I attended the final game of the Anaheim Ducks Rookie Faceoff on Tuesday and saw the Ducks’ young prospects (they weren’t all exactly rookies) battle the Vegas Golden Knights youngsters. The Golden Knights were without 2019 first-round pick Peyton Krebs, who is still recovering from a torn Achilles while the Ducks were stacked with Sam Steel, Troy Terry, Max Jones and Max Comtois all suiting up as well as Jacob Larsson and Josh Mahura on defense.
While the Ducks’ 5-3 victory was exciting, the play of Steel and Terry was the most inspiring while Brent Gates Jr. showed some solid potential. On the other side of things, Hunter Drew, who opened a lot of eyes against the San Jose Sharks’prospect team, struggled as much Tuesday as he excelled Sunday.
Steel Stars for the Ducks
Steel stood out in the final day of the Rookie Faceoff scoring again after netting a goal in the first game of the “tournament” (there is no winner) against the Kings. Right from puck drop, it was clear Steel felt confident.
He experimented with a backhand between the legs move through traffic, at center ice on multiple occasions. Steel’s goal was of the highlight-reel variety and a prime example of the confidence with which he played Tuesday.
With Ryan Getzlaf advancing in age, Adam Henrique’s two-way style of play well established, Ryan Kesler out for the season and Trevor Zegras still in college, the road is paved for Steel.
He’s said he’s going to draw heavily on his experience from last season in training camp.
“Just being up there and getting to know the guys and knowing I can play at that level,” Steel said. “I’m feeling good this time around. I had a pretty good summer, so I’m excited to get things going.”
When asked what he worked on over the summer specifically, Steel said his strength and situational awareness.
“I think just power and being able to create space,” he said. “A lot of that comes from the gym, but also on the ice knowing the situations and creating time.”
Tuesday, he demonstrated why he is the Ducks best option to upgrade their offensive punch at the pivot position.
Terry Tickles the Twine Twice
Terry also impressed in the Rookie Faceoff’s final game scoring two goals, including a beautiful breakaway goal that brought back memories of his shootout performance for Team USA at the World Junior Championship.
Terry took advantage of a poorly timed Golden Knights line change when he pounced on a loose puck near the benches and skated in uncontested before sliding a nice forehand backhand deke between Vegas goaltender Dylan Ferguson’s legs.
He also scored on a slick wrist shot from the top of the right faceoff circle in the third period.
While Steel experimented with the puck, Terry showcased his trademark poise and vision, setting up multiple scoring opportunities and entering the offensive zone on numerous occasions with control of the puck.
Like Steel, a Ducks roster spot is Terry’s to lose. Behind Jakob Silfverberg and Ondrej Kase, who might not be around by the close of training camp, Terry is primed to slot in as a second- or third-line winger to start the season.
Gates Jr. Does the Little Things
I chronicled the journey of Gates Jr.when he finished at the University of Minnesota and signed an amateur tryout agreement with the San Diego Gulls.
I witnessed Gates Jr. play for the first time on Tuesday, and he was impressive. Though his game wasn’t flashy, he looks like the type of guy who pays close attention to detail, like when Gates Jr. assisted on the opening goal by Alex Dostie.
Gates Jr. collected the puck near the top of the left faceoff circle in the Golden Knights’ zone and skated it toward the blueline where he cycled it back Johno May. He then found an open patch of ice near the blue line, received a pass back from May and fired a low, hard shot wide of the Golden Knights net that ricocheted right to Dostie who tapped in the Ducks first goal.
Though Gates Jr. admitted he didn’t intentionally find Dostie, he did use his knowledge of the end boards in Rink 4 of the Ducks new practice arena, Great Park Ice.
“I knew the boards were extra springy back there,” Gates Jr. said. “I thought the puck might bounce back out into a good spot.”
It wasn’t just the offensive zone where Gates Jr. took care of the details. He blocked a shot in the first period and made a nifty backhand saucer pass across the neutral zone on a Ducks breakout.
While Gates Jr. isn’t a big name in camp, he’s the type of player who the Ducks may call on later in the season. He played six games for the Gulls in 2019 scoring a goal and an assist. If he can achieve moderate to good offensive production with the Gulls, his two-way game, and his ability to do all the little things correctly could open a door for him to fill in for an injured bottom-six forward on the Ducks this season.
Hunter Drew Rises, Then Falls
Many were impressed with Drew’s game against the San Jose Sharks’ rookie squad in the Ducks 5-4 overtime loss Sunday. He scored the Ducks’ first goal and was a physical presence on the blue line.
Drew came back down to earth Tuesday against the Golden Knights. He looked uncomfortable in coverage in front of Ducks goalie prospect Olle Eriksson Ek and lost puck battles behind the net.
His most noticeable error came in the second period when the Golden Knights sprung a partial two-on-one from center ice. Drew honed in on puck carrier Lucas Elvenes and Elvenes turned him inside out, skating uncontested to goal before depositing a backhand past Eriksson Ek.
Drew committed the cardinal sin most defenders are taught right after they learn to skate backward: take the body not the puck.
Just like one good game doesn’t mean Drew, a sixth-rounder in 2018, will be the next Josh Manson, one bad game doesn’t mean he’s the next, well, whoever.
He’s at Ducks training camp which began Friday, but even with Anaheim’s need for a right-shot defender, Drew is not the guy. You’re likely to see him in San Diego.
Comtois Mixes Things Up
After his literal fast start with the Ducks last season, before going back to major-junior, I expected a lot from Comtois at the Rookie Faceoff. He scored and had a fight in the Ducks’ opening victory over the Kings, but Tuesday’s performance was uninspired.
For a guy who’s scored at every level, I thought Comtois might be one of the best skaters on the ice.
He was not.
Though he did score an empty-net goal to give the Ducks an insurance goal over the Golden Knights, he was mostly a non-factor in the game. He also had an undisciplined defensive zone interference penalty in the second period.
The silver lining is that it may have resulted from a chippiness that Comtois did not hesitate to involve himself in that game and the whole tournament in general. With Corey Perry now out of town, the Ducks could use another disruptive presence in their lineup, as long as it doesn’t go too far.
Can Comtois Make the Team?
Unlike the other “big guns” in the game, Comtois also arguably has the hardest competition for a roster spot at left wing. There aren’t as many players involved, but those players are mostly established NHLers.
He’s probably not going to supplant Rickard Rakell on the top line. He has played in fewer NHL games than Jones, who had two goals and three assists in 30 NHL games last season. He’s also got Nick Ritchie to beat who is sure to have a roster spot unless he’s traded away.
Then there’s fellow Quebec native Nicolas Deslauriers, who the Ducks acquired from the Montreal Canadians over the summer. Deslauriers is meant to be a depth forward for the Ducks, but he also has more NHL experience than Comtois.
Comtois should challenge for a roster spot, and maybe it’s he and Jones battling for the final one, but nothing is assured the young left wing from Longueuil, Quebec.
Ducks training camp has already started, and Steel, Comtois, Terry, Gates Jr. Drew and all the Ducks’ youngsters have begun their quest to make the 2019-20 Anaheim roster. With a crowded field hoping to break into the NHL, a strong performance at the Rookie Faceoff can open eyes, now they just have to take the next step.