Youth movement in full flight in Anaheim, despite struggles

The Anaheim Ducks have a "Big Three" on their hands, one that could eventually lead them to a Stanley Cup, and could also expand come the 2023 NHL Draft.

The Anaheim Ducks have had a nightmare season in the standings, but the organization’s long game is looking more promising than ever. Star-level talent is the currency of Stanley Cup champions. Teams can mitigate a lack of star power with well-constructed depth, but it’s been proven to be much easier to have stars, and then back-fill the rest of the roster. Of course, obtaining those elite players can take quite a bit of losing, smart drafting, and also pure luck. Thankfully for the long term championship outlook of the Ducks, all three of those things have happened or are currently happening. A “Big Three” is already forming, and it will likely only expand come next season.

Troy Terry

Oct 26, 2022; Anaheim, California, USA; Anaheim Ducks right wing Troy Terry (19) celebrates his goal scored against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Terry’s ascent to stardom is a remarkable development story. Drafted in the fifth round, 148th overall in the 2015 draft, Terry was not supposed to be this good. Stars are the exception, not the rule of the later rounds of the draft. Yet for many tracking the Denver, Colorado’s career arc, they would argue that the potential was always there. He was above a point-per-game in his final two seasons of collegiate hockey, and tallied 41 points in 41 games in his first season in the American Hockey League.

Although the point production didn’t come right away in the NHL, even featuring some healthy scratches along the way, the USA National Development Program product’s potential was obvious to anyone watching thanks to his deftness in gaining the offensive zone and drawing penalties, all reflected in solid on-ice metrics.

Despite those positive indicators, the leap that Terry took from a solid play-making attacker to a ruthless 37 goal-scorer in the 2021-22 season may have been unforeseen even by the most bullish of his proponents. Thanks to a combination of physical maturation and a re-vamped approach in the offensive zone, Terry became a nightmare for NHL defenders and goalies alike in one fell swoop. He began to prioritize attacking the middle lane of the ice off the rush, where often in the past he may have stopped up or gone wide. Now, defenders became mere props for Terry to set up screened shots or passes to teammates.

All Terry has done this season is show that last year’s rise was no fluke. He’s still on track to cross 30 goals thanks to his 12 goals through 32 games, and he remains a dual-threat play-maker who also limits the opposition’s ability to create offense. Compared to the other young risers on his team, Terry is an elder statesman at 25. Even so, he’s now squarely in the prime of his career, and figures to remain this good for at least the next three to five years.

A restricted free agent with arbitration rights at season’s end, Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool has his next deal at an estimated four years with an accompanying $5.5 million cap hit, which would walk him into unrestricted free agency at its expiration. Perhaps both sides opt for a longer deal. That much remains to be seen, but it is undisputable that Terry is a valuable long term piece for this franchise, and really an outstanding example of determination for the other youngsters that will follow in his footsteps. Not bad for a 148th overall pick.

Trevor Zegras

Dec 15, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Anaheim Ducks center Trevor Zegras (11) shoots the puck against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

Zegras is the face of the Ducks’ rebuild. Thanks to a career highlight reel that would have Pavel Datsyuk blushing, the 21-year old has taken the hockey world by storm thanks to his all-world offensive talent. The former Boston University Terrier cares little for hockey convention, trying things in games that few would even dare to, and is happy to rub it in afterwards.

Really, Zegras is the poster boy of hockey’s skill generation, an uber-talented, irreverent bunch that exude sheer joy when they’re on the ice, but are also assassins with the puck on their stick. Perhaps that’s why Zegras can’t seem to ever escape the “well, actually” sect of online commenters and hockey journalism. For as good and as talented as he is, there is a constant push to invalidate what he’s done, because “well, actually”, a player that talented offensively can’t possibly be a strong two-way player, or so the “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em” hockey generation would argue.

Here is the deal: Zegras is not a perfect player, nor does he need to be for the Ducks to eventually realize their Cup aspirations. In his second full NHL season, Zegras continues to show that he is the real deal offensively, currently humming at a 64-point pace that would surpass last year’s total. He’s added a one-timer threat on the power play to his game, and although he’s shooting the puck less often so far, he’s centered a top line with Terry and Adam Henrique that has been Anaheim’s only reliable source of offensive so far this season.

