On Friday evening, the Anaheim Ducks traded a 2025 fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for right-shot defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin. Lyubushkin, 29, will be heading into the second year of a two-year contract that carries an average annual value (AAV) of $2.75 million. The 6-2 201 lbs defenseman from Moskva, Russia, played 68 games for the Buffalo Sabres in 2022-23 while tallying two goals, twelve assists and averaging 15 minutes of ice time per game.
The 2023-24 season will be Lyubushkin’s fifth in the NHL, and the Ducks will be the fourth team he’s played for. The Arizona Coyotes signed him as a 24-year-old undrafted free agent out of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL before the 2018-19 season. In his five-year career, he has played 279 games and hasn’t missed significant time due to injury.
The Ducks will send the Sabres a 2025 fourth-round pick in this deal. The pick being sent was acquired from the Minnesota Wild, along with Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterenko, at the 2023 trade deadline in exchange for John Klingberg.
What He Brings
Ilya Lyubushkin is the epitome of a classic defensive defenseman. He is a smart and structured defender, rarely out of position or losing an assignment in the defensive zone. He uses his stick well to break up plays and challenge shooters. He’s an adept battler in dirty areas and excels at clearing the front of the net. His gap tends to be a tad larger than desired, but it doesn’t tend to affect his game negatively too much.
With the puck on his stick, it’s “the simpler, the better” for Lyubushkin. He isn’t the most mobile or fluid skater but remains powerful, nonetheless. His stick handling can be choppy, and he can be susceptible to turning the puck over when forced to make a high-skill play. He won’t be leading any rushes or activating too much in the offensive zone. What he can provide from an offensive perspective is the ability to win puck battles and quickly move it to a supporting teammate or move it to safety. “Meat and potatoes” is a term that best exemplifies Lybushkin’s game.
Lyubushkin is best suited for a bottom-four (likely bottom pair) role in the lineup where he isn’t asked to contribute to the scoresheet or match up against opposing top lines too often. He plays his best with a two-way, responsible, and mobile defensive partner. Over the last two seasons, he has played his best hockey alongside players like Riley Stillman and Travis Dermott. In 2023-24 for the Ducks, if one were to wager, a safe bet would be to say that he will start the season paired with the likes of Colton White or Jackson LaCombe (or a combination of the two), playing bottom-pair minutes. He was on the Sabres’ top penalty-killing unit for a sizable portion of the season in 2022-23, so one could assume he would find himself in a similar situation for the Anaheim Ducks in 2023-24
The addition of Lyubushkin to the right side of the Anaheim Ducks blueline indicates that fellow right-shot blue-liner, 22-year-old Drew Helleson, will more than likely start the 2023-24 season for the San Diego Gulls of the AHL. Helleson and fellow 22-year-old, Jackson LaCombe, are the only Ducks defensemen under contract with NHL experience who are waiver exempt, so if one is likely to make the roster out of training camp, the other will likely be sent to the AHL. The inclination is to give the edge to LaCombe at the moment simply based on the left side of the Ducks’ blueline being slightly less fixed. Anaheim Ducks General Manager Pat Verbeek has stated that he will be patient with his young players and will elect to be overly certain they are ready to make the jump into a full-time role at the NHL level.
Lyubushkin is in the last year of his contract and carries a favorable cap hit. If, and when, the Ducks find themselves out of striking distance of a playoff spot come the 2024 trade deadline, Lyubushkin could prove to be a desirable piece to a contending team looking to solidify their defensive unit. Lyubushkin could possibly even be traded for the same value or even higher value than he was brought into Anaheim for.
On the surface, the Anaheim Ducks traded for Ilya Lyubushkin with hopes he will provide stability in the defensive zone to a team that desperately lacked it a season ago while providing insulation to a team attempting to transition their way out of a long rebuild with several young players on the roster.