When the 2020-21 season gets underway, the Anaheim Ducks will likely only have two right-handed defensemen on their blue line — Josh Manson and Erik Gudbranson. The rest of their defensemen will be, you guessed it, left-handed.
It was just a few years ago that the Ducks featured a multitude of right-handed defensemen in their lineup in Kevin Bieksa, Sami Vatanen and Brandon Montour, among others. So, how did it get to the point where Anaheim lacks right-handed options at the back end?
Overcrowding the Blue Line
The Ducks solidified the right side of their defense in the summer of 2015 when they went out and got Bieksa from the Vancouver Canucks for a second-round pick. This allowed them to roll out Manson — who was entering his second season in the NHL — and Vatanen along with Bieksa on the right side.
While the Ducks bowed out in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Nashville Predators, Manson had a successful sophomore season and looked to be filling the void that Francois Beauchemin had left behind.
The 2016-17 season saw the introduction of Montour, which meant that the Ducks now had four quality right-handed shots at their disposal. Montour surprised many by performing well even into the 2017 Playoffs, as the then 22-year-old played in every single game during the Ducks’ playoff run that season.
The 2017-18 season marked the continued decline of Vatanen, who was supplanted by the offensive-minded Montour on the power play. With Bieksa also struggling but tied to the team due to a no-movement clause, general manager Bob Murray felt Vatanen was an easier asset to move and dealt him to the New Jersey Devils for center Adam Henrique.
The return of Beauchemin via free agency had also made Vatanen expendable, with Beauchemin providing a cheaper option that, though he was left-handed, could play on the right side.
Ducks’ Struggles Lead to Trades
With Bieksa’s contract at an end and now off the books, the Ducks added a trio of right-handed defensemen ahead of the 2018-19 season in Luke Schenn, Andrej Sustr and Jake Dotchin. But realistically, none of these players were going to be anything more than a bottom pairing or seventh defenseman.
Schenn and Sustr combined to play 13 games before they were reassigned to San Diego and Schenn actually ended up being traded for defenseman Michael Del Zotto a month before the trade deadline. Dotchin wasn’t much better, appearing in 20 games but doing little to affect games.
With the team unlikely to make the playoffs and closer to the salary cap limit than they would have liked to be, Murray felt it necessary to deal Montour away to the Buffalo Sabres for Brendan Guhle –– another left-handed defenseman –– with Montour approaching arbitration that upcoming summer.
This left the Ducks with only one right-handed defenseman capable of playing 20 minutes per game, Josh Manson, who had regressed after a breakout season offensively in 2017-18. What was once a stable of workhorse right-handers now became a dearth of even average right-handed options to choose from.
Searching for Options
An injury to Manson in late October this past season meant that the Ducks had to find an out-of-house right-handed option. Gudbranson was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Still, having Gudbranson and Korbinian Holzer as your only right-handed defensemen isn’t exactly ideal.
Manson returned in early December, which meant that three right-handed defensemen could once again be deployed. However, what ended up usually being the case was Holzer and Del Zotto trading places in the lineup every so often and Del Zotto playing the right side whenever he came in.
That is, until Holzer was traded to the Nashville Predators for Matt Irwin, another left-handed defenseman who can play on the right side. So, the Ducks were now typically icing five left-handed defensemen and one right-handed defenseman on a game-to-game basis.
Right-hander Jani Hakanpää appeared in a handful of games prior to the season suspension, but it’s unclear what the defensive core will look like next season because both Fowler and Gudbranson were out due to injuries at the time. Irwin and Del Zotto are also free agents and both are unlikely to return.
New addition Kodie Curran can play on the right side but is also left-handed. The Ducks added right-handed prospect Axel Andersson in the Ondrej Kase trade, but he is unlikely to be in the NHL any time soon. The same goes for Hunter Drew, another righty that the Ducks recently signed to an entry-level contract.
With only six right-handed defensemen in their system, the Ducks’ best bet to add a quality one right now will be through the draft. Armed with the sixth-overall pick, Murray could select Jamie Drysdale of the Erie Otters. Drysdale is a smooth skating right-handed defenseman and is projected to go in the Top-10. He could be the first step in the Ducks’ path toward having a crop of solid right-handed defenders once again.