What exactly have the Anaheim Ducks done in their very lengthy off-season? Adding players has not been on that list. Firing their AHL coach and replacing him with a new one is one thing. Is this a strategy to scare the old-old San Diego Gulls’ coach, who now happens to be the NHL Ducks’ coach, into worrying that he’s next?
Nobody’s actually said anything like that. The idea two years ago was that Dallas Eakins and his young players would move up together to the NHL. They would grow and flourish on the big stage. They would all learn to win together.
There’s been precious little winning. Their record last year was 17-30-7 in 56 games. In the prior year, the one cut short by—need it be said?—the pandemic, it was 29-33-8, though despite what some might recall, they actually paced ahead of two other teams in the Pacific, LA and San Jose, and were at least mathematically in the playoff hunt until relatively late in the going.
In the higher pressure of the east coast, not to mention Canada, Eakins would have been on the first bus to Albuquerque by now, but Bob Murray doesn’t work like that. He’s patient, or perhaps generous to a fault. But this has to be the last spin of this bottle, if the Ducks don’t start winning. But for those fans of change-makes-things-better, there have been almost no changes on this team. So what’s there to say the outcome will differ this year? Hope.
And prospects. The team has run a slew of guys through the preseason games, losing four of those and winning three. They are actually scoring at a better clip than last year, it should be noted, putting in four or more goals three times, and three or more five times. Things started in late September with a 6-3 win over the Sharks. Then goal production dipped to one per game in two straight losses, and then ended with a 4-goal outburst in a shootout win versus LA last weekend. Hope.
Fans got to see a number of new faces who might make later appearances in the NHL. The most exciting, to many eyes, was Benoit-Olivier (Bo) Groulx.
Groulx is a left-shooting center from Gatineau who played for Halifax and Moncton in the Q. He worked his way up to being more than a point a game guy in his last season. He is now 21 and came to the Ducks in Round Two of the 2018 entry draft, 54th overall. Last year, he had 29 points (10 goals) in 42 games with San Diego. Now he’s hopefully making the move up that has been the trajectory of any number of Ducks’ properties. (Sam Steel, Troy Terry, Max Jones, just to name the obvious three. Each played as more-or-less regular NHL Ducks the last two years, though none with the kind of future-star distinction that might have been hoped for).
There’s also Jamie Drysdale and Trevor Zegras, both gunning for full campaigns. Early money has Drysdale emerging as a latter-day puck mover a la Scott Niedermeyer who can run the power play. There’s also rookie of the year talk. He played one game short of losing his eligibility for the distinction last year.
Zegras, who got off to a slow start last year despite great promise, rounded into belonging in the NHL after going down to the AHL San Diego Gulls and re-emerged to score some goals. He was, while he was down south, trained to be a center, a project which seems to have been since abandoned to let him concentrate on scoring from the left wing position. He finished the preseason with three points in the eventual shootout win with the Kings, a 4-3 score.
Then there are the grinders. Fourth-liner Nicolas Deslauriers, a rugged, square-jawed fighter with some offensive upside, was joined on the wings for one preseason game by Sam Carrick, the ever-faithful captain of the Gulls who played in both the AHL and NHL last year, and has 47 NHL games total. Their third member was Buddy Robinson. The latter is huge, and scary it’s certain. It was fun seeing both “DeLo” and Carrick get into fights in the opening minutes of one preseason contest. The big tree, Robinson, didn’t throw down. But what a line. Not an NHL line, but a bunch of guys with hope that they’ll distinguish themselves at least enough to add to their NHL game totals.
Another player I thought impressive was Simon Benoit. He can both play and scuffle, and he is a useful addition to the defense at a tall but skinny 6’3” and around 190 pounds. He played six games in the NHL for Anaheim last year, recording no points.
In the “I really hope he gets his shot” category, Kodie Curran played steady defense throughout the preseason, and at 31, he deserves at least a night in the bigs. He played university hockey in Canada, then went to Europe, and last year had 13 points on six goals in 24 games with San Diego playing on the blueline.
The Ducks have a couple of veterans and a youngster coming back from injury. Hampus Lindholm (18 games last year) and Jakob Silfverberg (47 games, but then hip surgery) are the established players, and Sonny Milano the youth. He suffered from concussion symptoms and was limited to six NHL contests last year and two in the AHL. He was sent to San Deigo on the weekend to begin the season there. He looked good in preseason games.
Why do the Ducks have three new bench coaches, and why do they need four guys, plus the trainers, on the bench (OK, behind it) night after night? Interesting that two guys, Newell Brown and Geoff Ward, were both mentioned as being there as power play specialists. The Ducks need all the help they can get in the category, having placed last in the league in that department last year at a dismal 8.9%, but a divide-and-conquer mentality is often not the best when it comes to teaching specialized, and singular, skills. And since all three bench bosses are new, is Eakins at least a little afraid that he’s bumping into his replacement on a nightly basis?
Then again, if the plan was to let the young players develop, and if Bob Murray made exactly zero acquisitions of veterans, then who can blame Eakins if the results are the same, or only marginally better?
Also, can the Ducks survive a brutal early schedule? They have Winnipeg and Minnesota at home, then Calgary and Edmonton back-to-back on the road, and Winnipeg and Minnesota again on the road. No game, and no team, is going to be easy for this Anaheim squad, but they could well be out of it super early, especially if they get off to their typical, and frustrating, slow start.
For fans, one bright spot is that the Ducks have one of the best goalies in the league as their number one in John Gibson—possibly and even likely the American Olympic team netminder. This will make many more games close than otherwise might be, but it will also mean that “Gibby” will be toiling away in a job that won’t get him a lot of recognition around the league, and won’t reward him with the kinds of numbers he could have backstopping a stronger team.
So as the season starts, watch Lindholm, Greg Pateryn, a useful journeyman signed to a one-year, two-way contract, Silfverberg, Benoit, and Groulx, and expect movement from the AHL team as Anaheim continues to do what might best be called a “rebuild in place.”
Brian Kennedy is a member of the PHWA. He is also the author of Growing Up Hockey and other hockey books. Please follow him on twitter @growinguphockey.