State of the Ducks: How will Drysdale fit in on defense with Klingberg, Kulikov?

Perhaps no element of the Ducks’ Jekyll-and-Hyde 2021-22 season can be defined more than by the look of their defense at the beginning and its composition at the end.

Jamie Drysdale played a full schedule for the first time and Kevin Shattenkirk started his second year with the program after a trying initial one. But you also had Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, three career-long Ducks who came of age during their seasons of playoff contention in the mid-2010s. There were two other homegrown pieces in Josh Mahura and Simon Benoit, who looked to make a greater impact filled out the corps.

Then, as Anaheim closed out another playoff-less season with a loss in Dallas, coach Dallas Eakins had these six in the lineup: Shattenkirk, Drysdale, Benoit, Mahura, Urho Vaakanainen and Andrej Sustr.

Not exactly what you imagined. The Suppression Six they were not.

Fowler’s absence was more situational, as he and his wife were expecting their first child. But Lindholm and Manson were gone for good, the two former defense partners dealt away to playoff teams. And in Manson’s case, the 30-year-old reached the pinnacle in winning a Stanley Cup. There were additional reasons why the Ducks’ fortunes changed so dramatically from the All-Star break on, but the decimation of their defense stands out among them.

It also reflected general manager Pat Verbeek’s willingness to cut into a core group in order to fully embrace a rebuild. The Ducks still aren’t very good defensively, but it takes more than the blueliners to ice a stingy team. But it is the defensemen who get a lot of attention when it comes to keeping teams from scoring.

In 2022-23, the Ducks may or may not be better preventing goals. But they will be different. After looking at the centers and wingers, it’s time to dig into the defense in this latest “State of the Ducks” installment.

2021-22 in review

Statistics

PLAYER

  

GAMES

  

POINTS

  

SHOTS

  

BLOCKS

  

PIM

  

TOI/G

  

CF%

  

76

42

124

116

14

24.25

50.77

82

35

163

135

36

21:25

46.24

81

32

137

72

16

19:53

47.59

61

22

119

77

42

22:32

48.75

45

9

61

45

53

19:45

51.39

38

7

36

51

12

14:04

44.90

53

5

45

39

22

14:06

45.65

23

5

18

30

10

17:27

44.55

14

2

12

16

6

19:21

39.29

6

1

5

5

2

15:16

51.46

6

0

6

4

0

14:40

45.21

Fowler is never going to be considered a No. 1 defenseman in some eyes and that might be fine, but he reclaimed that role on the Ducks with one of his better seasons. He put up the most points in his career, nearly tied his previous high in goals with nine and posted some solid underlying numbers on a team on which few did.

Shattenkirk started strong and racked up some numbers on a strength of a high-functioning power play but tailed off badly, as the team did. He had nine points over his final 36 games, which made his so-so defensive work stand out that much more. It is interesting that Manson meshed well with Fowler and became attractive to Colorado when the two often didn’t work when paired. Meanwhile, Lindholm and Drysdale didn’t particularly thrive. Both had good nights and bad nights. (Lindholm’s metrics spiked after landing in Boston but some of that can also be attributed to playing with Charlie McAvoy.)

There was a sharp drop-off after those five. Benoit and Mahura essentially split the No. 6 role, which meant the two often played according to matchups and neither was consistent enough to grab the job for himself. Vaakanainen displayed some of his efficient puck movement and fared better when paired with Shattenkirk than Drysdale. Sustr was claimed off waivers in March ahead of Verbeek’s roster carving and did enough to earn a contract with Minnesota.

Jacob Larsson and Brendan Guhle saw spot duty but there was no doubt that others in the organization had moved past them. Neither was retained.

Offseason in review

When it comes to the defense, the obvious huge move was the successful free-agent landing of the 30-year-old John Klingberg after his long run in Dallas. It became clear that the Stars weren’t going to give him what he sought, and it became clear in free agency that other teams weren’t going to, either. The Ducks took advantage of the miscalculation by him and his original representation.

It isn’t a multi-year deal, but that could work out for both entities. Klingberg still has a nice payday for 2022-23 and can turn that into a longer commitment with the Ducks or someone else after a strong season. Anaheim can use a motivated player to its benefit, whether in making a push for a playoff spot or using him as a valuable trade asset.

But a smaller deal could work out in the same manner. Dmitry Kulikov, 31, has moved around a bit in the last few seasons but should help fill a hole. And he could be flipped as well at the deadline, while his presence buys more time for prospects like Olen Zellweger and Drew Helleson to develop.

