Elliott: Ducks point to future while Kings' hope for boost from return of injured players

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Anaheim Ducks left wing Rickard Rakell (67) is congratulated by Jamie Drysdale.
Ducks forward Rickard Rakell, left, celebrates with forward Jamie Drysdale after scoring against the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 22. Rakell was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday. (John McCoy / Associated Press)

In six weeks as the Ducks’ general manager Pat Verbeek has made significant progress toward erasing five seasons’ stagnation under predecessor Bob Murray.

The Ducks have begun a massive overhaul that’s being engineered by Verbeek, who concluded a flurry of moves by trading winger Rickard Rakell to Pittsburgh just before Monday’s NHL trade deadline. Having correctly decided to turn the keys to the franchise over to the kids, Verbeek went all in. It’s the only way to go with a team that’s out of the playoffs but has a core of outstanding young players (think Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, Isac Lundestrom and Jamie Drysdale) who need to become leaders and grow in a more positive environment than they’ve had.

The Kings, trying to hold on to second place in the Pacific Division, are hoping for a boost from the return of key injured players after they welcomed defenseman Alex Edler (broken ankle) back last Thursday. General manager Rob Blake, who said he looked at some potential trades but “we also understood the situation we can get ourselves into the next few weeks when players start coming back,” acquired experienced defenseman Troy Stecher from Detroit on Sunday for the modest price of a seventh-round draft pick.

“We were pretty young on the back end the last few games,” said Blake, who added that Tobias Bjornfot (lower-body injury) and forward Viktor Arvidsson (lower-body injury) might join practice by the end of the week.

Blake also said he’s unsure if defenseman Drew Doughty, who suffered an upper-body injury on March 7, will return during the regular season. That’s worrisome. “It’s a little early to say. We’ll exhaust every option possible,” Blake said. “He’s out there skating now but not participating in drills. There will be an assessment with the doctor in next few days to understand next steps.”

For the Kings, making the playoffs is about giving their young players experience at playing under duress for an eventual Stanley Cup run. The stakes are higher for Stanley Cup contenders Florida, Tampa Bay and Colorado, which added impact players the past few days. So did Minnesota in acquiring goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in exchange for a conditional first-round pick.

Kings' Drew Doughty skates.
Kings' Drew Doughty skates during the second period against the Ducks on Feb. 25 at the Honda Center. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The Ducks’ moves have a much longer payoff timeline.

Verbeek got a sizable haul for Rakell, defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson and forward Nicolas Delauriers, impending unrestricted free agents who were going to be too expensive and want longer contracts than would fit with a team still years away from becoming a playoff force. His return: seven picks in the first three rounds of the next three NHL drafts, including a first-round pick this year from Boston for Lindholm plus a former first-round pick in 23-year-old defenseman Urho Vaakanainen and second-round picks in 2023 and 2024.

For Manson they got solid and poised defense prospect Drew Helleson, who played for the gold medal-winning U.S. world junior team in 2021 and U.S. Olympic team at Beijing. For Rakell, who hasn’t come close to the 33-goal production he had in 2016-17 or the 34 he scored in 2017-18, they got a second-round pick this year; forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon, who both bring expiring contracts; and 20-year-old goaltending prospect Calle Clang. The change of scenery and upgrade in surrounding skill level could revive Rakell. Deslauriers brought a third-round pick in 2023. Verbeek can easily leverage some of those picks into roster players this summer and continue the rebuild.

Verbeek also did the Vegas Golden Knights a favor by taking the remaining year and $5-million salary cap hit of winger Evgeni Dadonov off their hands, but he received a conditional second-round pick in 2024 and got off the Ducks’ books the contract of Ryan Kesler, who had a debilitating hip injury and hasn’t played in more than three years. John Moore, acquired by Anaheim in the Lindholm trade, also was sent to Vegas. Does he qualify for future Ducks alumni golf tournaments?

Among the biggest winners around the NHL the past few days were the Florida Panthers, who acquired former Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux and defenseman Ben Chiarot from Montreal. The Panthers, who have the NHL’s second-best record, have no first-round picks in the next three drafts. Their trade timeline was short. The same for Tampa Bay, which is trying to become the first team to win the Cup in three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders won four straight starting in 1980. The Lightning, which is up against the salary cap limit, paid a high price — conditional first-round picks in 2023 and 2024-to acquire forward Brandon Hagel from Chicago. But he’s coming up on restricted free agency, so he’s not a rent-a-player.

The Toronto Maple Leafs did well to acquire steady defenseman Mark Giordano from Seattle for two second-round picks and a third-rounder but didn’t fortify their goaltending, which has been plagued by injuries. The Cup drought in the Center of the Hockey Universe is nearly 55 years long, and the pressure to end it is intense from fans and media.

The Ducks are years away from competing for the Cup but at least they have a positive direction with Verbeek in charge. The overhaul is starting late but the stagnation is lifting.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.