Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks.
2023-24 Anaheim Ducks
The 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks enter the season with more reason for optimism than they’ve had in a long time, but still a ways to go. They have exciting young players already getting NHL minutes and talented prospects on the way, so growth remains the focus of the 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks season. The team does have more depth to improve their team defence and provide more support to the young players, so it’s shaping up to be an interesting season for the Ducks.
Last season was a disaster from start to finish for the Ducks, starting with a season-ending injury to sixth-overall pick Jamie Drysdale in the eighth game of the season and culminating in a dead-last finish in the NHL. They allowed the most goals in the league at over four a game, while only putting up just over 2.5 goals a game, good for 31st overall in the league. Free agent additions, such as Ryan Strome and John Klingberg, hurt the team more than they helped, and the team behind the first line struggled to stay afloat.
Even with the worst record in the league, the Ducks ended up with the 2nd overall pick and no chance to grab Connor Bedard. The Leo Carlsson pick was a surprise to some, but he shows massive upside with his size and skill. Dallas Eakins is gone from behind the bench and Greg Cronin comes in after five years as a head coach in the AHL. The Ducks lost some depth players, but no big departures. Rumours swirled around goaltender John Gibson, but he remains on the team for the time being.
Free Agency and Extensions
In free agency, the Ducks signed established veterans, like Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas, to shore up the lineup, and traded for Ilya Lyubushkin from the Buffalo Sabres. These players should also help the extremely talented prospect pipeline when those players make the league, not to mention young stars such as Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish. Zegras remains unsigned, while his linemate Troy Terry is fresh off a 7-year deal at $7 million AAV.
It’s hard to break up the top line considering their chemistry and the seasons that each player had last year, and offseason additions should mean that the Ducks aren’t caved in when the Zegras line is off the ice. Killorn slots in next to McTavish to provide a heavier body that can dig pucks out of corners for the young centre and Vatrano, who had a solid if somewhat disappointing season last year. If the team feels that Carlsson is ready, he will probably get top-six minutes but may start on the wing.
The 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks have options for their bottom six with more veteran players such as Sam Carrick pushing for a spot in camp, not to mention Zack Kassian on a professional tryout. Training camp and the preseason should also highlight some of the Anaheim Ducks’ prospects on their way. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see younger players such as Benoit-Oliver Groulx or Jacob Perreault impress Coach Greg Conin in camp and force their way into the lineup. The team also lost Isac Lundestrom with a torn Achilles until at least January, and his return may push Strome to the right wing spot on either the second or third line. Nikita Nesterenko got nine games last year after his Boston College career wrapped up, and he provides a bit more upside than other fourth-line centre options.
Owen Zellweger-Radko Gudas
The loss of Jamie Drysdale was a tough one last season, but he returns ready to show why the Ducks selected him sixth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. He brings more offence to the top pair while the always-steady Cam Fowler can help cover when Drysdale rushes the puck up ice. Camp will decide if Zellweger is ready for second pair minutes, but he looked excellent in the WHL last season and pairing him with Gudas should prevent teams from targeting the smaller Zellweger as he adjusts to the pace of the NHL. Zellweger may also compete with Pavel Mintyukov, another prospect that brings a more well-rounded game that showed plenty of offense in the OHL last year.
The 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks are sure to cycle through their bottom pair after bringing in Hagg and Lyubshkin, the latter being forced out from the Buffalo Sabres’ deep blueline. Jackson LaCombe is another younger defenceman who should get time with the team after getting into two games at the end of last year. Whoever plays back there, they have to be better than the bottom pair of the Anaheim Ducks from last season.
John Gibson has to be tired of the team in front of him by this point, which may have led to the trade rumours during the summer. The 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks should be better, especially if Cronin can set up a system to limit the amount of shots they face, which the coach excelled at in the AHL. The big question is whether Pat Verbeek decides to trade Gibson for more young players and draft picks while the goalie’s value remains high. Lukas Dostal is an exciting goalie prospect that would be a perfect backup for Gibson, but a Gibson trade would put a lot on Dostal’s plate, which veteran Alex Stalock could help to shoulder.
Players to Watch
At one point this offseason, Alex Killorn was the highest paid forward on the Ducks’ roster, which changed after the Troy Terry extension. Killorn was a vital part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s back-to-back Cup runs, and he brings scoring touch and physicality that Anaheim desperately needs. The four-year contract for the 33-year-old is a bit worrying, but the 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks season shouldn’t be when Killorn’s contract becomes a burden. He’s an interesting player to watch to see how he does outside of Tampa Bay and how he does as a leader on this team.
Gibson is a player to watch for a completely different reason than Killorn. He remains a steady goaltender that can show up and steal games, which is a rarity in today’s NHL. There are several contenders that may look for goaltending help during the season, but Gibson does have three years remaining at $6.4 million AAV after this season, so it remains to be seen what a Gibson trade would look like regarding what the Ducks get for him. Retaining salary could help the Ducks add a first-round pick or highly regarded prospect, especially if they wait until the trade deadline and Gibson has a solid season.
Prediction for 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks
The 2023-24 Anaheim Ducks season should be an interesting one, especially with a new coach that will look to develop the team’s’ exciting young players and prospects. Of course, the Ducks were so bad last year that even big improvements could still have them finishing seventh or eighth overall in the Pacific Division. That is most likely where the Ducks finish the year, which puts the team in the lottery again, but hopefully we see growth and a more defensively responsible team than what we saw last year.
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