Yes, Zegras is not a faceoff ace, and yes, he can be prone to an untimely turnover. Head coach Dallas Eakins has in fact mainly leaned on Henrique to take the faceoffs on that line, with the veteran taking 133 more faceoffs than Zegras despite being listed as a winger. Even with those foibles, the second-year forward has actually had one of the stronger defensive impacts on his team. With him on the ice, the opposition gets far fewer chances than they do without him there. There’s still work to be done on that end, but Zegras’s development as an NHLer is coming along just fine.

What comes next for Zegras will be fascinating to follow. An RFA at season’s end, Evolving Hockey had him projected for a seven-year, $6.8 million contract going into this season. So far, he’s done nothing to abate the idea that he can be the next of the young high-profile RFA’s the NHL has seen in recent years to fetch a lucrative contract immediately exiting their entry-level deal.

Of course, much of that will come down to what Zegras’s camp wants to do with his next deal, but the possibility of him being a Duck for the grand majority of his prime is a very real one. For Anaheim to even be in a position to lock down a budding offensive star required a little luck, as remember that the Edmonton Oilers selected Philip Broberg just one slot ahead of him in the 2019 NHL Draft. The Oilers may want to do that one over, given the trajectory that Zegras is on. Even if Zegras never becomes the Patrice Bergeron re-incarnate, 200-foot player that purists want him to be, he is on track to become a consistent high-end producer with the ability to drive play at five-on-five and on the power play. Cup winning teams tend to have guys like that.

Mason McTavish

Nov 15, 2022; Anaheim, California, USA; Anaheim Ducks center Mason McTavish (37) moves the puck ahead of Detroit Red Wings left wing Adam Erne (73) during the second period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Where the likes of Terry and Zegras have already imprinted their NHL brands of hockey in the minds of observers, the 19-year old McTavish is only beginning to showcase what he will eventually be at hockey’s highest level. While Terry is known for his off-the-rush shooting, and Zegras for his east-west wizardry, McTavish may eventually come to be best known for his brain. Although his one-timer on the power play is certainly impressive, and the sheer power on his shot was a force in junior, McTavish’s ability to think the game is what has stood out the most in the early days of his NHL career.

The precision by which he can unravel the opposition’s plan belies his age. All over the ice, the former Hamilton Bulldog makes small area passes and stickhandling maneuvers that will not end up on a highlight reel, but consistently exploit the slight crevices that opponents will offer him. Unsurprisingly, the rookie center appears to be a regular in the video room and in the Ducks’ veterans ears, constantly trying to tease out any little competitive edge. By no means is this meant to be a direct comparison, but that mindset does remind of a young Sidney Crosby, who famously worked at the weaknesses in his game early in his career to eventually become a master of winning every micro-battle on the ice.

McTavish’s on-ice numbers are not eye-popping quite yet, but they have been on a steady incline since he began the season on the wing, which is not his natural position. His presence on the right flank has also re-ignited the Ducks’ power play, which is reflected in his isolated impacts. He is currently six points back of the rookie scoring lead, but the success of his season should not be judged on if he wins the rookie scoring race or not.

The current trend in his game is encouraging enough as it is, which currently has him looking like a future two-way, play-making force with power play upside. Between that profile and Zegras’s, Anaheim could very well have the kind of elite one-two punch down the middle that will eventually provide matchup nightmares in the post-season. Of course, that’s without factoring in that they could be adding another elite center at the upcoming draft. With Terry, Zegras, and McTavish in tow presumably for the long haul, Anaheim may very well have the kind of “Big Three” that champions are made of. The journey of how they develop together, even in a dismal season, is well worth tuning in for, and should eventually make for an even bigger pay-off once the franchise does turn the competitive corner.

Honorable Mentions

Jamie Drysdale could very well become a star in his own right. Unfortunately, because he’ll have to sit out the majority of the season, it would not be fair to include him on a list that features the aforementioned high-end talents who are currently active. But should Drysdale realize his own potential, Anaheim can likely count on a steadying puck-moving presence on the back-end for years to come, along with the accompany horde of blueliners they have in the pipeline, headlined by Olen Zellweger and Pavel Mintyukov.

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