“I’m hopeful to have him back before Christmas, but that’s all I’m going to say for right now,” Murray said of the gritty center whose get-under-your-skin meanness has made him Public Enemy No. 1 in most NHL rinks.
Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, who both underwent shoulder surgery on May 30, also won’t be ready for the start of the season. Murray said Nov. 1 is the general target for their return but he will be cautious with the two young defensemen.
“They’re looking fine, they’re shooting the puck fine, but that’s our future,” he said.
Despite losing one of their top two centers and a good chunk of last season’s defense corps, the Ducks weren’t panicking as they opened training camp Friday at Anaheim Ice. They’re counting on their developmental system and their determination to carry them until the injured players return, and beyond.
“We always talk about opportunity and there’s no greater opportunity created than when you have injuries to your lineup,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “And we’re not going to replace those players with a specific player. It’s going to have to be by committee. … We conveyed that message, that there are some opportunities here at camp that normally wouldn’t be available, and this is the scenario that’s been created. Now it’s up to them and us to find the right people to plug in the holes.”
Rickard Rakell will move from wing to center in camp and in exhibition games, a viable solution. Rakell had a career-best 33 goals in 71 games last season and could be even more creative at center.
“It’s tough to replace him and I’m not going to try and play his game,” Rakell said of Kesler. “I’m just going to try to play like myself and do as good as I can.”
That could be very good.
On defense, the Ducks will have Francois Beauchemin — back for a third stint at 37 — to play the role of mentor, if not the physical role he played in their 2007 Stanley Cup championship. Brandon Montour is ready for bigger minutes and Carlyle praised 19-year-old Josh Mahura, 21-year-old Marcus Pettersson and 24-year-old Andy Welinski for their performances in rookie games. Jacob Larsson, the team’s first-round pick in 2015, was slowed by a swollen knee but is still expected to contend for a job.
“I think if you can just get out and have a good start and get those guys back whenever they’re ready, it would be an ideal situation,” Beauchemin said. “I think we have a lot of depth on this team. We got a lot guys that can jump in and fill out those roles with the support of the younger guys.”
The Ducks edged out Edmonton last season to win their fifth straight Pacific Division title, and the Oilers haven’t hit stride yet. But in losing the Western Conference finals to Nashville the Ducks learned that finishing first isn’t as important as finishing at full strength, or reasonably close to that.
They missed the scoring of Patrick Eaves, who had a high ankle sprain, and they suffered when goaltender John Gibson sustained a hamstring injury, leaving an overwhlemed Jonathan Bernier in net for what became their finale. That was one of many worrisome hip and groin problems Gibson, 24, has had during his young career. Murray said Gibson went to Vancouver over the summer to meet a goaltending conditioning expert and “worked a little bit harder on his hips and his stomach,” with the aim avoiding such injuries.
“That’s got to be eliminated from his game. He knows that,” Murray said. “That’s why he pushed this. He pushed going there. He knows that can’t continue if he wants to be a No. 1 goaltender.”
It also helps that Murray signed veteran Ryan Miller to be Gibson’s backup. Miller, who played behind a bad Vancouver defense last season, can be a role model for Gibson and can push him hard.
Gibson said he developed a training regimen he can continue through the season and said he didn’t see the Ducks’ signing of Miller as a threat or prod.
“Any time you sign a good player, it’s good for the team. I think he’ll help the team,” Gibson said. “You need depth, no matter what position you’re at.”
The Ducks’ depth will be tested from the start, but Murray said his preseason speech will be the same as last year’s.
“Just make the playoffs. This first-place stuff, it’s happened. It’s good. Good for them,” he said. “But just make the playoffs because anything can happen, especially if you have a sort of veteran group with us, and we have some good kids. If you can be healthy at the right time of the year in the playoffs and you make it, anything can happen.”