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Ducks’ Pat Verbeek stays mum on John Gibson, says youngsters can improve

Pat Verbeek had answers for virtually every question thrown at him during his first meeting with reporters since the Ducks finished their season two weeks ago. Specifics are a different matter. And the first-year general manager didn’t have a response when it comes to a question that’s already been talked about.

How does John Gibson feel about the rebuilding plan that has been fully enacted?

When asked if he has spoken with his goaltender about how Gibson views his own future in Anaheim, Verbeek said he hasn’t and chose not to elaborate. To provide the full context, it is a topic neither has met to discuss or comment on in an open forum. But they’re expected to get together soon. Gibson was not around at the Ducks’ final player availability after receiving treatment for an injury he suffered in the first period of the season-ending loss at Dallas, which ultimately resulted in an emergency backup goalie playing his only NHL game.

There has been speculation about Gibson and whether he is willing to ride out the rebuild that Verbeek sent into overdrive when he dealt away Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, Josh Manson and Nic Deslauriers. Gibson, who strongly expressed his desire to win, is signed through 2027 and was having an All-Star level season until he and the Ducks had a serious drop-off in the second half to fall out of playoff contention.

Moving those four potential unrestricted free agents played a role in an 8-21-5 record after the All-Star break. But Verbeek, who has been decisive in reshaping the organization since his hiring on Feb. 3, has no regrets toward cutting heavily into the roster. He followed through on his initial statement that he would not let any of his prominent UFAs walk away without getting something in return if he could not re-sign any of them.

It would have been the case even if the Ducks had continued winning after the break.

“It was unavoidable,” Verbeek said Friday. “At the end of the day, the players have the right to make the decisions that they wanted to make. Whether the team was in the playoffs or not, I got the sense that I wasn’t going to have a chance to re-sign them. That’s kind of when I decided to go a different way.”

The task he now has ahead this summer is reconstructing the Ducks after the spring teardown. Without those veterans and with Ryan Getzlaf now in retirement, Anaheim is going to be built around Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, Jamie Drysdale and, presumably, Mason McTavish. All are age 24 and younger, with Zegras being named a Calder Trophy finalist as the NHL’s top rookie, Terry blowing up into a 30-goal scorer and Drysdale being one of three first-year defensemen to record 30 or more points.

On Friday, Verbeek was in Toronto to scout McTavish as his Hamilton Bulldogs were to play Game 4 of its second-round Ontario Hockey League playoff series against the Mississauga Steelheads. The 19-year-old McTavish, who started his season with the Ducks and played for Canada in the Olympics, has eight goals and 13 points in seven OHL playoff games. He has averaged 1.58 points over 38 regular-season and postseason contests while honing his game as a center.

It is the first time Verbeek has been able to see him live, but he added there may be numerous viewings of the 2021 No. 3 pick in the future given how Hamilton has yet to lose any of its seven playoff games. McTavish is a key to the Ducks’ future, as are the Zegras-Terry-Drysdale trio that he considers core pieces.

“I thought they had nice seasons,” Verbeek said. “But, as I told all three of them, there’s so much more upside. I think there’s so much more upside into where their games can go. I gave them specific areas that they need to improve in, that I’m looking for them to improve in. And I think if they look at those specific areas and really attend to them, I think things will improve drastically for the Anaheim Ducks with those three players.”

Increasing their speed and strength figure to be part of what he’s asking for. Those two areas are what he wants to improve upon across the entire roster, if not the organization. To their speed, Verbeek simply said, “We’re not as fast as the rest of the NHL.” And to their physicality, the GM added, “We have the compete, but the strength isn’t there. It’s not. It’s not good enough, no.”

There were other takeaways from Verbeek’s 20-minute discussion:

An active summer could be at hand

The most notable move the Ducks made in the final offseason of Bob Murray’s long run as GM was the revamping of the coaching staff under Dallas Eakins. This summer doesn’t figure to be so quiet on the player personnel said as Verbeek could be as aggressive as he wants to be with loads of draft picks and salary-cap space at his disposal.

Free agency is the quickest way to add to the roster and no assets other than cold, hard cash are needed to bring in players. But the Ducks could look toward the trade market that may have some big names (Jakob Chychrun, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, etc.) to inject some proven NHL talent into a lineup that can support their young core. They’ve got two first-round picks — the 10th and possibly 23rd selections, the latter of which is Boston’s and could change depending on how far they go in the playoffs — as well as two second-rounders for this year along with their first-round pick and three second-rounders in 2023.