Vaakanainen, who came to Anaheim in the Lindholm trade, was re-signed for two years. The Ducks also addressed their depth by signing Colton White for two years and adding Olli Juolevi and Austin Strand on one-year contracts. All three are on two-way deals.

At the draft, Verbeek and assistant GM Martin Madden loaded up early on blueliners. Pavel Mintyukov became the first Russian that Anaheim took in the first round since Stainslav Chistov in 2001. Gatineau Olympiques teammates Noah Warren and Tristan Luneau went in the second round.

Three big questions for 2022-23

Will Klingberg be traded at the deadline?

The ink was barely dry when it was considered a fait accompli that Anaheim would use the point-producing defenseman as a trade chip while it progresses with its rebuilding effort. In the end, that could be what happens. Klingberg could give them an indication that he has no desire to re-sign, or the Ducks may not be as interested as they were this summer. Get the most you can for the asset.

But there is the hope that Klingberg is willing to see how things transpire in Anaheim and determine whether it could be a long-term fit. There is the theory that his success as an offensive-minded force on the Dallas blue line was muted some when he played under coach Rick Bowness. And he is now on a team with some young developing core pieces that could lead the Ducks back to prosperity. You know he’s counting on having a good season to set himself up for a long-term deal.

Of course, it takes two sides to be willing. It takes some terms to be agreed upon. It’s early, and whether Klingberg will be traded or not is going to be a topic until it is no longer one. But he did toe the rubber and threw out the first pitch at a recent Angels home game, so there’s that.

What’s in store for Drysdale in his second season?

There were bumps in the road for the 20-year-old in his rookie season. Times where he was victimized while trying to defend in front of his net. Occasions where his struggles on the power play had him pulled off for a couple games here and there. Nights where he skated off with a minus-2 rating simply because of bad luck.

And yet he managed to put up 32 points, which ranked only second to Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider among first-year defensemen. Now it will be interesting to see if Drysdale can build on that, duplicate that point total or suffer a little regression as a sophomore.

Klingberg’s presence could make it difficult, as the Ducks will have every reason to install him on the first power-play unit, which Drysdale ran at times last season. But Drysdale still had 20 of his 32 points in five-on-five play and will continue to get plenty of ice time. The goal could and should be further rounding out his all-around game and becoming a force when the team is at even strength while picking up points whenever possible on the man advantage.

Who will be the best option after Fowler on the left side?

Even with additions of Klingberg and Kulikov, that remains the most notable question about the blue line’s composition. It is why the 31-year-old Kulikov was brought in for essentially nothing as they took advantage of Minnesota’s desire (or need) to shed some salary.

No one is going to replace all that Lindholm brought to the table. Not right now, for sure. But it is interesting that Kulikov put up nearly the same offensive numbers as Lindholm for Anaheim and Boston in a few more games. But for context, he also played on the third pairing for a playoff team.

Adding the veteran addresses the question of handling key minutes when Fowler isn’t on the ice. Vaakanainen, Mahura and Benoit obviously didn’t inspire a comfort level when it came to working regularly in a top-four spot. But then they all could be helping Anaheim bide time until Olen Zellweger is ready.

Depth chart analysis

2021-22 2022-23 2023-24 2024-25 2025-26

First pair

Fowler/Manson

Fowler/Klingberg

Fowler/Drysdale

Fowler/Drysdale

Zellweger/Drysdale

Second pair

Lindholm/Drysdale

Kulikov/Drysdale

Zellweger/Kulikov

Zellweger/Helleson

Fowler/Helleson

Third pair

Benoit/Shattenkirk

Vaakanainen/Shattenkirk

Vaakanainen/Helleson

Mintyukov/Moore

Mintyukov/Moore

Extra pair

Mahura/Larsson

Benoit/Mahura

Benoit/White

Vaakanainen/Juolevi

Warren/Luneau

The future of the Anaheim defense centers around Drysdale and Zellweger, with Mintyukov ultimately joining them. Fowler has meant a lot to the organization and should still be around to provide guidance for those three. It would be best if someone ultimately took that No. 1 role from him as Fowler can conceivably still get it done on a second pair as he moves further into his 30s.

