Anaheim Ducks: 2021 Season will be an uncertain one

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Head coach Dallas Eakins of the Anaheim Ducks looks on from the bench during the third period of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Honda Center on February 28, 2020 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Head coach Dallas Eakins of the Anaheim Ducks looks on from the bench during the third period of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Honda Center on February 28, 2020 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

With the 2021 season only a few months away, the Anaheim Ducks have several questions to answer and lots of uncertainty on the horizon.

The Anaheim Ducks have an identity crisis on their hands.

The Ducks finished 13th in the Western Conference this season with 67 points (29-33-9) in 71 games. As the Ducks moved forward with more youth in the lineup and a new coach in Dallas Eakins, their record unsurprisingly did not improve.

The buyout of long time ex-Duck Corey Perry in the offseason and unofficial retirement of Ryan Kesler due to his hip complications signaled a changing of the guard. The Ducks seemed to be retooling with their veteran core in the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Jakob Silfverberg, supplemented with “the kids”, who we will get to in a bit.

Unfortunately, the retooling of the team with more youth supplemented by a strong veteran presence did not yield the results the team or management was probably looking for. The Ducks faded from playoff contention and it was not even close.

Even with the top 24 teams (12 in each conference) going to an extended playoffs due to the shortened regular season, the Ducks were one of the few left out.

With two straight seasons of missing the playoffs, how much longer will team management allow the club to be near the bottom of the barrel in the NHL?  Are major changes to happen this season if the Ducks do not perform?

Let’s examine “the kids”, the GM and coach, and the forthcoming Seattle Expansion draft and trade deadline that can factor into the decision making process of whether drastic changes will be made to the club or not this season.

The Kids

By “the kids”, I mean those in their early 20s that still have not established themselves as regular NHL producers. Namely, we are talking about forwards Troy Terry, Max Jones, Sam Steel, Max Comtois, newly acquired Sonny Milano at the trade deadline and defensemen Jacob Larsson, Brendan Guhle, and Josh Mahura.

While each player has shown flashes of productivity with their skill and speed, those flashes have been just that, flashes. At the NHL level, flashes are not good enough anymore and to management, unacceptable at this point.

In order for the Ducks to be successful this season (I define success as getting a playoff berth) and for the future, these young players need to find ways to manufacture offense on a team that traditionally has had a tough time scoring. With no player above having no more than 125 games played (Milano), there is still room for growth.

Though, the time to demonstrate that growth is running out. With several of the players either in the last season of their entry-level contract or fresh off signing a two or three year “bridge” deal this offseason (Terry, Milano, Larsson), what these kids do in the lineup may very well determine if they end up having a future with the club.

General Manager Bob Murray & Coach Dallas Eakins

It is fair to say that GM Bob Murray has a lot riding on this season. With the support of the Samuelis, he brought in Coach Dallas Eakins to take over as head coach. Murray also brought up a lot of “the kids” from AHL San Diego to assist with team’s movement toward youth.

He also drafted forwards Trevor Zegras and Brayden Tracey with the No.9  and No.26 overall picks in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The Ducks also have two more first round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, No. 6 and No. 27.

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But with the Ducks still deficient in playmakers and pure scorers, can these players be impact players sooner rather than later? Is Trevor Zegras ready to compete an NHL level?

With Murray signed as GM through the 2021-2022 season, it is very possible the Samuelis keep him around to the end of his contract to see the club improve. Or maybe not?

The Samuelis have been very patient with the Murray in rebuilding the team. This is essentially Murray’s third year in rebuilding. If no significant improvement is made with the team in inching them closer to a playoff berth, don’t be surprised if Murray is cut loose.

The same goes with Eakins. He was brought in to coach partly because he had carried over relationships from being the minor league coach in San Diego for four years and knew much about the club’s youth.

If he can’t get more out of them, management may see he is not the right coach for this job. If that’s the case, he might be out the door as well.

Seattle Expansion Draft and 2021 Trade Deadline 

Probably the biggest things on the minds of management and to a lesser extent, the players, is the addition of the Seattle Kraken as the 32nd NHL team.

Like the expansion in 2017 with Vegas, the Ducks will need to protect either 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goalie or protect 8 skaters (forwards/defensemen) and 1 goalie.  How the Ducks fare this season will say a lot about what direction the Ducks are going and ultimately, who they choose to keep on the team.

Let’s say everything goes right and the Ducks are competing for a playoff spot. I think the Ducks will protect the following:

In contrast, let’s say the Ducks have a horrendous season and keep the team they have. Their protection plans will change:

  • Forwards – Jakob Silverberg, Troy Terry, Max Jones, Sam Steel, Sonny Milano, Danton Heinen, Max Comtois
  • Defense – Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Brendan Guhle
  • Goalie- John Gibson

The difference between the two choices is clear – Go for the long-term plan with youth and let most of the veteran core go. While it shouldn’t be a shock, the Ducks may conceivably expose Manson, Rakell, and Henrique in the expansion draft to see if Seattle picks one of them and clear some cap space.

It is better to get something for either of them at the trade deadline, however, it may be tough to do so. Henrique in particular, already 30, has a cap hit of $5.875 for the next 4 seasons. Seattle might want to pick him up to get the salary cap floor as well as for his veteran leadership.

This would open things up for the Ducks in their own salary cap and create another spot in the lineup for the Ducks to get even younger.

The expansion draft open up a lot of possibilities for the Ducks and the traded deadline is no different. If we see the Ducks start shipping off their established veterans to contending teams, it will say a lot about how Ducks management is looking at a long-term reboot of the team rather than a short one.

Overall, the Ducks’ performance this season will surely test the patience of owners Susan and Henry Samueli in determining what they do with the team. If the club does not have success this season, there will no doubt be large scale changes that have to be made.