“There’s lots of possibilities,” Verbeek said. “There’s lots. Whether we’re going to be able to execute them, that’s another (story). You could talk about the free-agent market. There’s going to be lots of people competing for the same players we are. … We’re going to sell and make our pitch. But at the end of the day, in the free-agent market, the players are going to decide.

“Now, will there be other opportunities as far as trades? Absolutely there’ll be opportunities. But I can’t tell you what they are. I have no idea. There’s teams that came forward that I had no idea would come forward at the trade deadline. That’s going to be the same thing that’s going to happen just prior to the draft. I’m sure that’s what’s going to happen.”

Traditionally, Anaheim hasn’t been looked upon as a prime destination for top free agents. Part of that has been the Ducks at times adhering to a lower internal budget than the cap and their general philosophy of leaning toward draft and development of their prospects in building out their rosters.

But with $40 million available in cap space — $19 million of which must be spent just to push the team over the floor on player expenditures — Verbeek could do more than dip his toe into free agency. On occasion, the GM has mentioned selling the virtues of playing in Anaheim to prospective players on the market.

“I think there’s a thousand more percent positives than there are negatives to play in Anaheim, I can tell you that,” he said. “There’s lots to sell on Anaheim. Lots to sell.”


The Canucks’ J.T. Miller had 99 points last season. (Bob Frid / USA Today)

Coaching vacancies to be addressed

Geoff Ward’s work toward improving the Ducks’ power play over his one season with the club produced results as they went from last in the NHL in 2020-21 — with the 8.9 percent success rate being the worst mark in modern history — to 14th in 2021-22.

The veteran NHL assistant (and one-time Calgary head coach) resigned for personal reasons that Verbeek would not get into. He did say there has been discussion with Eakins on a replacement. Newell Brown, who ran Anaheim’s forwards and has run power plays with multiple teams, remains on staff.

“We’re not sure how we want to (go about it) right now,” Verbeek said. “We’re going to take a little time to decide exactly what our needs are and what we want. We haven’t made a final decision on the parameters of the kind of guy that we’re looking to get. It’s kind of really wide open from that aspect.”

Verbeek also made the notable decision to fire San Diego Gulls coach Joel Bouchard and assistants Daniel Jacob and Max Talbot after only one season, using the term “reset” as to his reasoning and that it wasn’t necessarily about him and Bouchard not meshing. It was Verbeek’s call, though the GM has already hired Rob DiMaio to run the AHL team among his duties as a third assistant GM in Anaheim.

“Everyone needed a fresh slate and that was the reason,” Verbeek said. “And it wasn’t really any deeper than that. There’s certain things that happened over the course of the year — I really don’t want to get into that sort of stuff. But I just felt that everyone needed a clean slate. Joel needed a clean slate, and his staff needed a clean slate. And so did I.”

No concern over unsigned college prospects … yet

Jackson LaCombe and Henry Thrun, two left-shooting defensemen the Ducks took in the 2019 draft, opted to stay in school and play their senior seasons with their college teams rather than sign entry-level deals with the Ducks.

The longer LaCombe and Thrun go unsigned after they finish the 2022-23 NCAA season, the more it opens the possibility that they could explore free agency and open themselves up to all 32 teams. At present, Verbeek isn’t showing any concern about possibly losing either prospect.

“The last I communicated with them, they were committed to signing with the Ducks, but they felt they needed another year of school to kind of round out their game to make themselves better prepared for the pro game,” he said.

LaCombe, a second-round pick, led Minnesota’s defense with 30 points in 39 games as the Golden Gophers reached the Frozen Four. Thrun, a fourth-round pick who previously told The Athletic that he would attend Anaheim’s prospect development camp this summer, had seven goals and was Harvard’s third-leading scorer with 32 points in 35 contests.

No word on his own free agents

While he is in position to be aggressive this summer, Verbeek has his own free agents to consider re-signing or letting walk. He offered little as to the direction he’ll go on his UFAs or RFAs, the latter of which he can issue qualifying offers to retain negotiation rights.

The list of RFAs is more notable. Centers Isac Lundestrom and Sam Steel, left wing Sonny Milano and defenseman Urho Vaakanainen top that list. Only Vaakanainen doesn’t have arbitration rights. Meanwhile, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon — two forwards he acquired from Pittsburgh in the Rakell deal — are among the UFAs on his plate. Verbeek gave nothing away in terms of whom he’s looking to re-sign.

“We’re going to go through the process of analyzing and deciding,” he said. “I haven’t met with my pro staff yet or my inner office as far as hockey ops. That’s still quite a ways away yet in my opinion.”

(Top photo of John Gibson: Debora Robinson / NHLI via Getty Images)

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