For the Anaheim Ducks, the first couple days of free agency have gone by not with a bang, but a whimper. The only moves the Ducks have made can be described as moderate organizational depth signings, at best.
Thankfully (or unfortunately), this is not a team that is a piece or two away from being a contender or jump-starting its rebuild. I’ve seen some opinions out there that there is enough young talent and belief in new coach, Dallas Eakins, that this will be a team pushing for a playoff spot, but I don’t see it. No — this one is going to take some time.
And if these opening days of free agency are any indication, the Ducks are indeed taking a patient approach and fully committing to the rebuild, as they should. The first sign that they are all in on the future was the buyout of Corey Perry. This was no easy decision for the organization, but it was the right one. Now the Ducks can focus on moving forward, and that focus should actually begin on the team’s back end because this defense needs some work.
One move behind the scenes was bringing in former Los Angeles Kings coach, Darryl Sutter, in an advisory role. Sutter was known for his defensive system during his time with the Kings, which brought the team two Cups. The Ducks also brought back long-time defenseman, Francois Beauchemin, to assist with player development.
However, these additions to the staff won’t do anything to help their current lack of NHL-ready blue line personnel, nor does the trade for Nicolas Deslauriers, who will bring some sand to the fourth line and be there to protect the young forwards. Goaltender John Gibson is likely on the phone with general manager Bob Murray saying “Um, Bob, a little help here?”
Internal Defense Options for Ducks
The team does have three solid, young defenseman to build around in Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, and Josh Manson. All will be 27 or younger to start the season (Manson turns 28 the first week), putting them firmly in their prime, and each is on a team-friendly contract. Unfortunately, they can’t play the entire game.
Behind them on the depth chart is 31-year-old journeyman Korbinian Holzer, who, since his debut in 2010-11, hasn’t played more than 34 games in a single season. The Ducks are hoping prospects Brendan Guhle and Jacob Larsson pan out, and Josh Mahura has impressed enough to be next in line, but these are players who need more time, more seasoning, and aren’t ready to be thrust into action for 82 NHL games.
The Ducks did sign Finnish league defenseman, Jani Hakanpaa to a one-year contract, presumably to fill one of the vacant spots on the right side. The lanky 6-foot-5, 207-pound defenseman must have impressed Ducks scouts during his recent performance at the World Championships, winning the gold medal as a member of Team Finland.
At least one, and probably two, NHL-caliber defensemen are still needed.
Potential Free Agent Defense Targets
This means the team needs to look into other options to plug some holes on the back end. The first option is free agency since the team has some cap space to use, especially once Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves possibly both wind up on long-term injured reserve (LTIR), freeing up an additional $9 million in cap space. Plenty of serviceable veteran defensemen are available on the market whom the Ducks could sign to inexpensive one-year deals in hopes of flipping them to contenders at the deadline for future assets.
These potential targets include Dion Phaneuf, Andrew MacDonald, Marc Methot, Niklas Kronwall, Dan Girardi, Andrew McQuaid, and Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy’s name has been floated around the Ducks given his history with the team, and Girardi or McQuaid would be good fits on the right side to pair with Guhle or Larsson. But none of these d-men belong in any team’s top-four any longer.
There are other free agent options that may fit under the “reclamation project” banner. Players like Ben Hutton, Michael Del Zotto, Luca Sbisa, and Alex Petrovic have all been cast away despite at one point being considered top-four defenders. Could they be once again? Would it be worth the inexpensive risk to find out?
Perhaps. But it’s more likely that the Ducks will have to look to another avenue for that missing piece to the top four and that is via trade.
There are several teams out there who are feeling the salary cap crunch and who also have a bit of a logjam on defense. The Ducks could use some of their available cap space to absorb a bad contract while improving the defense at the same time, and they can likely do it without having to give much up beyond the cap relief in return.
Here are a few possibilities.
The Bruins currently have seven defensemen signed to their NHL roster with restricted free agents (RFAs) Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still needing new contracts. McAvoy and Carlo are building blocks for the franchise, and can already command long-term, big money contracts, rather than returning back on bridge deals. Complicating matters is the fact that spark plug, Torey Krug, is due to get paid before he reaches unrestricted free agent (UFA) status next summer and reliable puck mover, Matt Grzelcyk, will be an RFA as well. And who knows how much longer Zdeno Chara will play.
This means some room has to be made, both under the cap and on the Bruins’ crowded blue line. The Ducks may be able to help in both areas.
Just signed last season, John Moore no longer seems to have a place in the Bruins’ future plans. And Kevan Miller likely won’t be brought back when his contract expires after next season. They could both plug into the Ducks’ top-six without issue and come at cap hits the Ducks could easily absorb ($2.75 million through 2022-23 for Moore, and just this season at $2.5 million for Miller).
Surely, the B’s would love to unload the $6 million they owe David Backes for each of the next two seasons as well. While Backes likely wants to chase a Cup at this stage of his career, he could find a role in Anaheim and his leadership would be a welcome addition to help mentor the team’s young forwards. If the Bruins would be willing to sweeten the pot with a pick, the Ducks might just be a willing partner.
The Bruins aren’t really lacking anywhere organizationally, so I’m not sure what they would command in return beyond the cap relief, and they may have to part with someone like Jakob Forsback Karlsson or the aforementioned draft pick to make it worthwhile for the Ducks. The Ducks could send the dead LTIR contract of Patrick Eaves and an organizational depth player in return.
Sabres GM Jason Botterill has wheeled and dealt himself into a situation where even more trades seem imminent, with young defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen’s name being tossed around more than any other. The two teams are familiar, having worked out a trade involving Brandon Montour last season, so perhaps they could get together again to move a defenseman across the country.
Ristolainen, despite his deficiencies, could slot into the hole on the right side in the Ducks’ top-four and help on the power play. The Sabres aren’t up against the cap and need offense in return, making this one more complicated than any potential deal with the Bruins.
New York Rangers
The Rangers probably have the most incentive to move a defenseman, with money needed for newly-acquired Jacob Trouba and the blossoming Anthony DeAngelo, both who figure to be part of the team’s future. Young forward Pavel Buchnevich and Brendan Lemieux also need new contracts.
Many have written Kevin Shattenkirk out of town, as injuries and a bad system fit have completely derailed his dream homecoming with the Rangers. He could slide nicely into the role Montour vacated when he was traded to Buffalo, beside Lindholm, and on the first power-play unit. Brendan Smith is another contract the Rangers would love to offload.
However, there’s a catch, as both have no-trade clauses built into their contracts. Anaheim would have to be on either one of their 10-team approved trade lists. The Ducks could also get the Rangers to toss in one of their many young highly-touted forwards, with Lias Andersson being the one the Rangers are currently most likely to part with. The Rangers may also unload Chris Kreider rather than potentially lose him to free agency next summer or end the Buchnevich project, granting him a change of scenery to realize his potential. Any deal with the Rangers would give the Ducks the best possible return.
The best possible scenario? Shattenkirk and Girardi/McQuaid/Lovejoy and potentially other pieces come over to the Ducks, without the team having to give up much. if any, assets in return. The salary cap era is a beautiful thing when you’re on the good side of the situation.