With the first week of training camp underway, we can now gauge what we might learn from this season. The Anaheim Ducks are deep in a rebuild and have accumulated a lot of young talent. Their window of competition has cracked open, but the roster is far from complete. Here are three questions for the 2022-23 season and once they have been answered, we’ll have a clearer picture of the Ducks’ future.
Who Forms the Ducks’ Top Line?
As of now, the only forward that’s a lock for the top line is Trevor Zegras. Last season, Zegras’ most common linemates were Sonny Milano and Rickard Rakell. Surrounding Zegras with some of the more talented players on the roster allowed him to flourish as a rookie, with 61 points and finishing runner-up for the Calder Trophy. After Rakell was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins at last season’s trade deadline, Zegras started to skate with Troy Terry, which could become a more permanent combination moving forward.
In their short time together, Zegras and Terry were electric, especially with Milano as the third forward. Milano is no longer with the organization, but Zegras and Terry simply make too much sense not to be on the same line together, even if questions remain on the left-wing.
Adam Henrique spent most of last season on the wing opposite of Terry, which will be worth considering as both of them were scoring at career-high rates. In theory, Max Comtois has the combination of skill and size to turn the top line into a powerhouse, but he’ll have to work his way up the lineup after a brutal six-goal, 16-point campaign a year ago. Newcomer Frank Vatrano has the ability to play up and down the lineup, and he has a good enough shot to allow for Zegras to give him plenty of scoring chances.
Finally, Mason McTavish is a dark-horse candidate for the top spot on the left wing. Naturally a center, he’s been skating on the wing in scrimmages. This follows the organization’s pattern of development with Zegras, allowing him to adjust to the speed of the NHL without forcing the responsibility of a center. Easing him into the lineup probably means he wouldn’t be expected to handle top-line minutes, but he could add size and a powerful shot to a potentially dangerous first line in Anaheim.
Which Prospect(s) Will Receive an Extended Look?
Over the past several seasons, the Ducks have had various prospects make the team out of camp and play a handful of games only to be sent down. Max Comtois played in the first 10 games of the 2018-19 season before going back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), and McTavish played in nine games for the Ducks last season before returning to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
The Ducks have plenty of holes to fill from a season ago. From Ryan Getzlaf’s retirement to the trade deadline departures of Rakell, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, and even more recently, Carrick’s hip injury, there are more roster spots up in the air than in previous seasons. One player I believe will make the team out of camp is defenseman Olen Zellweger.
The 2021 second-round pick is one of the more exciting prospects in the organization. After being named the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) top defenseman last season, he helped Team Canada win a gold medal at the World Junior Championship, leading all defensemen in points throughout the tournament.
He only recently turned 19 years old, and he has a similar build to Jamie Drysdale— undersized and relies on elite skating abilities rather than sheer strength. There is some risk associated with playing an undersized teenager in a league with fully-grown athletes capable of throwing their weight around, but Zellweger has little left to prove in the WHL. Even if he doesn’t stay for long, an early-season stint in Anaheim would present a new challenge for him.
What Does the Defense Look Like After the Trade Deadline?
As a team still in the midst of a rebuild, the Ducks have to maximize their future potential. General manager Pat Verbeek did just that at last season’s trade deadline, trading away four expiring contracts in favor of picks and prospects. This year’s deadline will be more of the same, as newcomers John Klingberg and Dmitry Kulikov will join Kevin Shattenkirk as free agents at the end of the season. Realistically, the ages of all three don’t line up with the Ducks’ timeline, so any chance of extensions past this season remains unlikely.
If all three veterans are flipped by the deadline, Anaheim’s starting lineup will be without two right-side and one left-side defender. The return for any of those trades could result in receiving a player who can slot in immediately, but they could also be filled by one of the many prospects within the organization. Drew Helleson is a right-handed defensive prospect acquired in the Josh Manson trade in March. The 21-year-old just wrapped up his college career and got into a handful of games in the American Hockey League for the San Diego Gulls at the end of the season. If he excels in San Diego this season, he will likely find himself in Anaheim as the result of a Shattenkirk or Klingberg trade.
The left side of the defense is more complicated. After Kulikov and Cam Fowler, the Ducks are very thin. Simon Benoit, Urho Vaakanainen, and Josh Mahura all played on the left side last season and remain on the roster. Benoit has the edge in games played, seemingly getting the nod over Mahura and Jacob Larsson from a season ago. But Vaakanainen was acquired from Boston Bruins in the Lindholm trade, and recently inked a two-year deal to stay in Anaheim. Zelwegger also plays on the left side, further crowding the depth chart if he ends up staying in Anaheim for the season.
More Clarity on the Future After This Season
The Ducks won’t be rebuilding forever, and the amount of young talent on the team is encouraging. The core of the next great squad is currently in training camp, not hidden among the next several draft classes. This season may introduce some growing pains for the team as more veterans leave the locker room, and the youngsters develop into veterans themselves. This season should be a fun one, even if it isn’t the most successful.
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I was born and raised in Mission Viejo, California, and currently live in Visalia, California. Graduated from CSUF in 2016 with a B.A. in Cinema and Television Arts. I’ve been a sports fan for my entire life, rooting for the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Rams and Miami Heat. In my free time, I enjoy playing video games, trying to pour a perfect cup of coffee, and testing out a local craft beer.