NHL on NBCSN: Progress of youth ‘encouraging’ for Ducks’ future

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues. Blues-Ducks stream coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Trevor Zegras’ call up on Feb. 21 and Isac Lundeström’s hat trick Monday were further steps in the youth movement going on in Anaheim.

The Ducks have not made the playoffs the last two seasons and haven’t won a playoff game since Game 4 of the 2017 Western Conference Final. Players that helped them sustain a run that saw them miss the postseason twice in 12 seasons are aging out. Some of those pieces, like Corey Perry, are long gone. Others, like captain Ryan Getzlaf, whose contract expires this summer, could be on their way out.

That roster turnover and focus on youth has been painful. The Ducks have seen drops in most statistical categories since 2017, like all situations goals per game (2.82 in 2017-18 to 2.05 this season); 5-on-5 shots per game (29.9 to 26, per Evolving Hockey); and on-ice save percentage (.932 to .911). It’s why general manager Bob Murray and his staff are banking on their last three drafts to lead the way forward.

Lundeström, 21, was their 2018 first round pick, while Zegras, 19, went ninth overall in 2019. This past October, the Ducks took defenseman Jamie Drysdale sixth overall and forward Jacob Perreault at No. 27. They join a prospect pool of developing players like Max Comtois (2017 second-rounder) and 2016 first-round picks Max Jones and Sam Steel. Throw in Jacob Larsson (23), Troy Terry (23) and Josh Mahura (22), and Murray is hoping they will form the core of this team over the next several years.

[BLUES-DUCKS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The pressure is on those kids and Murray for this transition to work and work quick. John Gibson, who is under contract through 2026-27 with a $6.4M cap hit, turns 28 in July. He’s long been viewed as one of the NHL’s top goaltenders — but one stuck on a sub-par team. His .924 5-on-5 save percentage since 2017-18 is eighth-best among goaltenders and his 16.37 goals saved above average is 10th, per Natural Stat Trick.

That’s why it’s vital for Murray and head coach Dallas Eakins to go heavy on opportunity for their kids. Ducks fans weren’t expecting playoffs this season. But you want to see progress. You don’t want to be the Sabres. You want to see signs that brighter days are ahead. In Anaheim, after just 22 games this season, there is some sun beyond the clouds.

Comtois currently leads the team in goals (8) and points (14); Steel has seven points in 21 games; Jones has three goals, but has the third-best (56%) expected goals for percentage on the Ducks.

Lundeström made his NHL debut during the 2018-19 season and went his first 35 games without scoring a goal. He has five this season, highlighted by the hat trick during Monday’s loss to the Blues.

Zegras had four goals and nine points inn eight AHL games before his call-up. He is still searching for his first goal with the Ducks, but he’s certainly not lacking in confidence department.

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Zegras’ history shows he can be that offensive leader and the Ducks will take goals right now anyway they can. Forehand, backhand, lacrosse-style. You name it.

“The one thing we don’t ever want to take out of a player is creativity,” Eakins said. “If you can put the puck in the net that way, then put the puck in the net that way.”

Zegras is the prized prospect, and Eakins is easing him in. Even strength and power play ice time has increased with a heavy emphasis offensive zone starts (62.5%, per Natural Stat Trick). He said he wants to “bring him along at the right pace” and not throw too much at him immediately. That approach will help bring a comfort level that could lead to his offensive game making a consistent impact.

“They are moving in the right direction,” Eakins said of his young Ducks. “Obviously, Isac had a great night. All those guys have taken steps forward. Some bigger than others. So, that’s encouraging for the whole organization.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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