It’ll be difficult for Anaheim to hang in the playoff hunt with so many key contributors hurt. But a one-year dip could land the Ducks a top-notch talent at the 2018 draft.
Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf had no idea how much he was foreshadowing during an interview he did for THN this summer. He spoke of waking up with more aches and pains as he reaches his early 30s. He acknowledged that his Ducks perch in a win-now window with so many of their forwards entering their veteran years and with young teams like the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames poised to rule the Pacific for years to come.
The Oilers’ struggles aside, Getzlaf’s words were oddly predictive, with all his concerns somewhat accelerated during a disastrous start to 2017-18 for the Ducks. His aches and pains have given way to something far more serious, as he’s now sidelined with a fractured zygomatic bone in his cheek, which requires surgery and will keep him out for up to two months. His fellow aging Ducks forward, Patrick Eaves, has put his hockey career on hold to battle Guillain-Barre syndrome, a scary disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system. Defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have returned from their respective shoulder surgeries, but fellow puck-mover Cam Fowler’s knee injury puts him on a December recovery timeline. Oh, and let’s not forget No. 2 center and elite checker Ryan Kesler, still missing from the lineup after off-season hip surgery. Worse yet, goalie John Gibson exited Tuesday’s game after a shot to the head knocked his mask off.
The Ducks, not surprisingly, sit outside the playoff picture right now, losers of four straight games, and the Getzlaf and Gibson injuries make winning an even taller task going forward. Getzlaf was right about the team having a short window to contend in the Pacific, and it’s since been slammed shut on the franchise’s fingers.
It’s entirely possible 2017-18 ends up a lost season for the Ducks. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe there’s a lot to be gained if Anaheim bombs out just for one year.
There’s no question the Ducks are set to ice one of the best three or four defense corps in the NHL for the next several seasons. Fowler, Lindholm, Vatanen, Brandon Montour and en-route prospect Jacob Larsson provide tremendous mobility. Josh Manson is one of the sport’s most underrated and physical shutdown D-men. The oldest member of that group is Fowler at just 26. His brand-new contract extension kicks in next season and pays him a max term of eight years. Lindholm and Manson are signed through 2021-22, Vatanen through 2019-20, and Montour, an RFA this summer, is finishing his entry-level deal and under team control for years to come. This group isn’t going anywhere and can keep the Ducks competitive for years. Same goes for stellar stopper Gibson, 24, an RFA in summer 2019.
The Ducks’ forward corps is much messier, though. Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Kesler are 32, 32 and 33, respectively, chewing up more than $23 million in cap space. Getzlaf and Perry are signed through 2019-20, Kesler through 2020-21. The only promising, established young scoring forward Anaheim has locked up to a long-term pact is Rickard Rakell, whose extension takes him to 2021-22 at a bargain cap hit of $3.79 million. Playoff dynamo and possession stud Jakob Silfverberg is a UFA after next season and will be difficult to re-sign given how much cap space GM Bob Murray has tied up in those veteran forwards – and because Montour, Gibson and crash-and-bang winger Nick Ritchie will soon earn their extensions as RFAs.
No wonder the Ducks felt so compelled to make something happen in the standings and in the playoffs this season, then. Coach Randy Carlyle told me in the summer one of the specific reasons the Ducks brought him back was for an immediate Stanley Cup push. The injuries to Anaheim’s crucial core of contributors, though, might be a fatal blow in their playoff aspirations. They were already sputtering with Getzlaf in the lineup. Now this team employs Derek Grant, Chris Wagner, Antoine Vermette and Dennis Rasmussen as its four healthy centers. Good luck staying afloat in the Pacific, boys.
But there’s a true silver lining here. The Ducks, victims of their own success, rarely pick high in the draft. They’ve had one selection higher than 10th in their past 12 outings, nabbing Lindholm sixth overall in 2012. Their scouting department, led by senior vice-president of hockey ops David McNab, is the envy of the league, consistently unearthing blue-chippers regardless of draft position. That includes Getzlaf and Perry in the bottom half of the first round at the 2003 draft; Fowler at 12th overall in 2010; Rakell and Gibson with the 30th and 39th picks in 2011; and Montour 55th overall in 2014, to name just a sample of all the successful picks. Imagine, then, what Anaheim could do with a legitimate lottery slot in the draft.
Say the Ducks continue to sink in the standings and wind up with a top-three pick in the 2018 lottery. Unless they land the you-must-draft-Ramus-Dahlin spot at No. 1, they could grab a potent scoring forward like Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, Filip Zadina or Joe Veleno at No. 2 or 3 overall. Each has the raw talent to compete for an NHL job right way. Imagine one of those two cracking the Ducks’ lineup next year. Maybe another high-end Ducks prospect such as Sam Steel or Max Jones does, too. Suddenly, you’ve infused exciting youth and skill into a forward group desperately needing it. At the same time, one year from now, Getzlaf, Kesler and Perry won’t be washed up yet. Their skills should continue diminishing, but it’s not like they’ll be pushing 40. They’ll still have good years left and can provide crucial mentorship to the youth movement. Better still, adding the likes of Steel and Svechnikov would merely mean slotting entry-level cap hits onto Murray’s books, giving the team some crucial offensive upgrades while not forcing a Stan Bowman-esque cap pickle and fire sale of veteran assets.
Bombing out for just one season, then, could be a dream scenario for the Ducks. Their defense and goaltending are championship caliber. Their veteran forward group needs to elevate its ceiling with some young, all-world talent. The draft lottery can provide that. So maybe the Ducks should tell Getzlaf, Kesler, Eaves, Fowler and Gibson to take their time recovering form their ailments and save their energy for a big Stanley Cup push in 2018-19, which just might come armed with an exciting new teenaged star.