On the eve of the NHL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Anaheim Ducks find themselves in a good position. They have a strong roster with few holes, as they were able to keep Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen through the expansion draft process despite losing promising young defenseman Shea Theodore. They also shed some salary via Clayton’s Stoner’s selection in the expansion draft and the buyout of Simon Despres.
The Ducks have used some of that space to re-sign right winger Patrick Eaves to a reasonable contract. Their roster is largely set, but they have about $5.5 million in cap space and just two unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who were a regular part of the lineup last year: center Nate Thompson (when healthy) and backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier.
Given their standing, the Ducks do not figure to be major players in free agency. Even so, they will likely be looking to make some tweaks to improve and plug their few existing holes, and there are some names in this year’s relatively weak free-agent class who could nevertheless be viable targets to help the club in that regard.
Veteran goaltender Ryan Miller might be the one UFA most likely to sign with Anaheim. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has reported that “there is a lot of expectation of Ryan Miller to Anaheim for approximately $1 million, although I’m not sure if bonuses will be added to that.”
With Bernier and the well-traveled Jhonas Enroth both hitting UFA status, the backup goalie position is the one glaring hole the Ducks will need to fill. If the 36-year-old Miller is willing to sign for as low a price as Friedman reports, that would be a slick move for Anaheim. Miller appeared in 54 games for the Vancouver Canucks last season, posting a decent .914 save percentage as well as a 2.80 goals-against average while playing behind a bad team. Miller can still play and would likely be solid in a backup role behind John Gibson. The veteran Miller can also serve as somewhat of a mentor to Gibson, who is still just 23.
Of course, other goalies—including Bernier, of course—are available. Steve Mason, Antti Niemi, Brian Elliott, Anders Nilsson, and Ondrej Pavelec are among the UFA netminders. Miller, though, might be the best fit for the Ducks right now because of his alleged price tag, proven ability, and veteran experience next to a young goalie.
Patrick Marleau, despite his age (37), is reportedly generating a lot of interest around the league, including from the Ducks.
Lots of interest in Patrick Marleau coming off 27-goal season. Toronto, Anaheim, NYR, SJ, Carolina, Nashville, LA all in the mix.
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) June 27, 2017
Marleau’s 27 goals last season make him an attractive potential addition for scoring depth for the Ducks, but digging deeper uncovers reasons to be wary. Marleau is a 13.4-percent shooter for his career, which includes a number of extremely productive seasons during his prime. Prior to 2016-17, however, his age had begun to reflect in his shooting percentage, as he didn’t break the 12-percent threshold for five straight seasons. This past season, though, his shooting percentage jumped to 14.2 percent.
Is that number really sustainable for the 37-year-old? Conventional wisdom would say it isn’t. Marleau has remained a productive player in his later years, but a regression in his shooting percentage should be expected, and a sharp decline is always a risk as his speed deteriorates.
With all of that being said, on an affordable one- or two-year deal, the Ducks could do much worse than Marleau. He could play sheltered bottom-six minutes and get power-play time while also having the flexibility to move up to the top six depending on injuries or game situations. The Ducks will just need to proceed carefully in their potential pursuit and not get into a bidding war for a 19-year veteran.
Dmitry Kulikov & Other Depth Defensemen
Anaheim is in pretty good shape on the back end. They probably could just use a depth defenseman to play behind Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson, and Brandon Montour. They have a declining Kevin Bieksa and a seventh-defenseman-type in the recently re-signed Korbinian Holzer, but adding one more reliable player would really complete their blue line.
Handedness should not be over-emphasized, but if the Ducks had to lean one way, they should look for a left-handed defenseman. Lindholm and Fowler are the only lefties on the roster right now (to go with five righties).
Jacob Larsson, the Ducks’ 2015 first-round pick who is only 20 years old, is a left-shooting defenseman who could push for a roster spot with the big club. If, however, the Ducks still feel Larsson needs more seasoning, Dmitry Kulikov is a UFA option. The former Florida Panther was traded to the Buffalo Sabres last offseason but had a rough campaign, recording only five points in 47 games while compiling a minus-26 rating and an ugly 44.7 Corsi-for percentage at five-on-five (negative-3.2 relative to his teammates).
Despite that, Kulikov has talent—he was Florida’s first-round selection (14th overall) in 2009—and is still only 26 years old. Perhaps a low-responsibility role on the third pair with a good team will help him rediscover his game and trend back toward his potential. Kulikov’s last contract carried an average annual value (AAV) of $4.3 million, so if he’s willing to come down a bit from that on a deal to re-prove himself, he might be a decent fit with the Ducks.
Other left-handed defense options in free agency include Karl Alzner, Andrei Markov, Michael Del Zotto, and Trevor Daley, but those three will likely command too much money and want more significant roles—especially Alzner. More viable options include Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya, Mark Streit, Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincey, and Patrick Wiercioch—another 26-year-old who could be a savvy addition. Then there’s two-time former Duck Francois Beauchemin (age 37), but that ship might have sailed for the last time.
Between their top five defensemen and the up-and-coming Larsson, additional back-end depth isn’t imperative for the Ducks, but they have options, headlined by Kulikov, if they want to add more stability.
Of course, outside of free agency, the trade market is another route Anaheim could take if it wants to add a bit more scoring punch. If the Ducks are willing to deal from a position of strength (their defense) and include Vatanen in trade offers, perhaps they could explore the possibility of landing another impact forward like Alex Galchenyuk or Matt Duchene. Adding one of those players to their center mix of Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, and faceoff specialist Antoine Vermette would make them that much more formidable.
Otherwise, they are still pretty well set up front with Eaves, Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, Andrew Cogliano, and promising youngster Ondrej Kase among their players on the wings. 2016 first-round pick Sam Steel, who lit up the WHL this past season with 131 points (50 goals and 81 assists) in 66 games for the Regina Pats, could also be ready for one of the center slots behind Getzlaf and Kesler. Steel might very well make pending UFA Thompson expendable.
Either way, the Ducks likely will not be very active in free agency. Look for them to make some depth moves, with Miller as their new backup goaltender being perhaps their most noteworthy signing if it indeed pans out.