Though we don’t know when the Anaheim Ducks will see the ice again or when free agency will officially start, it’s not too early to speculate how the team can start filling some holes via the open market. The defense has been a sore spot over the past couple seasons, ever since the trades of Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore, Marcus Pettersson and Sami Vatanen.
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The Ducks have struggled on the back end, specifically finding another capable first or second-pairing, right-shot defender. Erik Gudbranson showed he could play physical, defensive hockey but failed to provide much offensive punch. Luckily there are some options for the Ducks to pursue in free agency that can bring more offense to Anaheim’s blue line.
Ducks Already Emptied the Bargain Bin
It’s no secret that Ducks general manager Bob Murray likes to do his free agent shopping in the NHL’s discount section. But, he has already filled his defensive closet full of cheaper players he hopes can thrive in Anaheim, meaning there are already a lot of names competing for a few spots.
On top of veterans Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Erik Gudbranson, the Ducks have Jacob Larsson, Josh Mahura, and Brendan Guhle, who have been up and down in the past few seasons and should have a good shot at the full-time roster.
Add to them newcomers Christian Djoos, Jani Hakanpaa, Kodie Curran and potentially Michael Del Zotto and Matt Irwin if they re-sign, and you’ve got quite a battle.
The Ducks don’t need any more bargain options on defense. If they are going to sign a free agent defenseman, it’s going to have to be a bigger name, and it should be a right-shot player as well. Luckily, there are some excellent options in free agency.
Dreaming of Alex Pietrangelo
Of all the free agent defensemen “available,” Pietrangelo is probably the biggest pipe dream, but also the best option. At age 30, he isn’t young, but he was just three points away from a career high when the season stopped, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Pietrangelo shines in both ends of the ice. He can quarterback a power play — he put up 22 power play points this season — and create offense 5-on-5. His 52 points through 70 games are almost 10 more than Adam Henrique, who led Anaheim.
I could go on, but it’s obvious Pietrangelo is by far the best free agent defenseman available this offseason.
There are two significant questions when it comes to Pietrangelo. Will the St. Louis Blues let him go and would Murray spend north of $8 million to sign him? The answer to the first question is maybe.
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The Blues have already signed Justin Faulk and Marco Scandella and still have Colton Parayko under contract for two more seasons after this one. They have a lot of money committed to defense already, and it wouldn’t be the first time they let a captain walk as they did with David Backes in 2016.
Would Murray spend that much on a defenseman? His history says probably not, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the salary cap with the coronavirus still raging. However, that might work to the Ducks’ advantage. Would Pietrangelo accept a one or two-year contract to wait out the pandemic and sign a longer-term contract a season later? If that’s the case, a shorter commitment might be enough to entice Murray.
It seems unlikely, but if the Ducks secured Pietrangelo in free agency, that would go a long way to making the playoffs again.
Tyson Barrie Packs Offensive Punch
Tyson Barrie is a quality puck mover who has racked up assists in previous seasons and put his fair share of pucks in the net from the blue line. Like Pietrangelo, he would be one of the Ducks’ top scorers. With 39 points, Barrie had as many as Jakob Silfverberg notched this year.
With the type of style head coach Dallas Eakins employs, a confident puck mover like Barrie or Pietrangelo would help generate more offense.
His all-around game isn’t nearly as impactful as Pietrangelo’s; he’s more of an offensive specialist, but paired with the right partner in Anaheim, Barrie could be very useful. If they matched him with Lindholm, the Ducks would take the pressure off Lindholm to produce as much offense and allow him to focus more on defending in his own zone.
Barrie’s offensive production dipped this season, mainly because he saw his power play time cut in half early in the season and landed on the Maple Leafs’ second power play unit with Morgan Reilly on the first.
Barrie’s overall production and dip in scoring numbers should mean he will come cheaper than Pietrangelo.
Kevin Shattenkirk Attempt Two?
The Ducks already have a history with Kevin Shattenkirk, having offered him more than $2 million, maybe even closer to $2.5 million per season for two seasons, as reported by Eric Stephens of the Athletic (From ‘Why did the Ducks make a play for Shattenkirk and would he have made sense in Anaheim?’ The Athletic, 8/5/2019).
Shattenkirk brings experience, offensive ability and more defensive responsibility than Barrie. He also may be cheaper. Like Barrie, sharing offensive responsibility with other talented blueliners — in this case, Tampa Bay Lightning defenders Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev — has kept Shattenkirk’s numbers relatively low compared to his days in St. Louis.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t improved from over his two-season lull that came in New York (his 34 points are the best he’s had in a season since 2016-17).
There is still an extenuating circumstance that might help keep Shattenkirk’s asking price lower. The Rangers bought him out during the 2019 offseason, and he received two-thirds of the $10.6 million remaining on his contract. He might be willing to take less than market value like he did with the Lightning last season.
