By Greg Beacham/AP Sports Writer
ANAHEIM (AP) – Some of the most exciting young players in hockey are wearing the Anaheim Ducks’ sweater this winter.
Their fans are hoping they’ll also be wearing it closer to the summer while ending the Ducks’ four-year playoff drought.
Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, Jamie Drysdale, Isac Lundestrom, Mason McTavish and Olen Zellweger comprise an enviable young core of talent, and the Ducks intend to build their future on it. They still need all their young stars to take a step forward as they attempt to end the longest postseason absence in franchise history.
Zegras and Drysdale made a splash as rookies last season, but it didn’t translate into team success while Anaheim finished seventh in the Pacific Division. But the Ducks are no ordinary non-playoff team with that elite base of young stars in the making, and general manager Pat Verbeek expects the group to grow.
“We hope they take their game to another level,” Verbeek said. “We’re going to need them to take it to another level. The hardest thing coming into your second year is teams start to know who you are. It’s not easier, it’s harder and I think they understand that. We’ll see. That’s the hardest thing.”
The Ducks will begin this new era without center Ryan Getzlaf after the retirement of their longtime captain and a veteran of the franchise’s only Stanley Cup championship team.
Getzlaf’s departure was only the biggest part of a major franchise overhaul in 2022. Longtime regulars Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell and Josh Manson were all shipped out at last year’s trade deadline, and Verbeek spent the offseason adding veterans, including forwards Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano and defensemen John Klingberg and Dmitry Kulikov.
“He was an excellent captain, and he was a massive influence on everything our players did,” coach Dallas Eakins said of Getzlaf. “I have full comfort, I have no questions, about our leadership in that room. We have guys who have been around who are just excellent human beings who think about their teammates. The last thing on my list of worries right now is leadership.”
Verbeek said the Ducks won’t name their next captain right away, instead waiting to see who steps up to take Getzlaf’s “C.” Veteran defenseman Cam Fowler is the most obvious choice, but one of the young stars could step into the role.
“We’re going to let the room sort itself out, let leaders emerge,” Verbeek said.
McTavish is among the most talked-about young players in hockey after his MVP performance for Canada at the World Junior Championships in August. The 19-year-old seems likely to get a chance to stick with the Ducks after excelling in the OHL last season, and the playmaking two-way center could immediately take a major role down the middle, perhaps even with Zegras on his wing.
The Ducks spent last season in transition after the early firing of general manager Bob Murray and the midseason hiring of Verbeek. The new GM decided Eakins would get another shot at cracking Anaheim’s problems this season, even though the coach has never had a winning record in his five seasons as an NHL head coach with the Oilers and Ducks.
The Ducks’ depth problems on the back end were obvious last season, so they signed Klingberg to a one-year, $7 million deal and acquired Kulikov in a trade with Minnesota to join Fowler, Drysdale and Kevin Shattenkirk.
Klingberg was generally considered the top defenseman on the free-agent market, but he chose Anaheim after failing to land a long-term deal elsewhere at acceptable terms. The Swede appears to be happy with the chance to help the Ducks while playing his way into position for a longer contract – or to join a contender down the stretch if the Ducks falter.
“I see a really good mix, and a good battle to get the ice time,” Klingberg said. “That’s what you want.”
John Gibson is still with the Ducks after a down season by his lofty standards in goal, and Anthony Stolarz again will be his backup despite posting superior numbers. Anaheim also has a clear NHL prospect in Lukas Dostal down at its AHL affiliate in San Diego, so Gibson’s future will be popular topic of discussion if the Ducks aren’t winning – or even if they are.
AND THEN …
The Ducks open the 2022-2023 regular NHL season on Oct. 12 vs. the Seattle Kraken.
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