The Anaheim Ducks are rebuilding. Well, they’re supposed to be at least. Plenty of trade rumors have swirled around the team, even as they continue to build their team through both the draft and free agency. No major deals have been swung by the Ducks just yet, but there’s still a lot of time between now and the beginning of the regular season.
Gibson Remains Committed to Ducks
Goaltender John Gibson has been a hot topic of discussion over the last several months. Would he or would he not be traded? What would a proposed deal look like? Does he even want to be traded? Kurt Overhardt, Gibson’s agent, did his best to quell rumors by releasing a statement on Sunday that Gibson “has absolutely no interest in playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs (and) is committed to the Anaheim Ducks.”
Any trade involving Gibson would undoubtedly have to include a goalie coming back, which already limits the number of potential suitors. Anthony Stolarz and Lukáš Dostál may look adequate on paper, but the fact remains that Stolarz has not yet handled a starter’s workload at the NHL level and Dostál still has minimal NHL experience.
With the goalie market drying up fast after a number of goaltenders were signed during the first few hours of free agency, those looking to upgrade their crease may soon be hitting up Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek’s line in order to gauge what it would take to get Gibson in another jersey. Earlier this week, Kevin Weekes said on ESPN+’s The Point: Free Agency Special that no team had made a serious inquiry about him.
Ducks Extend Qualifying Offers to 4 RFAs
With free agency beginning this week, the Ducks extended qualifying offers to four of their restricted free agents (RFAs): Isac Lundestrom, Simon Benoit, Urho Vaakanainen and Olle Eriksson Ek.
Interestingly enough, they did not extend a qualifying offer to Sonny Milano, who set career-highs in both games played (66) and total points (34) while spending most of his time playing alongside Trevor Zegras. The pair had a strong rapport both on and off the ice, so it was a surprise to many that the 26-year-old was not tendered an offer.
Sam Steel, Jacob Larsson, Brendan Guhle, Roman Durny, Jack Badini and Lucas Elvenes were also not tendered qualifying offers along with Milano. Steel and Larsson are both former first-round picks of the Ducks who didn’t live up to their potential after several seasons with the big club. All seven of the players who were not tendered qualifying offers became unrestricted free agents on Wednesday. Since then, Elvenes, Guhle and Larsson have all latched on with new teams while Steel remains on the market.
Ducks Add Johnson & Johnson to Organization
With the departure of assistant coach Geoff Ward earlier this offseason, there was a vacant spot on the Ducks’ coaching staff. They filled that hole on Monday by hiring former NHLer Craig Johnson. Johnson spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach for the Ontario Reign, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings.
Johnson also previously served as the head coach of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League (ADHSHL) from 2011-20, where he led them to four state titles and three ADHSHL Division I championships. He was also an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2015 Deutschland Cup.
It’s clear that Johnson brings plenty of experience and has deep roots in the Southern California hockey community, as he also played for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim during his NHL career and represented Team USA at the 1994 Winter Olympics and the World Championships in 1993, 1996, 1999, and 2003. His son, Ryan also played in the ADHSHL and was drafted in the first round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres.
Sticking with the Johnson theme, the Ducks named Jim Johnson their new director of player development on Monday after parting ways with Todd Marchant, the former director, earlier this offseason. Johnson spent the 2020-21 season as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues and has a cumulative total of 24 seasons in the NHL, 13 as a player and 11 as a coach.
Johnson, a defenseman, played in 829 regular season games and 51 Stanley Cup Playoffs games during his career. He also represented Team USA at the 1992 Canada Cup and four World Championships (1985-87, 1990). As director of player development, Johnson’s role will be to prepare and educate Ducks prospects on “succeeding in professional hockey”.
Sommer Named New Gulls Head Coach
The Ducks have been quite busy this week, bringing in plenty of new faces to the organization. The new head coach of their AHL affiliate–the San Diego Gulls–is Roy Sommer, who is the AHL’s all-time leader in wins (808) and games coached (1,736). He spent the last 26 seasons in the San Jose Sharks organization, coaching their primary affiliates in Kentucky, Cleveland, Worcester and most recently, San Jose.
Sommer also has five seasons of head coaching experience in the ECHL, where he amassed a 176-124-34 record. He was named the ECHL Coach of the Year in 1995-96 and helped lead the Richmond Renegades to a Kelly Cup Championship in 1995. He also had two stints as a member of the Sharks’ coaching staff from 1996-98 and a portion of the 2019-20 season. He too represented Team USA during his playing career, a member of the 1976-77 World Junior Championship team.
