Life is a little bit weird in the land of the Anaheim Ducks.
"“Probably the most important thing right now is to assess the team and see where we’re at. Just really get to know the players. At some point in late February, look again and see where we are in the standings and then start to formulate some plans. That’s the most important thing.” – Pat Verbeek, General Manager of the Anaheim Ducks Ducks GM Pat Verbeek says evaluating is top priority – Orange County Register (ocregister.com)"
On one hand, they’ve improved an incredible amount from last year’s insipid efforts. They’ve recently hired a new GM and let go of one of the “special advisors” to the old boys’ club (Dave Nonis). By my count that’s three long term pieces of Ducks management moving on in the past calendar year. Additionally, they have a hot young second year player in Trevor Zegras who is the toast of the NHL and in line for the elusive Calder Trophy, as well as some exciting youth in the system progressively working on their games.
On the other hand, a recent string of losses has pushed them to the outside looking in for the 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoffs. They also have numerous RFA and UFA’s fighting for new contracts. It’s worth noting that the Ducks are currently the 9th youngest team in the NHL at present, with 17th most experienced list (by games played). That is to say that much of the Ducks experience is held in a small number of players (i.e., Ryan Getzlaf, Kevin Shattenkirk). It’s also worth noting that the Ducks new GM has flagged a patient approach to a team that he suggests is still amid a rebuild.
It’s also worth noting that the Ducks GM flagged the end of February as being a time to begin implementing a plan moving forward. With a record of 2-3-0, with one win coming in the shootout, since Verbeek has taken over the role of head honcho in Anaheim, it can be said that none of the questions he may have had have been answered in full. As with any fan base, opinions of what he should do are polarizing. Many would like to see players such as Rickard Rakell traded for younger assets or draft picks from which to rebuild. Others would like to see the former 30-goal-scoring 28-year-old extended for at least another contract. The question is then: which of these players will have their contracts extended in Anaheim and which will be traded away for future assets prior to this year’s trade deadline.
"“You’re going to have to deal with the free agents one way or another,” Verbeek said, referring to pending unrestricted free agents such as Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Rickard Rakell. “Either make the decisions to sign them or I don’t want anyone walking out the door for nothing.” – Pat Verbeek, General Manager of the Anaheim Ducks Ducks GM Pat Verbeek says evaluating is top priority – Orange County Register (ocregister.com)"
Two of the players who, I would suggest, most fans would like to see traded are Josh Manson and Nicolas Deslauriers. The argument is that both players are washed, or in Deslauriers case never very good, and that they should be able to still garner the Ducks are decent return on investment. Although I’m certain the Deslauriers for a 1st round draft pick is more a meme than any legitimate hope for a trade partner.
Putting these two players into the same sentence regarding trade may appear somewhat counter intuitive. One is a 30-year-old 4th liner and the other a 30-year-old former top-4 defenseman. However, both players appear to be big parts of the Ducks locker room, and both provide a service to the Ducks that former GM Bob Murray deemed to be important. That service is of course pugilism on the ice.
Fighting itself is a big enough divisive factor within the ice hockey fandom. Traditionalists will claim it’s part of the fabric of the sport and that icing an enforcer prevents players from getting hurt. Who hasn’t heard the phrase “I went to see a fight and a hockey game broke out?” Many newer fans will take the counter point and suggest that low skill (comparatively to actual combat sports) staged bouts provide little value to the fan experience and provide no value to the “enforcer” role given the data largely shows no relationship between fighting and contact injuries.
Why then would fighting be a large part of the discussion when evaluating these players for trade or extension? Despite Pat Verbeek’s articulate commentary on this Anaheim Ducks team, and a seeming willingness to move an archaic team into a “new school” mentality, it should be noted what has happened at his two managerial stops prior to the Ducks. As of the 23rd of February 2022, the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning sit 11th and 12th in the NHL for fighting majors. The past two seasons, despite being after Verbeek’s tenure with them, Tampa has ranked 2nd and 6th in the NHL for fighting majors. Pat “Little Ball of Hate” Verbeek himself is currently the only player in league history with 500 goals and 2500 penalty minutes – some few of which were fighting majors. All that is to say that there is a high probability that Verbeek values the agitator role within a team and if he doesn’t keep the players he has in that role, then it’s plausible that he will go out and find one who can fill that role.
Which brings us back to Deslauriers and Manson. Do the Ducks need both players on the roster to punch some faces? They arguably do not. Thus, the question then should be asked what else they provide and who else the Ducks have in the wings to replace them should they move on.
