It appears as if we are going to have a 2020-21 NHL season after all. For Anaheim Ducks fans, this means they will see their team play for the first time in 10 months. What type of team will we see? If you ask general manager Bob Murray it’ll be a competitive one, but looking at the newly realigned divisions makes that a bold claim.
If the Ducks hope to fight for the playoffs this season, they will need career seasons from multiple players. Kevin Shattenkirk will need to be the leader on the blue line. Rickard Rakell will need to turn back into a 30-plus goal scorer, and second-year center Sam Steel will need to have a breakout season. If that doesn’t happen, the Ducks are sunk.
Shattenkirk Must Put Ducks on His Shoulders
The major news of the offseason came when the Ducks filled a huge gap in their defense by signing Shattenkirk. The 31-year-old meets a significant need on Anaheim’s blue line as his right-shot, combined with his puck-moving and power-play ability, make him an essential facilitator.
Shattenkirk’s skills transitioning the puck from defense to offense by making accurate first passes should give Ducks forwards more time and space on the rush to create chances. His power-play quarterbacking abilities should help boost the Ducks’ offensive numbers as well. In addition to his offensive prowess, Shattenkirk will need to help the Ducks better protect the area in front of John Gibson, a major weakness that has endured for three seasons.
Since 2017-18, Anaheim has been among the bottom-10 teams in the league in “High Danger Chances Against” (HDCA). HDCA represents the scoring opportunities surrendered with the highest probability of going in the net. Those happen in the slot and closer in front of a goaltender. In 2018-19 and 2019-20, the Ducks have been in the bottom three in the league in that category.
Solving all of those problems would be a challenge for any defenseman short of Bobby Orr, and Shattenkirk isn’t insulated on the blue line by Mikhail Sergachev and Norris Trophy-winner Victor Hedman as he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That isn’t a knock on Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm or Josh Manson — they are good players, but their bodies of work over the past three seasons are part of the reason for the team’s defensive struggles. Shattenkirk will need to have one of the best seasons of his career, and he will need help.
Rickard “Red Light” Rakell Needs To Return
The Ducks’ inability to score has been painfully apparent for two full seasons now, but the extent to which their roster is almost devoid of players who can put the puck in the net is scary.
Of all the players currently on the Ducks’ depth chart, five have scored 30 or more goals in a season in their entire careers. That might not be horrible if those players were in their prime, but they aren’t. David Backes has done it twice, Ryan Getzlaf has done it once, Adam Henrique has done it once, and Rakell has done it twice.
Realistically, Rakell is still the Ducks’ most likely player to surpass 30 goals in a season. At age 27, he is in the prime of his career; he scored over 30 goals in back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Also, his contract ends after next season, and if he can’t show the Ducks or other teams around the league that he’s a 30-goal scorer rather than a sub-20 goal scorer, his earning potential will be much lower. Rakell has the track record and the motivation, and for the Ducks, that should be a very good thing.
Rakell Needs His Mojo Back
Rakell’s goal numbers have plummeted since his two, 30-goal seasons. His 15-goal effort in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season was the worst of his career.
Blaming his production decrease on the team’s overall reduction in production is tempting, but Rakell’s opportunities haven’t diminished. His time on ice has remained relatively consistent over the past few seasons if you take his injuries into account.
The number of shots on goal he’s had have declined since his career high of 230 in 2017-18 (his last 30-plus goal season). Still, he’s had more shots in the past two seasons than in his other 30-plus goal season in 2016-17. Rakell’s high danger scoring chances have decreased, especially in 2018-19 but not enough to account for his significant drop in goal-scoring numbers.
His shooting percentage, the number of shots Rakell has taken that have gone in the goal, is telling. Those percentages have decreased steadily from his career-high mark of 18.6 percent in 2016-17, down to 8.1 percent. That’s the lowest in his career since he became a regular NHL player.
While a shooting percentage of nearly 20 percent is not sustainable throughout a career (Alex Ovechkin’s best was 15.4 percent in 2019-20), Rakell can undoubtedly do better than 8.1 percent.
All of these numbers are headache-inducing, but it’s hard to figure out precisely what has gone wrong in Rakell’s game of late or what went so right early in his career. Does he have more 30-goal potential in him? If the Ducks want to be competitive this season, they surely hope he does.
Perhaps, with the increased opportunities that Shattenkirk generates, Rakell can return to something resembling his old self. If not, the Ducks are in trouble again.
Ducks of Steel
The Ducks have a deep trough of young players that will need to take the next step this season. That includes Steel, who will enter his second full season as an NHLer come January.
More than any of those other young players, Steel still has the best chance to be a major contributor this season. Trevor Zegras still needs to experience the AHL, while Drysdale’s position will make it harder for him to have an immediate impact, even if he does step into the NHL immediately.
Many of us had high expectations for Steel coming into last season, especially after he scored six goals and added five assists in his first 22 NHL games. Those expectations might have been too high for such a young player, but his 22-point output through 65 games in 2019-20 doesn’t mean he won’t be more productive as he gains experience.
Strong Up the Middle
Not only was the 2016, No. 30-overall pick the Ducks’ highest-scoring youngster last season, he’s also in the position that has the most influence all over the ice.
At center, Steel will have the most significant impact driving offense among the other players in his general age group like Troy Terry, Max Jones and Max Comtois, who all mostly play wing. Steel will need to use his speed and passing ability to help buoy an offense that he, and someday soon, Zegras, are expected to lead.
If the Ducks want to compete in the pool of death that is the COVID-19-friendly Pacific Division, perhaps that time is now.
The 2020-21 season will be a difficult test for the Ducks. While Murray has indicated that the “retool” is over, and he expects his team to compete for a playoff spot, the roster isn’t that different from the 2019-20 team, except for Shattenkirk. While the Ducks upgraded on defense, the Pacific Division replaced its three Canadian playoff-contending teams with a recent Stanley Cup champion in the St. Louis Blues, a Stanley Cup finalist in the Dallas Stars and a Stanley Cup contender in the Colorado Avalanche.
The Ducks have a very tall task ahead of them. If they genuinely do want to contend for the playoffs, they will need career seasons from Shattenkirk and Rakell and a breakout season from Steel.
Anthony Ciardelli grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire but now lives in Los Angeles. Though he was raised a Bruins fan, he quickly came to enjoy the hockey culture in Southern California and the rivalry between the Kings and Ducks. He covered USC Athletics while pursuing his journalism masters there. He also enjoys doing play-by-play for USC Trojan Hockey.