But they’ll need some players to emerge as top-four options that will carry the defense. If the fit is a good one, I like the idea of keeping Kulikov for another season instead of trading him for a future asset. For one, it’s highly unlikely that he could fetch a first-rounder and they’ll need someone who can eat minutes in the NHL now if they move on from Shattenkirk. Kulikov could also be retained for another year at a very affordable price. Otherwise, they would be counting on Helleson or someone else to make the leap in 2023-24.

Beyond that, the 2024-25 season and those afterward will be about Mintyukov and a few others pushing their way into the mix. It isn’t easy to project. As of now, it’s hard to plug college prospects Jackson LaCombe and Henry Thrun in there, given that both decided against signing with the club. A commitment from either or both will get them in the picture. But there’s enough to have the future covered off with picks like Ian Moore, Tyson Hinds, Noah Warren and Tristan Luneau. Then there’s always the option of going outside the organization to fill holes.

Salary cap watch

The Ducks were set to be in good shape when Verbeek took over and they built on that, shedding more than $9 million of cap hit with the Lindholm and Manson trades. With plenty of space even after adding forwards Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano, the added cushion allowed them to throw $7 million at Klingberg.

But they’re not tied into anyone long-term outside of Fowler, whose $6.5-million number runs for four more seasons. Klingberg has his one-year contract and Shattenkirk’s deal at $3.9 million AAV ends after this season. Kulikov’s $2.25 million AAV was taken on with his acquisition. But Benoit and Mahura are on expiring deals worth $750,000. Vaakanainen ($850,000) is also at a low figure for two seasons.

The big change for upcoming seasons could not only come if Klingberg were to re-sign with Anaheim but when it’s time for Verbeek and assistant GM Jeff Solomon to do Drysdale’s next deal. Drysdale is entering the final year of his entry-level and another point-producing season could result in a solid pay bump on a bridge deal or a larger bet on a long-term contract to run up to his UFA years.

Special teams

The development here is where will Klingberg’s power-play usage cut into the time others had previously. In Dallas, the Swede played more than anybody on it as he averaged a little under three minutes per game. The Ducks typically don’t get a lot of power plays – they had 219 compared to the Stars’ 241 – and so it’s possible he won’t get as many opportunities.

Fowler, Drysdale and Shattenkirk all averaged approximately two minutes, with Fowler and Drysdale often trading off between the units and Shattenkirk usually appeared on the second group. Vaakanainen got a few looks on the power play upon his arrival but he’ll be down the pecking order.

Penalty killing has often been left to Fowler and Shattenkirk. Those two will again play a prominent role and there could be minutes for Benoit and Vaakanainen to earn as Klingberg did little of it with the Stars. This is a spot where Kulikov can make an impact. He was second among Wild defensemen in penalty-killing time, trailing only Jonas Brodin.

In the pipeline

The Ducks have amassed a bucket full of intriguing prospects to get set up for future seasons. It starts with the 18-year-old Zellweger, who in the eyes of some was the best defenseman in Canadian major junior hockey last season and the winner of the Western Hockey League’s top defense honor. Zellweger turns 19 on Saturday.

Helleson, 21, could make his push toward Anaheim’s roster either this season or next. Axel Andersson, 22, could join Helleson in San Diego’s defense corps after playing his first full season with the Gulls. The stockpile was fortified with the addition of Mintyukov, Warren and Luneau in the draft, with Mintyukov joining Zellweger in offering some dynamic offensive ability from the blue line. There is also Hinds, who has played three seasons in the QMJHL.

And that doesn’t cover the college ranks. Thrun and Moore are teammates at Harvard, LaCombe is at Minnesota and Will Francis is at Minnesota-Duluth. Thrun and LaCombe opted to return for their senior seasons and it’s an open question as to whether one or both will sign or choose free agency.

Final assessment

The Ducks are back to having a more experienced group. Shattenkirk has played in 816 regular-season games. Fowler follows right behind with 811, Kulikov has been in 805 contests and Klingberg has played in 552. (You would have thought he’d been in more.)

Those four have seen a lot of hockey and they should give Anaheim a modicum of effectiveness on the back end. Finding the most effective tandems will be essential to maximize what they do best while minimizing their weaknesses. Teaming with the second-year Drysdale, the Ducks should be able to move the puck with some crispness and accuracy. Being able to defend well in their own end could be quite the challenge on many nights.

It is a blue line that is in transition and could continue to be as their prospects edge closer to the NHL. And it will be a job for Eakins and assistant coach Mike Stothers to bring out the best of what they’ve got for as long as they’re around.

(Top photo of Jamie Drysdale: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

.

Leave a Comment