No question, this has been a season of loss for the Ducks, who clinched last place in the West Division with a 3-1 defeat Monday to the St. Louis Blues, but it’s also been a season of discovery for the rebuilding franchise. Some finds have been more significant than others.
Sure, teaming left wing Max Comtois with rookie center Trevor Zegras and right wing Troy Terry seems like a no-brainer now, after four productive games together. Coach Dallas Eakins could have gone in another direction, placing the young players with more veteran linemates.
The Kid Line has been the Ducks’ best line since Zegras, 20, was recalled April 28 from the San Diego Gulls of the AHL and slotted between Comtois, 22, and Terry, 23. In four games, they’ve combined for two goals, four assists, 34 shots on goal and a plus-6 defensive rating.
Best of all for the Ducks, Zegras’ infectious enthusiasm coupled with his wizardry with the puck on his stick have rubbed off on his linemates and everyone else he’s come into contact with since his recall. There are reasons to believe the Ducks have found an elite center and a top line for seasons to come.
“They’ve got some synchronicity going right now, and it’s fun to watch,” Eakins said after the Ducks’ 6-2 rout of the Kings in their home finale Saturday. “I think that’s very contagious, that kind excitement on the ice. We’ll look to build off of it.”
It’s not just about passing, shooting and scoring, though.
Zegras has won 24 of 45 faceoffs (53.3%), mostly while matched up against Anze Kopitar of the Kings and Ryan O’Reilly of the Blues. Kopitar is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and O’Reilly was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner during the Blues’ Cup run in 2019.
The Ducks reassigned Zegras to the Gulls after a 17-game stint in the NHL in which he had one goal and six assists as a left wing. He was sent down to transition back to his natural position as a center, to work on his faceoff efficiency, improve his defensive play and continue his growth.
Lessons have been learned.
“The thing I’ve been really impressed with in the first couple of games here is his responsible play without the puck,” Eakins said. “We know where he’s going to go with it. We’re never going to take that away from him. The thing I was a wee bit worried about was how he was going to play defensively.
“And so far he has done very, very well.”
Asked what makes Zegras a different player as a center, Eakins said:
“When he’s on his left wing, he’s constantly got these boards on his left side that limit his space. This kid can find space and the more space he can find, the more offense he can create. I’ve always equated offense to space. Putting him in the middle gives him a ton of room to make plays or find more space.
“That’s the biggest thing for me.”
The Ducks complete their season with games Wednesday against the Blues in St. Louis and Friday and Saturday against the Wild in St. Paul, Minnesota. Eakins has mixed and matched personnel all season, and it stands to reason that more experimentation might be in order.
When the Ducks reconvene for training camp, tentatively set for Sept. 22, the Comtois-Zegras-Terry line might be one that goes unchanged. Comtois is eligible to become a restricted free agent and isn’t likely to be on the move. Zegras and Terry are under contract for the next two seasons.
Of the three, Comtois plays a more physical role. Zegras is more skillful and adventurous. Terry plays a more responsible game, without forsaking the physical or skillful aspects of it. So far, after four games, they have meshed well.
Overall, Comtois leads the Ducks with 14 goals and 30 points, including one goal and one assist in the past four games. Zegras has two goals and eight assists, including one goal and two assists in the past four games. Terry has seven goals and 11 assists, including one assist in the past four games.
“I think it gives you a wee bit of a blueprint moving forward,” Eakins said. “There’s a real familiarity there. We’re still in the midst of this. For now, it does show you, if you get the right guys together with a certain skill set, they can certainly light up the building and have a positive effect on the game.
“I still think there’s still a ton of growth for all those players. They’re still early in their development process at this level. (But) there are a lot of things they are bringing to us right now and there’s going to be a ton more to bring as they get better and better.”
Ducks at St. Louis
When: 5 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Enterprise Center, St. Louis
TV: Bally Sports SoCal