Shattenkirk will be looking for much more than the $1.75 million on this season’s contract, but he probably won’t be seeking Pietrangelo or Barrie money.
Shopping for a Prius?
Did I say the Ducks should be done shopping in the bargain bin when it comes to defensemen? Can I take that back somewhat? Mark Pysyk would be an exciting risk to take if Murray is looking specifically for an offensive specialist on the blue line.
The Florida Panther is one of the few players this season who became a forward/defense hybrid and has been the most successful.
That doesn’t mean a Korbinian Holzer-style cameo on offense to balance injury issues and roster space. That means a Dustin Byfuglien-style defender who plays long stretches at forward.
The Buffalo Sabres drafted the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Pysyk No. 23 overall in 2010. At that point and for nine seasons afterward, he was a defenseman, albeit one who could contribute offensively, until this season.
That’s when Joel Quenneville, Pysyk’s coach with the Panthers, started experimenting with him on the wing. Teammate Keith Yandle even took to calling Pysyk “The Prius” because of his “hybrid” status.
It’s gotten to the point where Florida has skated Pysyk in a bottom-six role at forward while also tasking him with playing defense on the penalty kill in the same game. Through 58 games, he has achieved a career high in goals (9) and points (18) playing mostly as a fourth-line forward.
Even for a fourth-liner, those numbers are impressive. He’s got nine more points than Boston Bruins fourth-line right winger Chris Wagner in fewer games, and he’s just as productive as the Ducks’ Carter Rowney.
What Could Pysyk Do for the Ducks?
Is Pysyk a solution to the Ducks’ major problems? Not all of them. A player who couldn’t crack the lineup at his natural position on a team that is tied for third-to-last in the NHL in goals against per game at 3.25 and gives up the tenth-most shots per game 32.3 (0.2 worse than the Ducks) probably isn’t especially strong in his zone when playing defense.
Still, he might be an improvement from what the Ducks currently have or had last season. On defense, he played, on average, two more minutes per game than Korbinian Holzer did with Anaheim, averaging 18:16 in time on ice in 2018-19, his last season as a full-time defenseman.
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His flexibility and his cost provide Anaheim some advantages. For a team that has been bitten by the injury bug in the last few seasons, specifically on defense, a “hybrid” like Pysyk would help.
On top of the lineup flexibility, his offensive abilities could help in Eakins’ puck possession-minded system and boost defensive production from the blue line.
Finally, he’s far cheaper than the other options mentioned previously. While playing offense and defense might make it hard for Murray to figure out exactly what Pysyk is worth, at a cap hit of $2.73 million per year on his current contract, he won’t be making Barrie, Pietrangelo, or Shattenkirk money no matter how much of a raise he gets. That cheaper price does come with drawbacks when it comes to Pysyk’s overall ability, but it might come with more offense than the Ducks’ other options.
Will the Ducks Spend for a Free Agent Defenseman?
Telling a Ducks fan that Murray hasn’t been spendy in free agency is like saying California beaches are sandy. So, should fans get their hopes up? No.
There’s also the increased uncertainty relating to the salary cap. With COVID-19 raging and teams not playing in front of fans when hockey resumes, the league will take a significant hit on their bottom line. There’s been speculation that the salary cap will remain at $81.5 million for next season.
How will the NHL try to mitigate the effects on teams and their rosters due to such a large and unforeseen drop in league revenue? There could be added compliance buyouts instituted or some other tool to help, but the bottom line is there is a lot of uncertainty about how teams will be affected.
Ducks’ Salary Cap Situation
Anaheim finished the season with over $2.8 million in cap space and may gain some if Ryan Miller retires. Also, Patrick Eaves’ $3.15 million contract comes off the books (but so does his potential long-term injured reserve relief), as do Michael Del Zotto and Matt Irwin’s deals.
Unfortunately Corey Perry’s buyout enters its most expensive season in terms of cap hit at $6,625,000. That’s $4,000,000 more than 2019-20.
That’s about $4,507,363 in cap space under $81.5 million, but that’s before addressing who will replace Irwin and Del Zotto or if they will return, finding a new backup goalie and re-signing restricted free agents Sonny Milano and Jacob Larsson.
Luckily, the Ducks still have Ryan Kesler’s potential $6.87 million of LTIR if needed.
That would make things a tight, but not impossible for Murray to sign a player like Barrie or Shattenkirk, especially for a short-term contract. Pysyk would still be very doable as well. It would make things harder to offer Pietrangelo though and may force the Ducks to trade a roster player to make space.
A general manager like Murray who doesn’t spend in free agency is probably less likely to make a big splash during uncertain times, but he does have the need on defense and can make it work at least for the short term.
Judging by Murray’s attempts at signing Shattenkirk and Justin Faulk last season, making an offer to an impact defenseman wouldn’t be out of the question. With the Ducks already having shopped excessively from the bargain bin, they need to make a big offer for a defenseman.