There probably won’t be many times during the 2023-24 season when the Anaheim Ducks will be a team that demands the NHL’s attention — but they’ll certainly fit the bill the rest of the offseason.
Not only did the Ducks make a few notable signings early in the free-agency period — bringing in Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas — they positioned themselves to become power brokers in the weeks to come.
That’s because Anaheim’s remaining cap space ($27.098 million) gives them financial resources unlike any other team in the NHL. To put that number in perspective, it’s $9.886 million more than the team with the next most space in the Chicago Blackhawks.
Anaheim is also the only team currently below the salary-cap floor of $61.7 million and its room accounts for 18.1% of available funds in the entire league.
It’s not as if the Ducks have too many holes to fill, either. While their roster isn’t much better than the group that produced the NHL’s worst goal differential last season (-129) it is relatively complete with 20 active players. Contracts for prominent RFAs Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry will eat into the remaining cap space, but not enough to totally shift the paradigm.
Anaheim is sitting on a treasure trove, and dipping into the late free-agent market doesn’t do them much good. Not only are there relatively few impact players remaining, most of them will be looking for short-term contracts that position them to cash in next year or the year after. Joining a team as far from contention as the Ducks is unlikely to be the best play for those guys.
Offering term isn’t the best strategy for the Ducks as they’ll want to spend money when their team is closer to making some noise. Even the Killorn and Gudas signings were debatable, although the team had so much cap space that cost efficiency didn’t matter much to it — and both veterans can be considered tone setters.
If splurging in free agency isn’t the best use of Anaheim’s funds, that leaves the team as a possible power broker on the trade market. That begins with the John Gibson situation which is murky as reports about the goaltender requesting a trade have been subsequently refuted.
Regardless of Gibson’s wishes, exploring a trade makes sense as he’s about to enter his thirties and Anaheim isn’t at a stage where deploying a veteran backstop is a priority.
Gibson is an interesting trade chip because he’s been a below-average goaltender by GSAA in four consecutive seasons and he’s coming off a rough 2022-23.
The statistics are not pretty, but there are still reasons to believe in Gibson’s talent based on what he achieved earlier in his career, and he’s too young to be over the hill. He’s also demonstrated admirable durability with six seasons with 50-plus appearances in the last seven years.
Adding Gibson with a $6.4 million cap hit over the next four years could be tough to stomach, but Anaheim is in a position to retain 50% of that. At $3.2 million, Gibson is at least intriguing, and the Ducks could contemplate a trade structure that has them taking an additional salary dump in the deal to maximize their return.
The Ducks could also play a role in facilitating significant trades between other teams in cases where big salaries are getting in the way. A possible Erik Karlsson deal is the most obvious example as they could step in to ease some short-term salary burden from whichever team is receiving the star — at a price.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs end up dealing William Nylander, they could wedge themselves into that deal, too. Although the winger’s price tag ($6.962 million) wouldn’t generally necessitate that kind of intervention, it could open the door for more teams to join the market.
While other teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes could act in a similar manner, the Ducks are in a unique position. The Blackhawks will be looking to ramp up as the Connor Bedard era begins and they only have six players under contract for 2024-25.
Even though Chicago has plenty of room, it figures to get eaten up quickly and taking on future salary burden could hurt what might be a speedy ascension.
The Coyotes are aiming for respectability and are looking to get out of the salary-dump game. Arizona is still looking at an uncertain future and wants to put a quality product on the ice, whether that’s a realistic goal or not.
Anaheim, on the other hand, only has the relatively distant future to play for, and its salary-cap room is the best weapon at its disposal. It has a resource on its hands that is extremely scarce around the NHL, giving it far more power than your average cellar dweller.