Are Ducks moving in the right direction under Eakins?

Are Ducks moving in the right direction under Eakins?
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how far are they from getting things right?. Following word that Dallas Eakins will return as head coach next season, this seems like a good time to discuss the 2021-22 Anaheim Ducks (and touch on their future).

In 2021-22, the Anaheim Ducks were strange beasts. Actually, call them odd birds.

At first, the Ducks played way above their (fuzzy?) heads, beginning 2022 with a real chance to make the playoffs. Even so, people pointed to red flags that hinted at future stumbles.

Eventually, the Ducks did indeed hit a wall or two. Being officially eliminated from the playoffs serves as the latest reminder.

Yet, with that, there were still reasons to take away some optimism. They showed with enough time that, instead of spending big at the trade deadline, the Ducks made smart moves to enhance their rebuild.

So, what do we make of the 2021-22 Ducks? Let’s break down their season, and touch on how this season should affect their larger outlook.

2021-22 Ducks: Highs and lows in the present, laying down a foundation for the future

At the bottom of this post, you can check out the 2021-22 Ducks’ month-by-month record heading into Tuesday’s games.

Broadly speaking, though, you can break the Ducks’ season down to two extremes. At first, they were getting a lot of bounces, winning like a strong team even if they were playing more like a solid one. Eventually, things flipped to an extreme. No, the 2021-22 Ducks weren’t great, but their recent 2-11-3 slide should only weigh so much.

While not necessarily a strength yet, the 2021-22 Ducks improved quite a bit defensively compared to last season’s team.

As you can see from this Hockey Viz chart, opponents created plenty of chances from prime scoring areas last season:

Ducks defense 2020-21 Hockey Viz
via Hockey Viz

The 2021-22 Ducks showed improvement both in quantity of chances allowed and, in some cases, quality:

2021-22 Ducks defense
via Hockey Viz

Naturally, the Ducks still want to make life easier for John Gibson and other goalies, particularly in front of the net. But there are enough signs of progress to give Dallas Eakins at least another shot.

(Eventually, improving won’t be enough on its own, however, and the Ducks will want to contend.)

What worked for the 2021-22 Ducks

When it comes to the “new” players for Ducks fans to get excited about, three names crop up: Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, and Jamie Drysdale. Based on this season, it’s easiest to get excited about Terry and Zegras.

Every now and then, a player with strong underlying numbers skyrockets to more mainstream acceptance. Sometimes, it’s as dramatic as Sean Couturier‘s rise to Selke status. For the 2021-22 Ducks, we saw that with Troy Terry.

This was a player who carried signs of promise, and then exploded this season. Consider how he dominates the Ducks’ rankings in stats like Evolving Hockey’s GAR and XGAR. (This chart is XGAR, or Expected Goals Above Replacement.)

Ducks 2021-22 xGAR
via Evolving Hockey

And, no, Troy Terry doesn’t just shine compared to other Anaheim Ducks. His xGAR places him in the 98.6th percentile, just behind the likes of Leon Draisaitl and a hair ahead of Kirill Kaprizov. Yeah.

That above chart also gives you a taste of Trevor Zegras, and a side benefit of his brilliance: he’s found exciting synergy with Sonny Milano.

The Zegras – Milano combination is about more than that alley-oop, but can you find a more fun way to accentuate that connection?

Overall, Zegras has some room to grow. At 21, he certainly could. Really, though, even if he doesn’t … Trevor Zegras is the sort of player who makes the game more fun. The only concern would be if the Ducks sign him to a contract he can’t live up to.

Can their rise line up with John Gibson’s prime?

Allow me to start with a more esoteric worry. What if the Ducks’ rebuild doesn’t line up with John Gibson’s remaining elite years?

Overall, the Ducks are making a brilliant bet in Gibson. He’s still just 28, and his contract carries a strong chance of being a bargain ($6.4 million cap hit through 2016-17) for most of its life.

That said, you can quibble with a few things. While he’s shown plenty of signs of being the elite goalie he was not long ago, he’s put up save percentages of .903 or lower the past three seasons. Hockey Reference’s version of quality starts put him below 50% for the past three seasons, too.

No doubt, the Ducks’ defensive struggles don’t help matters for Gibson. It’s probably tough to focus at an elite level when your team is out of the playoff mix, often quite early.

It’s also fair to wonder if Gibson’s built for a heavy workload. This season, he’s played 51 games, and he’s never appeared in more than 60. Injuries have been an issue at times.

Could injuries and age sap Gibson’s potential just when the Ducks get things together? It’s possible.

Ducks should also keep an eye on Drysdale’s development

Truly, it’s remarkable that Jamie Drysdale was a few games short of 100 games played when he turned 20 on April 8. You just don’t see many defensemen make such a quick and sustained jump to the NHL level.

Overall, it’s easy to accept some growing pains. Unfortunately, elements of Drysdale’s game display just that. He struggles enough in his own end that it’s fair to ask if the Ducks rushed Drysdale to the big time.

2021-22: not the best time to be in the same neighborhood as Darren Helm. Sorry, Darren Helm. (via Evolving Hockey)

To be clear: none of this is condemning Drysdale. He’s not doomed to be a deeply flawed player in his own zone.

That said, the Ducks should still monitor his development. Does he just need to keep growing? Would it be better to shelter him to an extreme (he’s starting 58.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone, but maybe he should be deployed even more favorably)?

Anaheim management should ask these questions, and more.

A fruitful push for a rebuild, but still more work to do

In the grand scheme of things, the Ducks look more promising because of progress in 2021-22, and the maturity to focus their trade deadline toward the future.

A team that already sported a top-5 prospect pool bolstered its futures in a big way. They own two first-rounders in 2022, and piled up four extra second-round picks over the next three drafts. Such futures can deepen that prospect pool, or be traded away for more immediate help.

Asking tough questions about the 2021-22 season means a lot for the Ducks’ rebuild for several reasons. One key consideration is gauging how much young players are worth.

Troy Terry, 24, sees his $1.45M cap hit dissolve after 2022-23; he’ll be an RFA with arbitration rights. The rookie contracts of Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale expire after next season, too. Sonny Milano, 25, is a pending RFA with arbitration rights this offseason.

[What Went Wrong for the Devils]

Should the Ducks extend all of Zegras, Terry, and Drysdale this summer? If so, should they lean toward term, or buy time with “bridge” deals? Might it be awkward but necessary to pick and choose who gets more years?

In a rebuild, it’s important to find young talent, develop those players, and make smart trades. That’s just part of the process, though. You also need to lock young players up to value contracts, and surround them with other talented players to take advantage of those windows of value.

Wisely, the Ducks didn’t panic and give Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, and others the sort of contracts that could hurt them in the long run. After 2021-22, the Ducks have a lot of work to do, but they’ve made shrewd moves where other teams dropped the ball/puck.


A month-by-month look at the Ducks’ record in 2021-22

Ducks Oct. 12-Nov.12: 8-4-3 (.633 point percentage, 19 points in 15 games. Sixth-most points in NHL)

Ducks Nov. 13-Dec.12: 8-5-2 (.600%, 18 points in 15 GP, 13th points)

Ducks Dec. 13-Jan.12: 3-4-2 (.444, 8 points in 9 GP, 21st in points)

Ducks Jan. 13-Feb.12: 4-4-2 (.500, 10 points in 10 GP, 26th in points)

Ducks: Feb. 13-March 12: 4-7-1 (.375, 9 points in 12 GP, 28th in points)

Ducks: March 13-April 12: 2-9-2 (.231, 6 points in 13 GP, last in points)


James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.