Last season didn’t fare too well for new head coach Joel Bouchard, who never quite found his footing and was relieved of his duties at the end of the season. By bringing Sommer in, the Ducks are rolling with experience and looking to bring back a winning culture that’s been missing for a couple of seasons down in San Diego.
Ducks Sign Trio of Forwards on Day 1 of Free Agent Frenzy
Just because the Ducks are supposed to be in a rebuild doesn’t mean they weren’t keen to make some moves as soon as the clock struck 9 am on Wednesday. The day ended with three signings, two of which will look to make an immediate impact at the NHL level.
The first signing was winger Frank Vatrano, who’s coming off a terrific Stanley Cup Playoffs performance (13 points in 20 games) with the New York Rangers. He was traded to the Rangers by the Florida Panthers at this past season’s trade deadline and established himself in a top-six role while playing alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. His deal was $3.65 million for three years, a deal that will expire when he’s 31.
The signing significantly boosts the Ducks’ top-6 and should provide an upgrade on Milano. Vatrano began his career as a right-wing with the Boston Bruins before shifting to left-wing while playing for the Panthers. He switched back to right-wing after being acquired by the Rangers but said he was comfortable playing either side (from ‘NHL free agency: Ducks sign ex-Rangers Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano’, The Orange County Register, 07/13/22).
The second big signing of the day came in the form of one of Vatrano’s Ranger teammates–Ryan Strome. The center inked a five-year, $25 million deal just two days after his 29th birthday and will combine with Zegras as the two centers in the top six. He spent parts of four seasons with the Rangers after being traded to New York by the Edmonton Oilers in November of 2018. His addition should help ease the loss of Ryan Getzlaf, who retired following the conclusion of this past season.
Not to be forgotten is forward Glenn Gawdin, who also agreed to terms with the Ducks on a two-year deal Wednesday. His deal is unique in that the first year of his contract is a two-way deal while the second year is a one-way deal. More than 20 teams were reportedly interested in Gawdin’s services after he finished last season as one of the AHL’s top scorers (50 points) with the Stockon Heat, the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate. With 148 points in 201 career AHL games, he could figure to be this season’s Vinni Lettieri, someone who puts up good numbers in the AHL and gets the chance to play a role in the bottom six with the big club.
Ducks Add AHL Depth with Slew of Signings
With plenty of outgoings this offseason, the Ducks looked to shore up their AHL depth by agreeing to deals with four players on Thursday (July 14), as Chase De Leo, Justin Kirkland, Austin Strand and Colton White were all signed to two-way deals, with De Leo and White’s being two-year agreements.
De Leo previously spent time in the Ducks’ organization from 2018-21. He is fourth all-time in goals, points and assists among Gulls’ franchise leaders. He also made his Ducks debut during the 2018-19 season, becoming the fourth Southern California native to play for the team. He spent the 2021-22 season with the Utica Comets, the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate, where he led the Comets in both assists (35) and total points (56). He also appeared in two games for the Devils during the 2021-22 season.
Kirkland was Gawdin’s teammate with the Heat and set career-highs in goals, assists and points. He also led the Heat in both goals (7) and total points (12) during the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs. He has 152 points in 333 career AHL games.
Strand spent the last four seasons in the Kings’ organization, appearing in 135 games for the Reign and 21 games for the Kings. A right-handed shot, he could be a potential back-end option for the sixth or seventh defenseman spot on the Ducks.
White, a left-handed defenseman, spent the last five seasons in the Devils’ organization and played in 196 career AHL games. He also played in 27 games this past season with the Devils, earning his first career NHL point on Oct. 19. He’ll help shore up a Gulls’ blue line that lost both Larsson and Guhle.
Verbeek has plenty of ways he can go from here after filling a couple of needs on Days 1 and 2 of free agency. The potential of a Gibson trade still looms, even albeit the lack of a serious inquiry. The defense still needs to be strengthened a bit more in terms of depth even with the drafting of Pavel Mintyukov and the continued development of Olen Zellweger. It’s been just over five months since Verbeek was hired as the general manager, but he’s already shown he’s willing to make some tough decisions in order to get the long-term results he wants.
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Derek Lee is a contributor for The Hockey Writers covering the Anaheim Ducks. Derek has spent nearly two decades immersed in the world of sports and has been writing about sports for five years. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Sports Communication in May 2020 from UCCS in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he also spent two and a half years on staff with their on-campus student newspaper–both as a sports reporter and editor. In his free time, he enjoys playing FIFA, curating his Spotify playlists and attending concerts & sporting events