Things Are Going According to Plan In Anaheim

The trade deadline left many Anaheim Ducks supporters dismayed and confused. They endured 60-plus games of the worst defensive team in the National Hockey League’s analytics era. The hope was that the Ducks could at have something exciting to show for it at the deadline.

Instead, general manager Pat Verbeek got two 2024 third-round picks, a 2025 fourth-round pick, the signing rights to Nikita Nesterenko, Andrej Sjustr, and Brock McGinn. Not quite the haul of the 2022 deadline. Coupled with the team’s recent slide in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes, and the fanbase’s pessimism towards Verbeek’s performance has become palpable. Despite all of that, things are going according to plan for the Anaheim franchise, remaining on track to turn the competitive corner in the not-so-distant future.

The Trade Deadline

Jan 17, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Anaheim Ducks defenseman John Klingberg (3) during the second period against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There is no genuine dispute of material fact surrounding the returns Verbeek secured at the trade deadline: they were disappointing. They make sense when placed into the appropriate context, though.

The Klingberg Trade

The logic behind the John Klingberg off-season signing was that he could restore his value on the open market on an Anaheim team where he would be relied on for offense. If things went south for the Ducks in the standings, they could flip him at the deadline for a commensurate return. That was the 99th percentile outcome, should Anaheim stumble this season.

How often do things work out in the most optimal fashion, in any walk of life, let alone professional hockey? Verbeek mentioned at the 2022 deadline that he had multiple scenarios in mind in how he would approach his transactional work, as any prudent manager ought to. So, there is little doubt that Verbeek also envisioned a world where Klingberg did not produce at the level he hoped for, and ended up fetching a lower return.

Couple that with the fact that this year’s trade market was particularly saturated with defensemen, with surprise sellers like Nashville and Washington entering the fray, and it should come as no surprise that Klingberg did not yield a first or second round pick. To be sure, a 2025 fourth-round pick, Nesterenko’s signing rights, and Andrej Sjustr is a low, low-end outcome for the Klingberg saga, but not one that was completely out of the question, either.

The Kulikov Trade

Dmitry Kulikov’s return was more in line with what was expected, but not perfectly so. The Ducks retained 50 percent of his cap hit to end up with a third-round pick in 2024 and Brock McGinn, who is signed for another two years at a $2.75 million AAV. Anaheim relieving Pittsburgh of McGinn’s cap hit (even though it was lessened by being buried in the AHL) ought to have increased the return. The Penguins are cap strapped, and getting out of McGinn does them a significant favor.

Bear in mind, Kulikov went for a conditional fourth-round pick at the 2021 deadline. It stands to reason that retaining half his salary alone could have bumped up his value to a third round pick. But it also stands to reason that his value has dropped since then, particularly in such a tough trade market. Perhaps it took both taking on money and retaining salary to get to the pick Anaheim ultimately received.

There’s also the distinct possibility that Verbeek may have really valued McGinn in the deal, and did not view him purely as a negative cap liability. McGinn is a solid defensive depth forward, the type of player that Anaheim has sorely lacked in recent years. His cap hit isn’t commensurate with his level of production, but for a team like the Ducks that has plenty of cap flexibility, that may have not been viewed quite as onerously.

Trades That Never Materialized

The “what-if’s” of this trade deadline won’t cheer up a despondent Ducks fan, either. Adam Henrique sustained a sprained MCL in the week leading up to the deadline, effectively nullifying any possibility of a trade. A shame on many levels, as Henrique was having an excellent season and could have been an excellent addition to a playoff team.

From a Ducks perspective, he may very well have been their best deadline trade chip both from a feasibility perspective — much easier to move Henrique’s one remaining year than say, John Gibson’s four — and from the standpoint of what he could have brought back. Nino Niederreiter, with one year left on his deal and nearly identical production to Henrique, went for a second-round pick in 2024, without salary retention. As such, it was conceivable that the Anaheim veteran could at least fetch that return, and possibly more with salary retention and his positional versatility.

Verbeek also stood pat on moving the likes of Derek Grant and Kevin Shattenkirk. Neither really represents a long-term option in Anaheim’s rebuild, and yet despite their pending UFA status, Anaheim’s GM held on to them. Of course, it takes two to tango. Perhaps the interest wasn’t there, but there have also been multiple reports of Anaheim management looking at the idea of extending Shattenkirk in the off-season.

