What do you think about when you’re not thinking about the playoffs? Whatever that is, it’s exactly what the Anaheim Ducks are thinking right now, because they’ve been in the race for Connor Bedard for weeks now. Let’s try to make a few guesses.
Trevor Zegras sits at or near the top of most Anaheim offensive rankings, being tied for first in points (17-25-42), goals (18), and even-strength goals (15) and leading in multi-point games (a dozen). He also has the lead for power play points, with 12. He further shares the lead, not on the team, but in the NHL, with four shootout goals thus far this year.
He was named the NHL third star of the week for the week starting January 22nd after posting eight points—four goals and four assists—during the prior seven-day period. Coming into Saturday with Arizona in town, he was on a five-game point streak and had scoring points in nine of the ten previous games. Ending that night, he was on a six-game heater after scoring a thrilling OT goal on a pass from John Klingberg.
If he’s thinking what he should be, it would go something like this: “I’m doing the right thing. I’m backing up my good first and second years. I’m in the NHL for keeps. This is real.” He has played 149 NHL games already, hard as that seems to believe. (His first year was the Covid-shortened 2020-21 campaign.)
On Saturday after the win against the Coyotes, Coach Eakins said of him, “He’s a competitive kid. He uses a lot of words out there, and whatever it takes to win, that’s the way you’ve got to win it,” speaking of Zegras’s ability to get into other teams’ heads with his jawing.
But if Zegras were to think what his coach probably wants him to think, he’d be pondering how much more complete his game could be, leaving aside the scoring touch and trick plays. Right now, he’s playing a lazy, floating-back style of defense. This is not what an NHL center should be doing.
In fact, if you were to watch Zegras and not know what position he was assigned, you’d swear he was a winger when he’s in his own zone. Centers, it seems pretty universally true, are not responsible for covering an opposing defenseman at the point. They’re supposed to be tenaciously struggling to get the puck back from whoever has it. Reference Anze Kopitar up the road in LA, or even Mason McTavish, who centers the Ducks’ first line (between Frank Vatrano and Max Jones). McTavish is just 58 games into his NHL career, but his bulldog nature has him playing a two-way game.
Troy Terry’s mind must be revolving around his offensive performance, which has been good enough to get him named to the NHL All-Star game next week. His totals last year were 37-30-67 in 75 games played. This year, he’s got 13-29-42, which is statistically almost precisely the same production, to co-lead the team in points.
Terry is mostly on Zegras’s right wing, with Adam Henrique, who has been on a bit of a scoring tear of late, on the left-hand side. Coming into the game versus the Coyotes, Henrique had a seven-game points streak to tie his career high. He had six goals over that period. So the line is producing, but you have to ask yourself if Terry is wondering, “Why am I not playing in the middle of the ice? My game is more complete than Zegras’s.” And he’d be right.
Jamie Drysdale, who is rehabbing after early season shoulder surgery, but has stayed local and is spotted after most Ducks’ home games, must be wondering how he’ll respond to his recovery. Knowing that he lives in an area with access to the most advanced medical care in the world, at least for the privileged, must be a comfort. His thoughts must also range to, “How much better will we be with me back in the lineup?” Most people agree that the answer to that is, “Quite a lot.” Defense hasn’t been the Ducks’ forte this year, and I’m not just talking about team D. That’s systems, and Eakins seems to have them conscious of their responsibilities, though they’re kind of raggedy getting back at times. The backline is just not that strong.
And that brings us to John Klingberg, brought in last summer from Dallas on a one-year deal. This was not a prove-it-to-Anaheim signing, but a prove-it-to-the-league adventure. So far, results are mixed. Klingberg must be wondering how well this experiment will end. He’s 30 and will be 31 before next season. Who’s going to ink a long-term deal with this guy? He used to be a hardy, puck-moving defenseman who played with an edge. Now? He seems disinterested at times. He’s unlikely to be in Anaheim another year, but his next deal is also not likely to be a lengthy one unless he turns on the jets in the slightly more than thirty games the Ducks have remaining. Credit him with a key assist on Zegras’s OT winning goal in Anaheim on Saturday evening with Arizona in town.
Goalie John Gibson must be wondering what he has to do to keep the puck out of the net. In reality, he rarely lets in a questionable goal, and he’s often victimized by no-chance shots. You can see his will keeping his eyes from gazing skyward after a lot of the ones that get behind him. Fans realize, “It ain’t Gibby’s fault,” even as they wonder whether he’ll be here past the trade deadline, or how much his energy will flag as the season grinds on to its long-determined end on the golf course. He made a spectacular arm save on Clayton Keller to prolong the game against the Coyotes. This led to an unsuccessful Frank Vatrano breakaway, foiled, and then to the winner, described above.
Coach Eakins has to be asking himself a couple of questions. “Is this year the end for me with this organization?” and if so, “Am I showing potential future employers my abilities?” He can’t do much about the lineup he’s dealt, but he does have responsibility for getting the most out of it. The recent 5-3 win against Colorado in Denver is evidence that the will to win still burns. The team came from deficits twice and poured it on in the form of a Frank Vatrano hat trick, earned on goals one, two, and five. The latter was into an empty net. In fact, that win was the meat in a three-win sandwich over the course of the last week of January.
Eakins is often a heavy-handed with the psychology, a message that must have worn thin by now, but what else can he do, really? He’s a prisoner of circumstance given that the team is rebuilding, leaders only grow slowly, and he’s dealing with a blueline that’s still developing, or, in the case of both Klingberg and Shattenkirk, somewhat past their prime.
To wrap these speculations up, what’s on GM Pat Verbeek’s mind? “How long is this rebuild going to take?” “How many seasons are these visible, hands-on owners going to give me before accountability starts?” “Wow, there aren’t very many hockey people around here, and I can go to Starbucks or the Ferrari dealer in Newport Beach and not have anybody point to me and say the word, ‘Bedard,’ which is nice.”