ANAHEIM, Calif. — After the Anaheim Ducks’ six-year playoff run ended with a resounding thud last spring, they added almost no significant outside talent to their roster.
If the Ducks hope to return to their usual heights this season, they’ll probably have to do it from within. That migration starts behind the bench, where coach Dallas Eakins is moving up from their AHL affiliate in San Diego to the big leagues.
The former Edmonton coach proved his acumen over the last four years while guiding many young players who will get prominent roles this season in Anaheim. Even after last season’s faceplant, the Ducks’ organizational depth is enviable, and they’re counting on new blood to refresh the veteran core of this longtime Stanley Cup contender.
”You can already see it and feel it around the room that guys are ready to go, and guys are ready to turn that page,” said forward Adam Henrique, a rare offensive bright spot last season. ”(Eakins) is great. It’s a lot of fun coming to the rink. He’s here to work.”
So are the youngsters gunning for major roles in Anaheim: Forwards Sam Steel, Max Jones, Troy Terry and Max Comtois are all 21 or younger. The Ducks need scoring after finishing last in the league in goals, and Eakins believes he has already coached the players who can help.
”This has always been an organization that’s hard to score against, and we don’t want to lose that,” Eakins said. ”We want that to be our identity. But if we don’t score, we can’t win, either. I’m a big believer that you can teach people how to score. It’s all about possession. We were near the bottom on shots last year, but telling players, ‘Hey, we need to shoot the puck more,’ is probably not a good plan. You’ve got to have the puck first.”
Anaheim is moving into the future after a bittersweet severing of its past. An era ended last June when the Ducks bought out Corey Perry‘s contract, ending his 14-year tenure alongside captain Ryan Getzlaf in parallel careers that started when the Ducks were still Mighty.
Perry scored just six goals in 31 games last year, but he was far from the only problem. Ryan Kesler will miss the upcoming season after struggling to return from major hip problems, and his career could be over even though he’s only halfway through his six-year, $41.5 million contract.
What’s more, a blue line that was once flush with elite homegrown talent is hoping for strong seasons from recently acquired defensemen Brendan Guhle, Michael Del Zotto or Chris Wideman.
But optimism currently runs high for the Ducks, who moved into a gorgeous new training complex in Irvine during the offseason.
Anaheim also has no problems in net. John Gibson is coming off another outstanding season despite his team’s woes, proving the Ducks were wise to lock him into a long-term contract, while they persuaded 39-year-old Ryan Miller to return as Gibson’s backup.
WHO’S HERE: Eakins, D Chris Wideman, D Michael Del Zotto, LW Nicolas Deslauriers.
WHO’S NOT: Perry, D Jaycob Megna, D Andy Welinski, C Ben Street, D Jake Dotchin.
KEY PLAYERS: Getzlaf’s connection with Eakins will be a key, and the captain appears to be completely on board. The Ducks badly need a bounce-back season from Rickard Rakell, who slipped from 67 goals over the previous two seasons to just 18 last year. Daniel Sprong, 22, is a candidate for a breakthrough after showing ample promise while scoring 14 goals last year. And with trade rumors finally dying down around Ondrej Kase, the Czech forward is positioned to build on the tantalizing promise he showed in 2017-18 before injuries largely ruined last season.
OUTLOOK: Anaheim has plenty of intriguing talent at all ages and experience levels. Eakins was considered a can’t-miss future star behind the bench when he took over the Oilers in 2013. If he proves to be a true difference-maker in his second shot at the NHL, the results should show up immediately.
PREDICTION: The Ducks are coming off their longest offseason since 2012 after going 35-37-10, and they’ve made no significant additions except behind the bench. Eakins will attempt to get improved results out of largely the same players – but the Ducks have more talent than they showed in their 5-21-4 collapse midway through last season, when they quit on Randy Carlyle. While it’s easy to categorize this as a rebuilding year, Anaheim hasn’t missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2002. These written-off Ducks can muster a top-four finish in the Pacific Division, and maybe more.