Ducks Face Pivotal Decision At Trade Deadline

The Anaheim Ducks’ Stanley Cup window isn’t getting any wider.

Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will both turn 31 in May, while Ryan Kesler will be 32 in August. Anaheim will have $23.75 million locked up in cap space between the three by the time they’re in their mid-30’s, an age at which they should presumably be well in decline. Given that, the Ducks should be living squarely in the present.

That creates a potential dilemma for Anaheim’s general manager Bob Murray as the trade deadline approaches.

With an embarrassment of riches on the blueline, the Ducks are in a position to off-load young talent in exchange for assets that could potentially put them over the top.

20-year old Shea Theodore, who has excelled since being called up from San Diego, is still on an entry-level deal through 2017-18. 24-year old Cam Fowler, the team’s best puck-carrying defenseman, is on board until 2018. 24-year old Josh Manson, who combines nastiness with intelligent passing, is also signed until 2018. 24-year old Simon Despres, an intriguing blend of physicality and puck smarts, is signed through 2021.

Having potential-laden defensemen inked for the foreseeable future is a luxury that few National Hockey League franchises can boast. That speaks to how well the Ducks have been able to both assess and retain talent.

However, they face the prospect of having to re-sign restricted free agents Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm this summer.

Both players have been fantastic for Anaheim over the last two seasons. Given the team’s expiring Cup window, it wouldn’t be outlandish for Murray to part ways with one of the two, especially when considering the Ducks’ rather well-stocked cupboard on defense.

Which begs the question: if Anaheim is to go down that road, which defenseman should they part with? The answer isn’t an obvious one given that both players are immensely talented, but further examination can at least shed some important light on which path to take.

Sami Vatanen

Let’s start with the 24-year old Vatanen, who is enjoying a highly productive 2015-16 campaign.

At 5′ 10″, 183 pounds, Vatanen is able to play a respectable defensive game despite his smaller frame. He ranks third among Ducks defensemen in taking pucks away from opponents according to Sportlogiq tracking data, while consistently posting a positive shot attempt differential. Though he has a panache for offense, he is by no means a liability on defense.

He’s extremely shifty with the puck in the neutral zone, where he has made opposing players look silly at times. That creative flair extends into the offensive zone, where Vatanen uses his cannon of a slap shot to give goalies fits. To boot, he’s excellent at getting to quiet areas where he can tuck away easy goals.

His offensive gifts don’t come without some sort of price. He has a negative scoring chance differential, even though he has the third most scoring chances  of any Anaheim blueliner. That’s certainly something that teams looking to acquire him should consider.

Vatanen will turn 25 in June, making him a relatively known quantity going forward. Given that he’s on pace for roughly the same amount of points as in ’14-15, there’s reason to believe that he may have already peaked, or is at least very close to peaking.

Hampus Lindholm

For all that Vatanen’s game revolves around edge-of-your-seat displays of skill, Lindholm’s revolves around a steady efficiency.

A smooth skater, Lindholm has an extremely high panic threshold with the puck on his stick, able to hold it as long as he needs to in order to make the right play. He walks the opposing blueline confidently on the power play, creating shooting and passing lanes. He makes his teammates better, and they tend to struggle mightily without him.

His excellent skating and overall feel for the game have translated to a 57.25 percent possession rating, which leads the Anaheim defense by a healthy margin. On top of that, he also has the best relative possession rating of any Anaheim defenseman. When Lindholm is on the ice, the Ducks improve 5.97 percent from their average. That’s considerable.

Lindholm represents a key piece of both Anaheim’s present and future on the blueline. Barely 22 years old, he’s already Anaheim’s best possession-driving defenseman, and he figures to only get better in the coming years.

So Who Do The Ducks Trade?

Keeping Lindholm seems like the logical move here. Though Vatanen can spice things up offensively, the calming effect of Lindholm’s play simply cannot be understated. Defensemen who drive possession at such an elite level at only 22 years of age are rare, and the Ducks would be unwise to let him go unless the return was absolutely jaw-dropping.

While trading one of Vatanen or Lindholm might seem like an attractive play, there’s also nothing that says that Murray absolutely has to trade one of the two. Should he feel that both are imperative to Anaheim’s long term success, then perhaps another one of the Ducks’ blueliners becomes a trade chip.

Flipping one of the two presents some inherent risk as well: what happens if Anaheim doesn’t even make it to the Conference Final after pulling the trigger? All of a sudden, an excellent defenseman is gone without any tangible success to show for it.

Risk will always be a part of any trade in the NHL, no matter how pivotal or mundane it may be .Thanks to some excellent asset cultivation, Anaheim actually finds itself in a position to take a larger-scale risk and be unscathed if things don’t pan out. With a championship window that continues to close ever so slightly, why not go for it?