Ducks tweak roster and open up chances for young players

Gone is their vocal leader on defense, along with the energetic forwards who provided career seasons and valued bursts of productivity.

The blue line will have members aged 21, 23, 24 and 24 on opening night.

Yet, when General Manager Bob Murray was asked whether his Ducks are improved from the team that lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to the eventual-champion Chicago Blackhawks, he said ... yes, it is.

"This is a better team than it was before," Murray told The Times in an email.

The loss of veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin sapped leadership from the roster, but Murray reacted quickly last week by trading for 34-year-old defenseman Kevin Bieksa.

"Solid veteran and good leader," Murray said of Bieksa, who was a roommate for eight seasons in Vancouver with current Ducks second-line center Ryan Kesler. "Our leadership is strong, Bieksa is as good a leader as there is, and has been for years."

Recognizing that third-line center Nate Thompson could be out for the first two months of the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery, Murray considered that veteran presence by signing former Dallas Stars center and ex-Edmonton captain Shawn Horcoff, 36, to a one-year contract valued at $1.75 million.

"He's got a great track record as a leader, in addition to being able to play all three [forward] positions," Murray said.

But what about that exuberance that left Orange County when Matt Beleskey (22 goals) departed to the Boston Bruins via free agency … and when the Ducks traded 24-year-old forward Kyle Palmieri to New Jersey, and Emerson Etem, 23, to the New York Rangers?

"It does open up a chance for the young guys," Murray said. "Sometimes, you need to give young players an opportunity, and I'm very confident we have guys that can step in and fill that void."

The Beleskey spot on Kesler's line probably will go to Carl Hagelin, the rapid-skating forward who scored 17 goals and 35 points for the Rangers last season. He is expected to net a contract extension, considering Murray views the 26-year-old as perhaps the NHL's best penalty killer.

"Hagelin is a really good player, we are really excited to have him," said Murray, a minimalist when it comes to praise.

Former first-round pick Rickard Rakell, 22, gave indications he's poised for a breakout season after his nine-goal, 31-point campaign, and the center is expected to receive more ice time next season.

The Ducks traded for left wing Jiri Sekac last season, confident that he could progress rapidly. Forward Tomas Fleischmann provides reliability and rugged Tim Jackman helps maintain the physical edge that helped push the Ducks to the best record in the Western Conference last season.

Opportunity exists for young forwards Stefan Noesen and Marcus Pettersson to seize a roster spot in camp. Or Murray can acquire someone else since he has some salary-cap flexibility.

"There will be opportunity at some point to get another quality player, which could even take place during the season," Murray said. "We have money and opportunity going forward to improve the team, and we will look to do that.

"That said, I would also like to see what some of the kids can do. While it's possible we jump on [the] right player right away, we may just wait and see how the kids do and add during the season if the right player [comes] along. We have options."

That is the case in goal, where Frederik Andersen returns after starting every playoff game. John Gibson also is back after impressively spelling Andersen during a 10-game stretch in the spring. As insurance, the Ducks traded for former Carolina backup goalie Anton Khudobin.

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire

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