Mailbag: Zegras opportunity with Ducks, West Division playoff teams

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Here is the Jan. 6 edition of Dan Rosen’s mailbag. If you have a question, tweet it to @drosennhl and use #OvertheBoards.

 

How many games do you see Trevor Zegras playing for the Anaheim Ducks this season? — @Mkton31

It’s hard to predict games, but there is an opportunity for Zegras to make an impact this season, and I’m not just saying that because of his brilliant play for the United States at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. The Ducks need scoring help; forward Adam Henrique led them last season with 43 points, the fewest among any NHL team scoring leader. Zegras’ hands and playmaking should give him an edge whenever he is allowed to get on the ice in Anaheim. The 19-year-old forward also is versatile enough that he can play on the wing or at center, which also gives him an advantage. And he will be coming in with momentum from having played important minutes in important games at the World Juniors. However, he wasn’t playing NHL games, which is why the Ducks may want to utilize a spot on the taxi squad for Zegras at the start of the season so he can practice with NHL players and get used to the pace. It would be his version of NHL training camp. When he’s ready, and it could be quickly, they can transition him to the roster and see what they have. They have a seven-game trial with him before they burn the first season of his entry-level contract. There’s time to get him acclimated after what likely will be a necessary quarantine, get him up to speed with their systems and their pace, then see what they have before making any final determination on what kind of player he might be for them this season. If it’s anything like we saw at the WJC, Zegras will be an important player and the Ducks may decide he doesn’t need any time on the taxi squad. We’ll see, but the Ducks have to be excited about what they have coming in after watching him tear up the WJC.

 

The first three spots in the West Division are obvious if you ask me: St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche. But the fourth spot is a lot harder to predict. Who do you think can finish among these other three teams? — @KBrunings

I agree with you on the first three spots. But the fourth is harder to predict. I wrote in a previous mailbag that I think the Minnesota Wild are one of the teams that benefit from realignment because of where they are in the Honda West Division. With no realignment, I think the Wild would struggle to finish in the top four, maybe even the top five, of the former Central Division. The Blues and Avalanche would be joined by the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets as teams I would predict to finish higher than the Wild if this were a normal season. But in the West, their main competition for fourth place is limited, in my opinion, to the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. I don’t see the Ducks or Los Angeles Kings as playoff contenders this season. Between the Wild, Coyotes and Sharks, I trust Arizona’s goaltending the most with Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta. But I don’t trust that the Coyotes will score enough to help them. I trust the Sharks will have an improved offense after finishing tied for 27th in the NHL with an average of 2.57 goals per game last season, assuming defenseman Erik Karlsson and forwards Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl stay healthy and productive. But I’m not sold on their goalies, Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk, especially behind defensemen who will jump into the play and push for more offense, possibly creating leaks on the back end. It’s throwing me off on the Sharks even though I wouldn’t be shocked if they had a strong enough season to finish fourth. I’m also not 100 percent sold on the Wild’s top two goalies, Cam Talbot and Alex Stalock, but I think they have more balance than the other two teams and rookie forward Kirill Kaprizov could be a revelation offensively. The Wild also are strong with defensemen Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin as their top four. And rookie goalie Kaapo Kahkonen could end up being the No. 1 at some point. The Wild are high on him, but he needs to play more games. It’s close, but I like the Wild to finish fourth in the division.

 

A 56-game season is obviously a very different matter compared to a normal 82-game season. In your opinion, what are the teams that will benefit more from a compressed schedule? Will quantity and a deeper roster matter less in the sense compared to skills and pure quality? — @statslotta

The keys to success will be roster depth, quality goaltending and familiarity with systems. Skills matter; you can’t win without them. But the deeper teams, the ones with two strong goalies and the ones who don’t have to practice systems too much because they’re engrained in the players, will be at an advantage in what undoubtedly will be an unpredictable season, particularly as it relates to potential last-minute roster issues. We can’t deny that COVID-19 will play a role because it has in every other sport. So roster depth matters, especially at center, defenseman and goalie — the down-the-middle part of the equation that always makes the biggest difference. And goaltending depth will be key because of how quickly the games will be played and how often teams will be playing against each other. We’re talking about a sprint of 56 games in 114-116 days, with a lot of back-to-backs and four games in six days against the same teams. Familiarity with systems is important because training camp already is short and there won’t be a lot of time in the regular season to get in quality practices.

It’s for those reasons that I believe teams like the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders in the MassMutual East Division, the Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets in the Discover Central Division, the Golden Knights and Avalanche in the West, and the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks in the Scotia North Division can thrive. They all meet the requirements above, and I think all eight will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

 

Who will be the odd person out in Tampa Bay once Nikita Kucherov is healed? The coming offseason will bring more salary headaches for Tampa Bay. — @DanMountSports

Let’s not worry about the odd person out yet because Kucherov is expected to be out for the entire regular season and we don’t know what the Tampa Bay Lightning roster will look like come playoff time, when he is expected to be ready to return. But beyond this season, the Lightning could be helped by the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft for the Seattle Kraken. I think of forward Tyler Johnson as a player Seattle might be interested in as a veteran, a leader and someone from the state of Washington. He was born in Spokane, about a four-hour drive from Seattle, but a home-state talent could help the Kraken on the ice and off it from a marketing and community relations standpoint. Johnson’s contract carries a $5 million charge against the NHL salary cap through 2023-24. From an on-ice perspective, the Lightning surely would miss his versatility. But from a business standpoint, clearing that $5 million would be beneficial in the long run. Let’s also consider that forward Ondrej Palat ($5.3 million cap charge) will be going into the final year of his contract next season before he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. And forward Alex Killorn ($4.45 million cap charge) is signed through the 2022-23 season. Johnson, Palat and Killorn are candidates to be in their last season with the Lightning, but I have to stress that it’s way, way, way too early to speculate further on that.

 

What do you think Jack Johnson‘s role will be this year for the New York Rangers? He obviously adds character and grit to a young team, but does he play at the expense of a young player like K’Andre Miller? — @jacob_bass_

The Rangers signed Johnson on the advice of assistant coach Jacques Martin, who worked with the defenseman the past two seasons when they were with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Martin was in charge of defensemen and the penalty kill with Pittsburgh; Johnson was tied with Kris Letang for the lead among Penguins defensemen with an average of 2:12 of shorthanded ice time per game. Johnson is in the mix for the third pair or the No. 7 defenseman spot with the Rangers. The top four is set with Jacob Trouba and Tony DeAngelo as one pair, and Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren as the other. Johnson, Brendan Smith, Anthony Bitetto, Libor Hajek and Miller are in the mix for what likely will be the remaining three spots on the depth chart before you get down to the taxi squad. Johnson will not stop Miller from getting playing time if he earns it. I see him as insurance for New York this season, buying time for Miller, Hajek and fellow defenseman prospect Tarmo Reunanen if they need it. Bitetto is in the same role. Smith technically is as well, but he’s more engrained with the Rangers and coach David Quinn likes his versatility to play either side and forward if necessary.

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