As the Ducks prepared to welcome the Buffalo Sabres to Honda Center on Tuesday night, results remained lean but the promise of Leo Carlsson continued to bulk up, as seen by his various flexes since returning ahead of schedule from a knee injury.
“He makes a big difference, he’s one of our few players who makes everyone around him better. When a 19-year-old is your best forward, it’s a good sign for the future,” Coach Greg Cronin said by phone.
Carlsson assisted on both of the Ducks’ goals against the New York Rangers on Sunday night – both scored by Adam Henrique – in a match they led 2-0 but ultimately lost 5-2. Henrique was the latest linemate to benefit from Carlsson’s vision, imagination and technical proficiency as a playmaker.
Alex Killorn, who will miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing knee surgery in the latest setback for the injury-maligned Ducks, and Troy Terry also experienced upticks in their production and dangerousness while playing with Carlsson.
Carlsson has notched three points in his last two games, but he made an impact instantaneously, playing a superb albeit scoreless game against the Florida Panthers in his first game back after spending nearly a month out of action. In a season when the Ducks have been in 19 one-goal games and led the league with 10 regulation losses in them (11 overall), offensive difference-makers have been more than welcome.
“Having a guy like that makes games more winnable,” said Cronin, crediting the rookie’s presence in large part for the victory in Florida. “He came back and it was like he didn’t miss a beat.”
Carlsson might not have the explosiveness of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, the net-peppering tenacity of Toronto’s Auston Matthews or the ability to make intricate plays at blazing speed of Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, but he could join their ranks as an elite center one day. Carlsson’s game is predicated on control, vision, strength, balance and cerebral qualities that are already well beyond that of most NHL centers before he could legally go on a beer run for the boys.
“He changes direction quickly and shifts speeds in a natural, efficient way. He dictates that the defender goes the way he wants him to go, and then he goes the other way,” Cronin said.
While the Ducks are beginning their transition in earnest with Carlsson and other cornerstones, some of whom haven’t even set foot on the ice (like tantalizing prospect Cutter Gauthier), Buffalo’s rebuild has taken on a perpetual feel.
They have the third-fewest points in the Eastern Conference, placing them on track to miss the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season. That would tie them with the NFL’s New York Jets for the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports leagues.
Attempting to prevent that possibility from becoming a reality are elite defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and breakout performer Casey Middelstadt, who leads the team in scoring as he realizes the potential the Sabres saw in him as a high-school prospect turned lottery pick. As the San Jose Sharks did in their 5-3 victory over the Ducks on Saturday when they got Logan Couture back, Buffalo might also get a key veteran into their lineup. Jeff Skinner has missed five games with an upper-body injury, but he might return against the Ducks.
BUFFALO AT DUCKS
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Honda Center
How to watch: ESPN+, Hulu