NASHVILLE – In his first full season as Ducks general manager, Pat Verbeek figured the team would be at .500 or close to it at this stage. Just past the first-quarter mark, those thoughts/hopes were wildly optimistic with the Ducks occupying last place in the NHL.
Inevitably when a team struggles the way the Ducks have this season, questions will arise about the future of the coach. Last season, the Ducks exercised the option on the contract of coach Dallas Eakins. Verbeek was asked Tuesday about the future of his coach and he answered noncommittally: “I haven’t even really thought of that. Dallas and the coaching staff’s mandate really has been the development of young players, than it was going to be more measured on wins and losses.
“When I look at young players, in the minors, it usually takes them to Christmas to find their feet and so I’m looking at it the same way with a bunch of our young players here. … That’s what I’m looking at with the whole group. I’m giving them some runway to find themselves.”
There will be continued evaluation of the coaching staff, just like a lot of players on the team, including defenseman John Klingberg, who hasn’t really met his potential. Verbeek brought in forwards Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano on the first day of free agency, and signed Klingberg to a one-year, $7-million contract at the end of July.
“I’ve been fine with Strome and Vatrano,” Verbeek said. “Obviously Klingberg’s had a rougher go of it. … When I spoke to him, he really believes in himself and is betting on himself. Having said that, for his game, he’s been trying to do too much out there versus trying to keep things a little more simpler.
“When he’s working the offensive blue line, and he’s trying to make that one extra move, instead of getting the puck to the net. The one time he does get the puck to the net and then it goes in the net for tying goal against Detroit. So those are the things I want to see out of him, a more simplistic game.
“And finding the opportunity to join the rush when he can. He doesn’t have to lead the rush all the time. He can join the rush.”
Verbeek used the word “roller-coaster” to describe the first quarter of the season and praised the team’s ability to come back in games. Of the Ducks’ struggling special teams, the penalty kill and power play, Verbeek said: “I hate to use the word terrible, but it’s close to there.”
There have been more negatives than positives, overall. Has this led to many sleepless nights now that he’s in the GM chair? “No,” Verbeek said, later adding. “Do I get frustrated with certain things? Certainly. Mistakes that get made during the game, for sure, you get frustrated with that. I was a player once too, so I understand. I just expect the player to try and come up the next day when they do have tough games to come up and try to get better.
“From that aspect, I’ve got a plan. I’ve laid out the plan, and I’m gonna follow the plan.”
Verbeek primarily likes what he has seen from the team’s leading scorer Troy Terry and, of late, rookie Mason McTavish but noted issues with Trevor Zegras’s consistency. Verbeek later said that there is no plan to name a captain this season and may wait a year or two.
“I think Troy Terry’s been outstanding, for us, starting to emerge and looks like a leader within our group,” Verbeek said. “Trevor’s game has been up and down. Some nights, really good. Some nights, I’d like to see him more impactful. And other nights he’s been great. For me, I’m looking for the consistency from him on a night-to-night basis.
“I think Mason has earned his way, starting to earn his way into more ice time, starting to earn his way into more special teams as far as the power play, so that’s all good. Jamie (Drysdale), unfortunately, with his injuries, we’ll have to wait for a little while for him.”
And what about the state of goaltender John Gibson?
“Although his stats are not very good, I’ve been really happy with John,” Verbeek said. “He’s competing hard every night. He’s giving the team a chance to win every night. I’m not sure what else I can ask out of John Gibson.”
One of the upsides of a down season is you can get a high draft choice, and in 2023, the draft has a potential franchise player at the top in Connor Bedard, and a couple of players who are projected as difference-makers, and depth beyond that. The Ducks clearly are in a rebuild and when you’re in a rebuild, to put a difference-making piece into the puzzle is not the worst thing at all.
“In order to be successful down the road, you have to have what I call franchise players,” Verbeek said. “You look at the Colorado Avalanche, it took them a while, probably 10 years to win the Stanley Cup. It also took the Tampa Bay Lightning about that amount of time too, to finally punch through and win a Stanley Cup.
“At some point, you have to get impact players. You have to get difference-makers. And so the way that system is set up – it’s a kind of trade your way or sign free agents to turn the group around.
“If you look at every franchise, all their key people are all signed for eight years. None of the top players are moving anywhere.”
The draft and development process requires patience and the ability to stick to the plan.
“Is it a quick process? No, it’s not.” Verbeek said. “And at times, it’s downright painful. But it’s the process. Along the way, you have just to make sure that you’re putting building blocks in place to build a good culture, to build winning habits. And those are important things as you go along in this process.”