After an injury-ravaged 2017-18 season, the Anaheim Ducks would naturally be hoping for much better fortune next season.
Alas, the Stanley Cup has not even been awarded yet for 2018, and the Ducks—whose season ended what seems like ages ago in the first round of the playoffs—are already looking at a major injury problem that could consume the entire 2018-19 campaign.
Veteran center Ryan Kesler, who missed 38 games in 2017-18 as he recovered from offseason hip surgery, could miss the entirety of next season, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
Kesler’s Rehab Could Cost Him Next Season
Even after Kesler returned to the ice last season, it was readily apparent that he was a shell of his usual self. Skating was a noticeable struggle for the 33-year-old, as he labored through the season and finished with just eight goals and six assists in 44 regular-season games.
With his hip issue having taken a severe toll on his effectiveness, the goal for Kesler has to be to get back to 100 percent. Per Friedman in his latest “31 Thoughts” column, the issue is still up in the air, but an aggressive rehab might be in order for Kesler, which could compel him to sit out next season to ensure he fully improves and gets back to optimal form.
We probably won’t know the truth until training camp, but there is a chance Ryan Kesler does not play in 2018-19. Anaheim’s centre gutted through 48 regular-season and playoff games, his discomfort and pain obvious to teammates and opponents alike. From what I understand, he will not be having surgery (that’s been done). Instead, he’s undergoing some aggressive rehab and treatment in an effort to improve the hip area. The team and agent are not commenting, but word is he is not interested in retiring, wants to play and is doing everything he can to get there. But it might be a situation where he sits out and tries to come back in September 2019. –Elliotte Friedman, Sportsnet
Time will tell how this plays out, but it seems safe to assume at this point that Kesler will not be able t0 play at maximum effectiveness unless he undergoes the “aggressive rehab” Friedman mentions.
Implications for Ducks
What does this mean for the Ducks? Well, it’s not good news (thanks, Captain Obvious). Losing their shutdown center and an all-situations linchpin in Kesler for potentially a full season would leave a gaping hole in Anaheim’s lineup. The Ducks would have to rethink how they deploy their lines and perhaps rely less upon designated matchups where Kesler would normally go up against other teams’ top lines.
Opportunity for Steel?
Of course, the more immediate question might be about who earns a regular roster spot next season. Veteran Antoine Vermette is a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA), and the chances he returns seem to be slim. Derek Grant, who found a home in Anaheim this season when he filled in admirably for various injured players, is also a pending UFA. Maybe he returns, but that’s no certainty.
All this is to say that the Ducks’ center depth might already be dwindling even without factoring in the potential absence of Kesler. That could open the door even further for top prospect Sam Steel to make the jump to Anaheim’s roster. The high-scoring 20-year-old has a great opportunity to do that now, and his blistering performance in the Memorial Cup tournament along with fellow Anaheim prospect Josh Mahura can only be helping his case prior to the Ducks’ 2018 training camp.
The Ducks need to get younger and focus on playing more of a puck-possession game, and giving Steel regular playing time would certainly represent a significant step towards that goal. But with Steel being an offense-first player, will Anaheim want to immediately throw him into the fire via a top-six role straight from the junior level? It’s that or placing him in a lesser role in the bottom-six, something that might not be conducive to his game.
John Tavares Now in Play?
The Ducks could also look outside the organization for a center. Of course, the name that jumps out is 27-year-old superstar John Tavares, who is set to hit the open market July 1 unless he reaches a deal with the New York Islanders before then.
The notion of Tavares coming to Anaheim did not seem to exist within the realm of reality before, and even in light of this Kesler news, it remains a distant possibility at best. But it’s something the Ducks might at least want to think about.
Anaheim would first need the cap space to squeeze Tavares onto the roster. Restricted free agents Brandon Montour, Ondrej Kase, and Nick Ritchie will need to be re-signed, although there could be an outside chance the team considers moving on from Ritchie, who has not yet developed into the type of player one would expect from a 10th overall draft pick. That said, Ritchie is still only 22, so he most likely will get a few more cracks with the Ducks unless an intriguing trade opportunity materializes.
Anyway, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Ducks re-sign all three of those players for a total combined cap hit of $7 million (with the lion’s share going to Montour and Kase). That would leave Anaheim with just over $2 million in cap space barring any other moves. While that’s not anywhere close to enough room to bring in Tavares, other moves like trades remain possible, and if Kesler is indeed out for the entire season, the Ducks could get some relief from his $6.875-million cap hit with him on long-term injured reserve (LTIR). On top of that, the cap will likely rise for the 2018-19 season and beyond, providing the Ducks with more room.
Even so, the logistics would still be extremely tight for Anaheim if even possible at all. Bringing in Tavares is still pretty much a pipe dream, but it’s something to consider more so than before, even if only marginally so.
Other Free-Agent Options
Coming back down to earth a bit, there are some other options the Ducks can consider with respect to UFAs. Paul Stastny, despite his apparent interest in re-signing with the Winnipeg Jets, might be forced to move on because of their cap crunch. If so, he would be an interesting consideration for the Ducks. While he would be pricey, he would not command the dollars of Tavares.
Other veteran UFA center options include Joe Thornton (what a story that would be)—although another injury-prone player is not really what the Ducks need right now—Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, and Valtteri Filppula. Players like Shawn Matthias and Mark Letestu represent even more cost-effective options.
In any event, while so much is still up in the air, one known quantity is that the Ducks’ already-pivotal offseason now features another significant wrinkle—however it may unfold. The development of Kesler’s situation will be something to watch closely, as will Anaheim’s subsequent actions.