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West Division Preview: Did the Ducks jumpstart a rebuild?

Murray wants his team competitive and he wants it now — but did he make the right moves for that to happen?

Nick Ritchie #37 of the Anaheim Ducks skates after the puck between Kurtis MacDermid #56 and Sean Walker #26 of the Los Angeles Kings during a 3-1 Ducks win over the Kings at Staples Center on February 01, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Kings went into the 2020 Draft, they knew the decision they made about who they would pick at second-overall could cut years off of their rebuilding strategy. Anaheim Ducks general manager Bob Murray knows that time is nothing to be wasted when a team is rebuilding, as both teams have seen a Cup-winning corps age out of their contracts.

Murray would like you to believe that the team hitting the ice in 2021 is drastically different than the team they were last March. So much so, that he believes the team can and will be in the postseason conversation.

“We’re a better team,” Murray told reporters back in October, following the signing of defender Kevin Shattenkirk, their biggest splash of free agency. “We’ve got a lot of good teams out West, so we got to get going here. I think it’s time and I think you’re going to see improvement with some of our young guys. And if we get improvement in some of the young guys, which it’s time for, and you get a little bit more consistency from the middle age guys, I think we can be right there fighting for a playoff spot. There’s no reason we can’t be.”

Now, “no reason,” is a bit misleading. Though the team improved their defense quite a bit (largely by subtraction), the forward group is still a lot of the same players who struggled to score last season — except without Ondrej Kase, and while carrying around the husk of David Backes.

Can they pump up a rebuild that quickly, without drastic changes and tight against the cap? It’s looking hard to believe.

Where we left off

The Anaheim Ducks last hit the ice on March 11, 2020, in a make-up game against the St. Louis Blues, who suspended a February 11 meeting after Blues defender Jay Bouwmeester suffered a cardiac arrest on the bench. The March game resulted in a 4-2 Ducks loss, ending a five-game point streak in the midst of a four-game homestand. The NHL season was suspended the follow night and eventually cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2019-20 Ducks finished with a 29-33-9 record and 67 standing points, sixth in the Pacific Division. When the league returned to play, the Ducks missed out on the Qualifying Round, with a points percentage of just .472 over 71 games.

Center Adam Henrique led the team in goals (26) and points (43), while Ryan Getzlaf led in assists (29). As a team, they ranked 25th in the league at 5-on-5 Corsi (unblocked shots + shot attempts) share, with 48.31 percent. They also ranked 26th in 5-on-5 Goals For Percentage with 46.76 percent.

The Ducks faced the Kings three times during the 2019-20 season. They met twice in December, with the Ducks taking the first game 4-2, and the Kings winning 2-1 ten days later, both games taking place at Honda Center. The Ducks also won against the Kings at Staples Center in February.

2020 NHL Draft

Two first-round selections in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft were the highlight of the Ducks’ haul. At sixth-overall, the team drafted top defensive prospect Jamie Drysdale from the OHL’s Erie Otters, looking for any jumpstart in their backend after last season. As the round came to a close, the Ducks also snagged right winger Jacob Perreault from the Sarnia Sting at 27th overall. In the second round, the team selected another right winger in the USHL Chicago Steel’s Sam Colangelo.

Those top three picks were huge and it’s easy to see how they’ll slide into the Ducks’ system — potentially quickly, as the team sheds aging contracts over the next couple of years. In total, they added three defenders, two right wingers, two centers and one left winger to their system. While the back half of their draft was a little less inspired than those first three picks, the team did well to address their needs with high-end talent.

Roster

Camp began in Irvine on December 31 and this is the Ducks’ 41-man camp roster:

Forwards

Sonny Milano, Adam Henrique, Ryan Getzlaf, David Backes, Nicolas Deslauriers, Sam Steel, Carter Rowney, Andrew Agozzino, Jakob Silfverberg, Derek Grant, Sam Carrick, Vinni Lettieri, Danton Heinen, Trevor Zegras, Isac Lundestrom, Max Jones, Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Max Comtois, Antoine Morand, Brayden Tracey, Chase De Leo, Jack Kopacka, Troy Terry, Jacob Perreault, Rickard Rakell, Andrew Poturalski

Defenders

Brendan Guhle, Cam Fowler, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jani Hakanpaa, Christian Djoos, Jacob Larsson, Jamie Drysdale, Josh Manson, Kodie Curran, Andy Welinski, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Mahura, Simon Benoit

Goaltenders

Lukas Dostal, Ryan Miller, John Gibson, Anthony Stolarz, Olle Eriksson-Ek

Losing Michael Del Zotto and Erik Gudbranson on the backend only partially alleviates a logjam of average-to-bad defenders. Adding Kevin Shattenkirk — and on a great contract — improves the right side of the defense drastically, but overall the Ducks need a bigger improvement on the front end to really put the team back into the postseason.

What can we expect in 2021?

If the John Gibson/Ryan Miller tandem continues their level of play, the Ducks may steal a handful of games with lopsided shot totals — and if Lukas Dostal makes the jump to the big leagues, he’s a force in net too.

But with the Canadian teams moving out of the division, the Ducks are going to be facing heavy-hitters in the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues on a regular basis this season, as well as an increased number of games against the Vegas Golden Knights. In different circumstances, perhaps this is the year they could’ve taken advantage of their games against the rest of the league’s basement and slid into the postseason as a wild card.

This year will almost certainly not play out that way. The Ducks are probably even further away from being the fourth-best team in the West than they were last season, and being fourth-best is about their only hope of making playoffs. The 2021 season is going to be weird and the Ducks don’t seem to be interested in making the most of the weirdness in any way that might benefit them.