Fifteen years ago, the Anaheim Ducks won their first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.
Five years ago, the Ducks made it to the Western Conference Final for the second time in three seasons.
But since then, it’s been a long and ugly struggle for Anaheim to do much of consequence. The Ducks haven’t made the playoffs in each of the past three years, and finished no higher than sixth place in all three of those years – including an eighth-place finish (and 31st overall in the league, ahead of only the awful Buffalo Sabres).
And this year? Does anybody know what Ducks GM Bob Murray’s plan is?
Does he really expect so many youngsters to make the leap and become impact NHLers this season? If you look at Anaheim’s roster, you’ll probably agree with observers who expect them to languish at the bottom of the weak Pacific division, and that’s saying something. They have a solid coach in Dallas Eakins, but not even the child of Scotty Bowman and Lou Lamoriello would be able to pull so much out of a group that’s so thin in proven NHL talent.
That may change if Anaheim utilizes its pool of prospects to acquire a true No. 1 center – Jack Eichel, anyone? – but the Sabres cannot let Eichel leave without getting a hefty haul in return, and the cost of acquiring him would leave the Ducks with holes in other areas of the lineup. Never mind the fact Eichel may have lingering injury issues; the truth is that, even if Eichel were at full-strength, this Anaheim squad would still be in a battle just to qualify for the playoffs, let alone go on a deep playoff run.
And let’s not forget, this is a Ducks team that set an NHL record last season for having the worst power play (8.94 percent) in league history, and that averaged a league-worst 2.21 goals-for per game. Anaheim’s best point getter, forward Max Comtois, put up 33 points – just 112th-best in the NHL. Star goalie John Gibson won only nine games, the fewest amount since his rookie season in 2013-14. In virtually every category that matters, the Ducks have so much ground to make up, and so few true star workhorses to get them to a better place.
Certainly, veteran talents such as wingers Rickard Rakell and Jakub Silferberg, and defensemen Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson and Kevin Shattenkirk all have something to contribute, but asking each of them to raise their games and give Gibson more goal support – and protection on the back end – feels like a bridge too far. Gibson’s backup, Anthony Stolarz, posted excellent numbers (2.20 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) last year, but he appeared in only eight games. The sample size, in other words, is too small for Eakins to lean on him for long stretches should Gibson struggle.
As noted above, Murray has lined up a deep group of prospects – probably a top-10-in-the-league group, for many scouts – but we all know that not every top prospect eventually goes on to flourish at the NHL level.
Youngsters such as defenseman Jamie Drysdale, and forwards Sam Steel, Trevor Zegras, Isac Lundeström, Troy Terry and Max Jones may yet develop into important players for the Ducks, but the hole they’re trying to climb out of necessitates that virtually all of those prospects have a linear, immediate improvement into first-rate NHLers, and while there is a likelihood that could happen, it isn’t a great likelihood.
The Pacific’s dearth of true Cup contender teams offers an opening to one or two teams who weren’t in the playoffs last season, but ask yourself, does this Ducks team look better than Vancouver, Calgary or the Los Angeles Kings this year? I think most people would shake their heads ‘no’.
When your most accomplished and experienced forward – in this case, center Ryan Getzlaf – is on the wrong side of age 35 and generated only five goals and 17 points in 48 games in 2021, it feels like we could be having this same conversation this time next year. Murray’s patience with his prospects could pay dividends at some point, but this season doesn’t look like it’s that point.
The Ducks have approximately $13.1 million in salary cap space, and Murray may be able to leverage that into improving his lineup over the long haul. But he also has a basically-untradeable contract in center Adam Henrique (two more seasons after this one, at a cap hit of $5.825 million), and 2022 unrestricted free agents in Lindholm, Manson, Getzlaf and Rackell. That’s going to affect what he can do in the long term. And nobody is going to do Murray any favors.
Maybe there’s more to Murray’s plan than he’s letting on. But maybe he’s out of solutions, and is turning to the kids because there’s no better answer.
Regardless, the Ducks’ reality is stark, and it doesn’t hold any guarantee their optimists will prove to be justified. Anaheim has been in a rough corner for approaching four years now, and as we’ve seen in Chicago, L.A. and Detroit, when your Cup-competitive window closes, it can be awful difficult to pry it open again. Their destiny isn’t yet decided, but projections that it doesn’t look terribly promising this year could be well-founded.