Even if that is what eventually happens, Verbeek could still have flipped the veteran blueliner, only to re-sign him this summer. The same logic could really apply to any UFA that Verbeek may have preferred to hang on to. Gibson’s name was out there quite a bit as well, but given the difficulty of moving his contract, it seems like a much safer bet that he gets dealt in a future off-season than at a trade deadline.

The Big Picture

In the grand scheme, this year’s trade deadline is not a setback for Anaheim. By extension, it’s also not a setback or a referendum on Verbeek as a general manager. Of course, there are legitimate critiques to be levied against Verbeek.

However, those primarily exist on the margins: letting go of Sonny Milano, signing Nathan Beaulieu, passing on Eeli Tolvanen; all decisions that were questionable at the time, but that also won’t have significant effects on the franchise’s trajectory. More globally, the decision to sign Ryan Strome to a five-year deal had question marks attached when it was signed. Those questions have only been amplified thanks to Strome’s woeful defensive play this season.

The decision to bring back head coach Dallas Eakins for another season can also be scrutinized. Yet, for a newcomer in Verbeek, there was a logic behind it. See what Eakins can do for a year; if he shows he’s the guy long term with an improved roster (on paper), Verbeek has his long term coach. If he doesn’t, then the Anaheim GM has an easy out at the end of the season thanks to Eakins’ expiring deal. All the while, Verbeek has more runway to conduct a coaching search.

The Klingberg deal aged poorly, but it was a reasonable gamble when it was made. The Swedish blueliner could conceivably have found his footing on an Anaheim team that had showed promise the year prior. Anaheim did not get what it hoped for in him, both on the ice and via trade, but they still received assets. The cost amounted to absorbing Klingberg’s cap hit for a few months. Kulikov was acquired for future considerations. To recover a draft pick and a roster player out of that is a fine swap.

The Henry Thrun deal was a small-scale win for Verbeek. Thrun informed the Ducks he wouldn’t sign with them prior to the deadline, and Verbeek managed to re-coup a third-round pick in next year’s draft from the San Jose Sharks by sending them Thrun’s signing rights. Thrun is an excellent defensive prospect. The loss isn’t ideal. But given that he was selected in the fourth round, and that he had no future in Anaheim, getting a third-round pick out of it is a fine outcome for the Ducks.

Moving Forward

Verbeek has mostly nailed the big picture, despite some foibles along the way. The 2022 deadline was exactly the kind of deadline his predecessor has refused to execute. Anaheim’s GM extracted meaningful assets from players whose desired long term deals did not align with the Ducks timeline. The ensuing draft was equally promising, with a class that was praised at the time and has aged well.

A true analytics department is being built within hockey operations, with data analysts as well as data architects. The development staff has been re-worked, with a new head in Jim Johnson. Both analytics and player development have been areas of weakness for the Ducks in recent years. Look no further than to a litany of young players who never panned out, or questionable personnel decisions as evidence. While neither of those changes are highlight-grabbing, they’re the kind of infrastructure needed to succeed in today’s NHL. Colorado and Tampa Bay serve as prime examples of this.

There was optimism surrounding what the Ducks could be in 2022-23. While that was undoubtedly a touch too far, this was still never seen as “the” year where Anaheim would become a true contender. So, the fact that the Ducks sit in the basement, while disappointing, is not at odds with their long term trajectory.

Now, the Ducks are guaranteed to add another high-end prospect at the 2023 draft. If they get lucky, they might even get Connor Bedard. All the while, they still have a bevvy of talented prospects. Olen Zellweger and Pavel Mintyukov are both set to turn pro next season, and have had fantastic junior campaigns. Jamie Drysdale, Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish are entering their primes, while Troy Terry is squarely in his prime. Lukas Dostal looks ready for full-time NHL net-minding duty.

More than perhaps any other team at the bottom of the standings, the Ducks are also in the best position to immediately take a step forward with the addition of a Bedard. This holds true to a lesser extent with any of the other top prospects, once they hit the NHL.

There may very well be a coaching upgrade this summer, and the Ducks have plenty of cap flexibility moving forward. Yes, it’s been a rough year in Anaheim, but things are indeed going to plan, and the future remains as bright as ever.

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