On the incremental destruction of Anaheim's defense

What was once an incredibly deep and mobile group has become a shell of its former self due to a series of moves that were not bad in isolation, but had a tremendous accumulative effect on the team.
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Remember when the Anaheim Ducks had one of the deepest defense corps in the NHL? It seems like eons ago, but in reality it has been just two seasons. With the Ducks wallowing at the bottom of the standings in the West, it feels like an autopsy is in order to diagnose exactly what happened to a once-proud team. Because this is rock-bottom for Anaheim.

While the organization has some nice prospects coming up, it’s going to be tough for the Ducks to immediately rebound from this season’s cratering and asset management at the NHL level must be considered.

To begin, let’s take it back to 2016-17, when the Ducks won the Pacific Division with 105 points, then went all the way to the conference final before losing to the Nashville Predators. The defense corps from that run featured Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour as the regulars, with Kevin Bieksa and Korbinian Holzer also seeing action. That top six is super-impressive, especially since all of them can move the puck and even break down evenly in terms of left- and right-handed shots. Plus, Theodore and Montour were still on their way up – they were rookies at the time.

So what happened? Well, Vegas happened, for starters.

The Ducks traded Theodore to the Golden Knights, thus protecting Vatanen or Manson from getting pinched in the expansion draft (the Knights took Clayton Stoner instead). This was bad, but complicated: Anaheim were forced to protect Bieksa, who had a no-move clause, plus the Ducks elected to guard seven forwards and three defensemen, as opposed to four of each. If Bieksa hadn’t been given that NMC originally, the Ducks could have kept Manson and Vatanen on their list (with Fowler and Lindholm) – though that would have made for some interesting decisions at forward.

Nonetheless, the Ducks lost a very good young D-man to Vegas. Then, early on in the 2017-18 campaign, Anaheim found itself in deep injury trouble. Centers Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Rickard Rakell were all out of the lineup, so GM Bob Murray pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Vatanen to New Jersey in exchange for pivot Adam Henrique. As a 1-for-1 swap, it was a pretty reasonable deal and Henrique has brought some decent secondary scoring to the team in his one-and-a-half years of service. But it also meant another puckmover gone on the back end.

Fast-forward to this season’s trade deadline, when the Ducks sent Montour to Buffalo for prospect Brendan Guhle and a 2019 first-rounder. Anaheim saved some money on the deal and got a good pick, but Montour is also more of a sure thing than Guhle. Obviously the move was made with an eye on the future and with the Ducks sitting near the bottom of the conference, it was understandable.

The end result of these moves? An Anaheim blueline that is a shadow of what it once was. Fowler, Lindholm and Manson are still there, but the other three defensemen against St. Louis on Wednesday night were Holzer, Jaycob Megna and rookie Jacob Larsson. The unit has more size, but much less mobility. The Ducks are also one of the worst teams in the league, despite some excellent netminding performances from John Gibson. They are bottom-five in shots against per game and bottom-five in possession.

Taken in isolation, none of Anaheim’s moves were indefensible. But as a collective? They’ve knee-capped a team that not long ago was a titan in the West. The rebuild is on its way, despite some nasty contracts that Murray will have to deal with (Kesler and Corey Perry being the most onerous in that category). And a new coach will definitely be an improvement over the dismissed Randy Carlyle, whose style simply doesn't work in today's faster game. But it’s amazing how fast things can change in the NHL these days.

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