Anaheim Ducks’ Future Still Bright Despite Difficult Season

In the final minute of overtime in one of the Anaheim Ducks’ most complete game of the season last Tuesday (Nov. 29) against the Nashville Predators, Trevor Zegras directed the puck below his goal line to where he thought Colton White would be. White wasn’t there, and the resulting turnover was immediately cashed in by Roman Josi.

The overtime loss to the Predators awarded the Ducks one of two points earned during their recent four-game road trip. With a league-low 15 points in the standings and only one regulation win on the year, the start to the 2022-23 season has been a disaster for the Ducks. Offseason acquisitions were brought in to complement a maturing young core as the team took a step forward this season, even if it didn’t result in a postseason bid. Instead, it is on a worse trajectory than the miserable 2020-21 season.

Despite the current frustrations, the future remains bright for the Ducks. Their prospect pool remains loaded with talent even with several high-end draft picks already playing full-time in the NHL. Those in the NHL — Zegras, Mason McTavish, and Jamie Drysdale before his long-term injury, have continued to show positive development amid the constant air of losing. With 12 contracts coming off the books this summer and a busy trade deadline between now and then, all eyes will be on the prospect pool as roster spots become open for the taking.

Ducks’ Young Core Remains Promising

With Ryan Getzlaf’s retirement in the offseason, the Ducks have officially entered a new chapter in the organization. This chapter will be defined by the younger players developing into key pieces to bring Anaheim back to the postseason. While any hope for a return to the playoffs will likely have to wait until next year, we’re seeing the younger group of players step into bigger roles. In only his second full season, Zegras is now the unquestioned number-one center on the team. After a rookie season that saw his minutes occasionally sheltered, he and Troy Terry led forwards with just under 20 minutes played per game. He currently leads the team with seven power play points, and his 22 points on the season trail only Terry (26).

Related: 5 Anaheim Ducks Players That Could Be Traded by the Deadline

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McTavish has also assumed a larger role in recent games. The 19-year-old started this season on the wing, but several injuries down the middle has encouraged head coach Dallas Eakins to move him to his natural center position. His minutes are being sheltered, and he’s been saddled with bottom-six linemates that have put a ceiling on his even-strength productivity. A good portion of his points have come from special teams, as he’s scored six of his 13 points playing on the top power play unit. As the season continues, I’d expect McTavish’s role to continue to grow as he becomes the number two center behind Zegras.

Unfortunately, the much-maligned defense took a big hit when it was announced that Drysdale would be out with a shoulder injury that will likely keep him out for the season (from ‘Ducks Defensive Corps Already Hampered by Injuries,’ The Orange County Register, Nov. 11, 2022). This was meant to be an important development year for the 20-year-old, as an eventual trade of John Klingberg would have vaulted him to the top of the depth chart on the right side, as well as taking over any power play duties.

All Eyes on the Prospect Pool

Even with the likes of Zegras and McTavish already in the NHL, the Ducks maintain a loaded prospect pipeline. THW’s Peter Baracchini has Anaheim as the second-best prospect system in the NHL in his preseason rankings. Last season’s trade deadline allowed the Ducks to deepen their farm system with a series of deals that flipped expiring contracts for draft picks and prospects, including an additional first-round pick last season in the Hampus Lindholm trade (used to draft Nathan Gaucher 22nd overall).

Mason McTavish Anaheim Ducks
Mason McTavish, Anaheim Ducks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With 12 expiring contracts on the Ducks’ roster, the potential makeup for next season’s lineup remains fluid. Some decisions will be easy — Zegras, Terry, and Drysdale are restricted free agents and are priority re-signings. Pending unrestricted free agents like Klingberg, Dmitry Kulikov, and Kevin Shattenkirk are unlikely to re-sign and will be shopped at the trade deadline. Other decisions, primarily what the organization does with Max Comtois, will be more touch-and-go. Regardless, there is a significant opportunity for roster turnover that will lead to this top-tier prospect system getting their chances in the NHL.

The Ducks have suffered early-season injuries that have put them on the cusp of playing some of their prospects. Drew Helleson was called up in November when Shattenkirk was placed on injured reserve. Helleson, a second-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche acquired in the Josh Manson trade, didn’t appear in a game during his brief call-up, but his path to a roster spot has been laid out. With anticipated roster turnover, players like Helleson, Jacob Perreault, and Brayden Tracey should be getting some of their first opportunities on the Ducks’ roster down the stretch this season.

The 2023 Draft is a Fortune-Changer

As much as the concept of “tanking” should be discouraged, the star power at the top of the 2023 Entry Draft has been well-documented. Connor Bedard is a generational talent that the draft hasn’t offered since the Auston Matthews sweepstakes of 2016. Adam Fantilli, Matvei Michkov, and Leo Carlsson will help soften the landing for the teams that just missed out on Bedard, forming one of the strongest draft classes in recent memory.

Connor Bedard, Regina Pats
Connor Bedard, Regina Pats (Photo Credit: Keith Hershmiller)

The Ducks are last in the NHL in points and point percentage as of Tuesday morning. Their 15 points are three fewer than the next-closest Chicago Blackhawks, who have played two fewer games than Anaheim. Finishing in last place would guarantee the Ducks select in the top three, with a 25.5% chance of securing the top pick in the lottery.

Adding a player like Bedard, or even “settling” for one of the other high-end prospects would be a boon for the Ducks’ organization the day they make the roster. Outside of Michkov, the top of the draft can be expected to contribute at the NHL level right away. With a revamped roster of young stars and high-end prospects, a top-flight draft pick from 2023 could be exactly what the Ducks need to push for the playoffs in the 2023-24 season.

Salary Cap data courtesy of CapFriendly. Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.

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