Anaheim Ducks took big swings in NHL free agency, but made no contact

Coming out of the year-long NHL lockout that sacrificed the entire 2004-05 season, the Anaheim Ducks managed to sign reigning Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Scott Niedermayer to a four-year contract as a free agent.

It was, of course, a coup of the highest order, and it worked out better than anyone could have imagined. The do-it-all captain led the Ducks to the Stanley Cup in 2007. His No. 27 hangs in the rafters of Honda Center.

At one point, the Ducks could entice big-time free agents to come to Orange County, or to convince players to plant roots. Teemu Selanne came back after an early stint with the Ducks and played another nine years. Chris Pronger was fine with coming to Anaheim after requesting a trade from Edmonton. Ryan Kesler had the O.C. among his desired destinations after wanting out of Vancouver. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry chose to stay with eight-year extensions.

The Ducks walked into the start of free agency on Monday with more than $31 million of salary-cap space and a stated goal of upgrading the roster with proven talent — and of taking a sizable step forward after years of losing and collecting high draft picks. The day ended with them only re-signing low-cost depth players Urho Vaakanainen and Brett Leason.

The first step toward turning their fan base into “Orange Country” left it feeling kind of blue. Or even red, with anger.

General manager Pat Verbeek had better have an ace up his sleeve when it comes to reeling in a difference-maker to take the Ducks higher. It is nice to believe that talented young forwards such as Leo Carlsson, Mason McTavish and Cutter Gauthier, along with a stable of talented young blueliners, will be at the heart of their next playoff team. Anaheim also welcomed No. 3 pick Beckett Sennecke and fellow first-rounder Stian Solberg into the fold this weekend, but patience is starting to wear a bit thin among the orange populace.

Maybe a big move is still to come, through a seismic trade. The Ducks can pull one off, thanks to massive financial flexibility, a solid stable of intriguing prospects and, maybe most importantly, roster players that can help teams win now. There is no excuse to not get something notable done. A trade is the only way to go, because the market for signing an impact free agent dried up quickly.

Monday was a big bag of nothing. And their inaction didn’t go unnoticed. Bruce Boudreau, who coached Anaheim to four division titles and a Western Conference final appearance in 2015, weighed in on TSN.

“Even San Jose, good moves or bad moves, they’re making moves,” Boudreau said. “Chicago’s making moves to try to improve their team. What has Anaheim done? They’re sitting there. They’re hoping their young guys are going to be OK, but their fan base is not five million strong like Toronto. It’s very limited.

“You got to start putting a good team in Anaheim, and I don’t know if Pat Verbeek has done that right now.”


Of course, we don’t know the full picture of the Ducks’ inability to acquire a top-six right wing and/or a top-four defenseman. For instance, The Athletic learned from league sources that the Ducks made big offers to Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Marchessault, both of whom ultimately signed in Nashville. The Ducks took their swings. They just didn’t connect.

Nashville did … on both. Predators GM Barry Trotz was a big-game hunter Monday and nabbed Stamkos, Marchessault and Brady Skjei for $108.5 million, on top of re-upping star goalie Juuse Saros for almost $62 million. It isn’t known what Verbeek’s offers were for Stamkos (who got four years, $32 million) and Marchessault (who got five years, $27.5 million) but the Ducks easily could have fit in either of those deals and also kept the future in mind when it comes to the next contracts for their young standouts.

Any worry over stashing cap space for when it’s time to pay McTavish or Carlsson, Pavel Mintyukov or Lukas Dostal is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the cap is projected to sharply rise again in 2025-26, perhaps to $92 million. But there isn’t anyone among the younger group that has yet emerged as a true star, the kind of franchise-shaping leader that Niedermayer and Getzlaf were.

Stamkos has long been that. And he can still play. The 34-year-old made sense as a target for Verbeek, who knows him from his years in the Tampa Bay front office. Verbeek was able to woo longtime Lightning winger Alex Killorn to Anaheim last summer. Marchessault would have been a nice fallback. He’s 33, but the now-former Vegas heart-and-soul scorer is a recent Conn Smythe Trophy winner who had a career-best 42 goals this past season.

The Ducks don’t have that element on their roster — an elite player who is accustomed to winning. And that’s a reflection of where they are now, an intriguing team that wants to play meaningful games in March and April after years of selling at trade deadlines and playing out the string. They’re not the Predators, who were a playoff team and had the cap space to forcefully lean into further contention.

That’s what players such as Stamkos and Marchessault want as they play out their final years. It’s one thing to believe a team will win, to put faith in a vision. It’s another to start planning a Stanley Cup push from Day 1.

“I’m at a point in my career, I just don’t want to play hockey games,” Marchessault said in an TSN interview. “I want to win hockey games. Going (to Nashville), everybody’s on the same page and we want to win. Definitely excited to get there.”

Another factor could be that Tennessee has no state tax state, which seems to be a growing topic of conversation. Southern California weather can’t be beat, but keeping more of one’s paycheck can still win out for some.

The Ducks have had to overpay forwards such as Killorn and Ryan Strome in the last two offseasons. Years of losing have prevented Anaheim from being seen as a desired destination. And this might be what Verbeek is running into now, trying to convince targets that great times for the franchise are ahead. But he can still change the narrative with a trade for an established top-tier piece (Hi there, Mitch Marner!) or someone who covets a front-line role (How’s it going, Martin Nečas?).

That’s how they’ll bring a big name to “Orange Country” these days. It was a whisper-quiet Day 1 of free agency in Irvine. There’s more unsettling noise emerging from more fans, though. Patience doesn’t last forever.

(Photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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