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With blueline conundrum and cap crunch, Ducks in for busy summer

Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray has some tough waters to navigate this summer. He'll have to solve his expansion draft problem on the blueline while finding a way to manage a tight salary cap situation.

Now that the Anaheim Ducks have had some time to digest their Western Conference final defeat at the hands of the Nashville Predators, the work begins for next season. And when it comes off-season decisions, few GMs in the league are going to face a more taxing to-do list than Anaheim’s Bob Murray.

It’s been no secret for much of the season, especially once the expansion draft rules were announced, that Murray and the Ducks were going to have some hurdles to clear when it came to expansion. And with less than a month until the expansion draft takes place, deciding the route to take with his lineup — and more specifically his defense — is going to be right at the top of Murray’s agenda, in big, bold letters, underlined several times for emphasis.

The problem for Murray is this: on a roster that’s deep both offensively and defensively, he stands to lose a talented player, one that could probably fetch a considerable return in a trade, for nothing if he doesn’t make a move of some sort before the expansion draft. 

One glaring issue is the four no-movement clauses that are spread throughout the Ducks roster. Captain Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa all hold a NMC, which means automatic protection in the expansion draft barring agreement by the player to waive the clause. And it’s the latter of the four NMCs that poses the biggest problem.

Up front, it’s unlikely that Murray would, even given the option, expose any of Getzlaf, Perry or Kesler. Down the stretch and throughout the playoffs, Getzlaf was exceptional, while Kesler was the persistently pesky two-way pivot that Anaheim needed to possess a solid one-two punch, even if he showed signs of slowing during the conference final. And though Perry had arguably the worst offensive season of his career during the campaign, he turned it on in the playoffs, netting four goals and 11 points. His contract is lofty — he carries an $8.625 million cap hit for four more years — but it’s going to take at least another down year or two before Murray considers dropping the axe on one of the faces of the franchise.

Bieksa, however, may be on his last legs. On a deal for one more year at $4 million, Bieksa has slid down the depth chart to the third pairing and quite possibly even into a role as Anaheim’s sixth defenseman. That, paired with his NMC, poses a major issue for the Ducks because Murray has four other defensemen — Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler and Josh Manson — who he’d probably like to be able to protect.

Some will suggest buying out Bieksa, which can happen either June 15 or June 16, depending on when the Stanley Cup is handed out. And while that works to remove Bieksa’s NMC from the equation, what it doesn’t entirely clear up is the issue on the back end. With Bieksa out of the picture, each of Lindholm, Vatanen, Fowler and Manson would still need expansion protection. Of course, that’s possible. The Ducks could choose to protect four defensemen, four forwards and a goaltender. Is it plausible, though? No, not really.

Forwards Getzlaf, Perry and Kesler are protected due to the aforementioned NMCs and 30-goal scorer Rickard Rakell is a shoo-in for protection after an excellent year. That would mean a top-six forward such as Jakob Silfverberg, who’s signed to a good contract and seems to get better with each passing game, would be exposed. To lose Silfverberg for nothing would be remarkably tough to stomach, especially as he’s coming off of a 14-point post-season, including a team-leading nine goals. After a good season, Andrew Cogliano is also deserving of protection and the bottom-six has a few forwards — Antoine Vermette, Chris Wagner, Nicolas Kerdiles — who Murray could be looking to ensure stay in town, as well.

That means Murray has to circle back to the defense for the first of many off-season answers. For much of the season, the speculation was that Cam Fowler might be the odd-man out, but, according to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Anaheim and Fowler are working on an extension that would keep the defender in town. Makes sense, too, given he’s coming off of the best campaign of his young career. If Fowler does stick with the Ducks, all eyes shift to Lindholm, Vatanen and Manson, and that still leaves Murray with a conundrum.

Vatanen seems like the most obvious candidate to be moved in that situation, what with him slipping to second-pairing minutes during the season and making the most money, but without a Bieksa buyout, moving out one defender won’t be enough. Barring a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights that keeps, say, Manson protected, he’d remain exposed because of the forwards that the Ducks need to protect. That means Murray has to not only move one defenseman or lose a defender for nothing, but also make a decision on two others, including weighing the possible buyout of Bieksa.

And all of that is only No. 1 on Murray’s to-do list. After he’s come to a blueline decision, Murray will next have to take a look at the Ducks’ cap situation. 

As of Thursday, Anaheim is set to have roughly $2.3 million available to spend in the off-season, barring any increase in the cap. It’s hard to know at this very moment what Anaheim’s cap situation is going to look like for a number of reasons, however. First, let’s say, for the sake of argument, Vatanen is moved. That clears $4.875 million, but it doesn’t account for whatever salary the Ducks take on. Imagine a scenario where moving Vatanen clears up $2.4 million, half of his total wage. That leaves Anaheim with $4.7 million to work with in the off-season and improvements likely needed in the bottom-six, possibly an addition to the bottom half of the blueline and an upgrade in goal, giving the Ducks an experienced backup who can help John Gibson or fill-in in case of injury.

Getting help for Gibson is likely to cost about $1 million or so, which is more than palatable for the Ducks. Adding a depth defender shouldn’t break the bank, either. But beefing up the bottom-six in addition to other acquisitions could put Anaheim awfully close to the cap. That’s nothing new for Murray’s Ducks, of course, but it’s not a comfortable place to be, especially in a league that’s so tight that one or two injuries can be incredibly costly. Without much money to spend, the Ducks could be in deep if someone important to the roster has to hit the sideline for an extended period of time.

That brings us back around to a Bieksa buyout, as some would suggest that’s the obvious answer for extra cap space. However, Bieksa is on a 35-plus deal and buying out his contract offers Anaheim exactly zero dollars in cap relief. His full $4 million cap hit would still count. While there’s something to be gained in terms of expansion protection by buying out Bieksa, there’s not a cent of value cap-wise. Thus, buying Bieksa out isn’t the answer to all that ails the Ducks.

The one silver lining in what stands to be a busy summer for Murray, though, is that a Fowler extension wouldn’t kick in next season and, outside of Nate Thompson and Patrick Eaves, there’s not a single Duck in need of a new deal for the coming campaign. Eaves will likely test the open market, looking to cash in on his fantastic season. Thompson, meanwhile, has done well in Anaheim, but is expendable under a cap crunch. That means the majority of Murray’s roster is going to be sticking together, which means the Ducks shouldn’t be all too worried about falling off in some massive way next season.

Even still, the Ducks have big decisions and important moves to make this off-season that will impact them down the road. And while the heartbreak of a six-game defeat in the Western Conference final may still be fresh, Murray won’t be waiting all that long to get to work.

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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