First, the most cut and dried decision is likely to be around Deslauriers. As a 4th line player, he is largely replaceable by another player of similar skill. That isn’t to say Deslauriers doesn’t have a niche on a good team. Despite the vitriol often direct towards him, he’s a more than adequate 4th line player who plays his role. In terms of the typical 4th line role, this past season has seen him lead the Ducks in physical play (hits) per 60 minutes. He’s a big-bodied player and understands that his role on his line to separate players from the puck for his linemates to re-establish possession. He is also unafraid to block shots if required, ranking in the middle of the pack. Where he does excel however is in drawing penalties. In the 2021-22 season he ranks 3rd amongst Ducks forwards ahead of highly vaunted players Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras. This isn’t merely a flash in the pan, as he’s ranked 4th and 3rd in the past two seasons, respectively. It’s not unfair to rank his ability to draw calls alongside Troy Terry, as he’s the most comparable player over these past three seasons. For a pure 4th liner, being able to draw calls and put the team on the power play is a positive skill set to have. While perhaps not the traditional 4th line role, it’s also worth noting that Deslauriers typically ranks well in individual expected goals per 60 minutes and in rebound creation. At 30-years-of-age it isn’t as though the ketchup bottle will pop and he’ll suddenly be a prime-time scorer, but it’s worth considering that he’s perhaps not the weak link on his line (cough Derek Grant cough).
With that said, the Ducks have a surplus of young forwards that are deserving of a roster spot. Players like Benoit-Oliver Groulx haven’t lit the world on fire this season to date, however, they’re young and are likely to improve somewhat as they collect age and experience. Similarly, there is a case for players such as Jacob Perreault to earn a roster spot in the top-9 and bump low scoring players such as Sam Steel down the line-up into a more traditional shutdown role. The Ducks may be loath to move one of their more experienced forwards, however, the opportunity cost of moving a 4th liner and opening a roster spot is relatively low versus the potential reward. It’s certainly plausible that Deslauriers isn’t the only current 4th line player moved on, but as the team is currently built, he’s one of the more likely trade options.
Assuming Deslauriers is a replaceable piece, that then leaves us with current alternate captain Josh Manson to consider as a potential enforcer. The shine wore off Manson last season when he was primarily paired with the Ducks new hotness, Jamie Drysdale, and the pairing was very mediocre. Perception was such that Manson was the problem on the pairing and that he was old and washed up. Hampus Lindholm is encountering a similar problem this year, in that Drysdale has been his most common linemate and the knives are well and truly out for him. Manson was somewhat able to show that he wasn’t necessarily the issue by presenting significantly stronger on-ice results when given almost any other partner than Drysdale. Lindholm unfortunately hasn’t had this opportunity but given the same result has occurred two years running with Drysdale’s pair-mate the option of trialing Lindholm with other players should be explored before he is traded.
Nonetheless, Manson’s results away from Drysdale suggest that he is still a useful defenseman when healthy. Therefore, his future value needs to be discussed. As an aging player it’s likely that Manson will decline over time. Certainly, defensemen decline at a slower rate than forwards do, which may be due to them skating at a slower pace and working at a generally lower intensity. The potential issue the Ducks may have is that they don’t necessarily have prospects coming through that can replicate the physical style of Manson or provide a shutdown presence. That isn’t to say that the Ducks don’t have any good defensive prospects, it’s that they are primarily offensive defensemen and play a different style of play. This then asks the question of Ducks GM Pat Verbeek; of what style the Ducks will play. Do they go all in on offensive defensemen in a manner similar to the Colorado Avalanche or do they desire a shutdown defensive pairing to trot out in tighter games such as may be seen in the postseason.
The next questions regarding Manson’s continued viability to the Ducks team is his status as an alternate captain and the perceived value of his next contract. The Ducks are a relatively young team and if trades are coming, and they very likely are, then Manson may be a required player to guide the future Ducklings to prominence. He may not necessarily keep his captaincy status, but even the youngest teams need a veteran presence around them to lead the way. Manson can provide a steady defensive presence in the “stay at home” style that may be more valued in a 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 system of play, as is often implemented in the postseason, is likely to be affordable given his relatively low scoring nature and can punch some faces on a team that is likely to only require one enforcer upon it.
Pat Verbeek will have a number of choices to make in the next month or so, yet it is likely that he will desire to dress a physical player as he guides the Ducks into the future. Already on the roster, Verbeek has two solid pieces he can opt to go with. Deslauriers makes some sense in that he plays minimal minutes and is somewhat useful in a 4th line role. However, Manson plays in a way that the Ducks don’t currently have a replacement for. My money is on Manson being offered a contract extension and filling the role of the physical stay at home defenseman. What that means for the rest of the Ducks free agents is unclear, but the decisions need to start somewhere. I believe it will start with these two players.