Off-season report: Anaheim Ducks gambling on their kids
Coming off a Pacific Division title and franchise-record 116-point season, and having fallen one game short of knocking off the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings in the second round of the playoffs, the Ducks committed themselves to an aggressive roster renovation this summer.
For all Anaheim's success, GM Bob Murray was right to remodel his team. The Ducks were flawed last season—a bit old, a bit slow, a bit thin down the middle and a bit behind the curve in the possession game. Left as is, Anaheim would have been in the mix to contend again. But with the rest of the teams in the West making their own home improvements, Murray recognized that he couldn't expect better results if he stood pat.
He started by making one of the most boldest strikes of the summer, filling a long-standing need for a No. 2 center by shipping Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and a first-round pick to the Canucks for Ryan Kesler. The veteran pivot is far removed from his Selke Trophy form and his history of injuries make him a health risk, but he scored a team-high 25 goals last season and he's under contract for two more years with a very friendly cap hit of $5 million. Playing a protected role behind Ryan Getzlaf, Kesler gives the Ducks a 1-2 punch down the middle that can match up with any in the conference. He'll be a difference maker.
The only other addition of note up front was free agent winger Dany Heatley, who was signed to a one-year, $1 million deal. The play of the former 50-goal scorer had deteriorated to the point where he was limited to fourth-line duty (or relegated to the press box) on many nights with the Wild last season, but his new contract is essentially a lottery ticket. If he's as bad as he looked last year with Minnesota, Heagley can be buried without doing serious damage to the Ducks' cap situation. But if he can find some chemistry with Getzlaf or Kesler and chip in 20 goals, then he's found money.
Murray cut ties with several aging forwards, including Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Daniel Winnik and Mathieu Perreault, who, surprisingly, was fourth on the team last season with 43 points. Anaheim will miss Perreault's secondary offense and presence in the face-off circle, where he led the Ducks with a 52.6% success rate.
But the departure of veterans creates opportunities for one of the top farm systems in the league. Devante Smith-Pelly, Emerson Etem and Rickard Rakell, all of whom impressed in short bursts last season, will be asked to bring speed and energy to the lineup, in addition to picking up the offensive slack. Expecting the kids to deliver consistently requires a leap of faith, but there's enough depth in the system that if one of them stumbles, Murray has options.
While the moves up front are easy to understand, the GM's decision to replace Sbisa on the blue line with Wild castoff Clayton Stoner has drawn lots of criticism. On the plus side, Stoner has size (6' 3", 216 pounds) and was solid for the Minnesota in the playoffs—he might bring the sandpapery presence the team needs for hard games against the Kings and the Sharks. But committing four years and $13 million to a 29-year-old who is destined for spot duty on the third defense pairing is tough to justify, especially since he's a lefty on a team that desperately needed a right-handed shot.
Long-time starting goalie Jonas Hiller was allowed to depart via free agency, leaving the No. 1 job in net up for grabs between rookie John Gibson and sophomore Frederik Andersen. Despite the excellent pedigree of Gibson, who was brilliant in his limited exposure last season, and the solid debut of Andersen, it's a risky call to put a Cup contender in the hands of a pair of kids. Jason LaBarbera was signed as a free agent to provide a safety net, but after he spent most of last season in the AHL it would be a disaster if the 34-year-old was asked to put in time between the pipes for the Ducks. Keep Anaheim in mind as a possible home for one of the remaining free agent netminders (Martin Brodeur, Tim Thomas, and maybe even former Duck Ilya Bryzgalov) if one of the kids goes south.