Recent years haven’t been kind to the Anaheim Ducks or the Los Angeles Kings. The geographic rivals spent the first half of the 2010s fomenting one of the fiercest rivalries in the NHL as two of the elite teams from the era. But the last several seasons have been spent in states of rebuilding while both teams looked to the draft lottery to acquire talent. The path of their respective rebuilds leads them to this current point, with the Kings on the precipice of their first playoff berth since 2018 and the Ducks only recently falling out of the playoff picture.
Even though the Ducks have been eliminated from playoff contention, the team has shown significant progress and looks ready to compete in the near future. With two games against the Kings this week, they can usher in a new era of the rivalry by playing the role of spoiler and keeping their “Freeway Faceoff” rival out of the playoffs.
The Long Rebuild for the Ducks and Kings
Even though both teams’ playoff droughts date back to 2018, the reality is that both the Ducks and Kings spent years before that in a state of upheaval. The Ducks spent the 2018 season hamstrung by injuries and an aging core, but their 2017 season ended in the Western Conference Final against the Nashville Predators. That summer, they lost Shea Theodore in the 2017 Expansion Draft. In January 2018, they traded Sami Vatanen to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Henrique just to shore up their center depth due to Ryan Kesler’s long-term hip injury.
The Ducks limped into the 2018 playoffs and were unceremoniously swept by the San Jose Sharks. The last several seasons have been spent with veterans aging out and younger talent filling their place. Under new general manager Pat Verbeek, the Ducks continued this trend at the trade deadline by flipping veterans Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, and Nicolas Deslauriers for a bounty of various picks and prospects.
Like the Ducks, the Kings were also swept out of the 2018 playoffs, but their acknowledgment that they needed to rebuild came much sooner than the Ducks. The following years after winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014 were inconsistent, costing head coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi their jobs after the 2017 season. Today, only five Kings skaters from the 2017-18 season are still on the roster.
The Trevor Zegras vs. Quinton Byfield Era
The long rebuilds for both organizations have led to stockpiling of young talent that is just about ready to breakthrough. Few prospects have the hype around them quite like the Ducks’ Trevor Zegras and the Kings’ Quinton Byfield.
Selected ninth overall by the Ducks in the 2020 Entry Draft, Zegras has been a star at every level he’s played, including a gold medal in the 2021 World Junior Championship, where he was also named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. This season, he’s making a strong push for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, and he’s also been known to create viral moments from time to time.
At only 19 years old, Byfield has a lot of room to grow his game. The second overall pick in the 2020 Entry Draft, he profiles to be a high-end power forward with speed. He’s only played about half a season’s worth of NHL games due to a fractured ankle in the preseason that delayed his season debut until January. Like many young players, Byfield’s game at the NHL level will continue to round out as he continues to play and grow up in the league.
Zegras and Byfield are the flagbearers for two prospect pipelines that are consistently ranked towards the top in the NHL, including our own farm rankings from earlier this January. The Ducks’ prospect pipeline ranks third and includes the likes of Mason McTavish, Olen Zellweger, and Lukas Dostal. The Kings rank at the top of the league and include names like Alex Turcotte and Jordan Spence, with the latter making a noticeable impact in his small sample size at the NHL level.
A Renewed Rivalry Is Good for Southern California Hockey
With Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf announcing his retirement at the end of the season, one of the few remaining threads from the Ducks-Kings rivalry of the mid-2010s will be severed. In fact, only four players from each team are holdovers from the playoff series in 2014 — Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, Jakob Silfverberg, and John Gibson and the Kings’ Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, and Jonathan Quick. Rebuilds, by design, have this effect on a team, and it will take some time to adjust to some new names involved in a rivalry that no longer feels stale.
Southern California isn’t a traditional hockey market, but competitive teams in the area can make significant headway at the youth levels. Arcadia natives Jason and Nick Robertson’s family owned season tickets for the Kings while they were growing up. Anaheim Hills native Cam York grew up in the Junior Ducks organization. These high-end prospects would have been young teenagers during the 2014 playoff series between the two teams. Good hockey creates hockey fans, which can help grow the game and find talent in areas that have been traditionally underrepresented. With both the Kings and the Ducks rounding into competitive form with superstar talent, their future success may lead to a new generation of hockey players from Southern California.