next summer.

The salary cap is projected to significantly rise for the 2024-25 campaign, hence the onslaught of one-year deals to open the free agent period. Cam Fowler and Gudas’s deals come off the books before Killorn’s final season. The Ducks aren’t anywhere near a cap bind as things currently stand, even once the young core re-ups.

Verbeek likely leaned into those factors to justify the mechanics of the deal. Even still, the deal carries risk. Killorn will decline at some point, and the opportunity cost of a $6.5 million cap hit dedicated to a player whose best days are behind him at that point could be problematic. On top of that, he’ll be harder to move because of the no-trade clause. It’s a real swing by Verbeek, but in the very short term, the Ducks are better for it.

New Culture in Anaheim

Verbeek’s moves boil down to helping the Ducks’ current hopes, while also bolstering their future ones. In his July 1st media availability, he spoke to bringing in high-quality people from teams with great cultures to support the young players. There’s no advanced metric for that, unfortunately, but it’s hard to imagine that culture doesn’t matter at all.

To bring in two voices with a wealth of experience who can also still contribute at solid clips is going to help this group, no matter how you slice it. And despite Verbeek bringing in two 33-year old’s, the Ducks stand to only get younger in the coming years as the likes of Leo Carlsson and the young blueliners ascend to the roster.

The Anaheim GM wants them to have great examples to follow, and that mission appears accomplished. The Ducks have sorely lacked an identity in recent years, and if the opening day of free agency was any indication, they are intent on getting one back in a hurry.

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