Despite the sting of another playoff elimination for the Ducks, there's plenty of optimism in Anaheim because of youth and cap space.
In the wake of a crushing Game 7 loss on Saturday night, Anaheim Ducks star Ryan Getzlaf honored his counterpart, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews as “a big-time player.”
That’s a compliment Getzlaf himself won't be hearing any time soon.
For the third straight year, his Ducks found themselves playing a Game 7 at home. For the third straight year, they came up short.
And for the third straight year, Getzlaf and linemate Corey Perry were soundly outplayed by the stars on the other side of the ice.
There’s still plenty of reason for optimism in Anaheim. The Ducks earned the top seed in the Western Conference and advanced to within one game of the Stanley Cup finals with a team that is one of the youngest in the league. There’s talent across the board in the organization and the Ducks sit comfortably under the cap.
But there’s no escaping the fact that the two players who define this club can't seem to get the job done. And there’s no reason to believe they can until they prove otherwise.
Sure, Getzlaf and Perry boast an impressive track record of success. The World Juniors in 2005. A Stanley Cup in 2007. Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014.
They made significant contributions to each of those championship squads...but always in a supporting role. Neither player has ever led a team to the top.
At 30, both still have time left on the clock to change that narrative, but that window won't stay open forever. The challenge for the organization then is to deepen the support around them and lighten the burden that they can't quite carry.
That starts with their left winger. Patrick Maroon's struggles to finish several high-end chances in Games 6 and 7 illustrates why an upgrade should be GM Bob Murray's top offseason priority. With little worth pursuing in free agency. Murray may have to part with some of his organizational treasure to acquire the missing piece.
Changes are coming to the second line as well. Pending UFA Matt Beleskey scored 1.32 goals per 60 minutes of ice time during the regular season, ranking him a surprising sixth-best in the league. He added eight goals in 16 playoff games, including the clutch OT winner in Game 5. It's a good bet some team will offer him a long-term deal worth $4.5-$5 million per season. It's a better bet that team won't be the Ducks. His loss will clear a spot for Emerson Etem or Jiri Sekac to skate alongside Ryan Kesler and Jakub Silfverberg. Both Silfverberg and Etem are RFAs. The promising but unproven Etem shouldn't expect much but Silfverberg, coming off a breakthrough season, will require a sizable raise.
Tomas Fleischmann, who saw spot duty during the playoffs, will be free to shop his services as a UFA. He'll likely be replaced on the roster by Chris Wagner, an energy-type winger better suited for a bottom-six role.
Starting goaltender Frederik Andersen flashed tremendous potential this spring, but wilted down the stretch. He never quite recovered his composure after allowing those two late goals to Jonathan Toews at the end of regulation in Game 5. And while no one's pointing fingers his way after Game 7, he allowed two goals on the first five shots he faced and four on the first 13. That's not good enough.
Andersen will be back, but he could be pushed for playing time by John Gibson...assuming the organization's top prospect can stay healthy. Together, the pair counts just over $1.8 million against the cap, or about 2% of the team's total commitment. There's no team getting more bang for their buck at the position than the Ducks.
On defense, Anaheim will rely heavily on four players aged 23 and under in 2015-16: Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and Simon Despres. Terrific skaters and capable puck movers, they epitomize the modern approach to the position. There's not a team in the league that can match the potential of this core group.
Veteran Francois Beauchemin will be an unrestricted free agent. The 34-year-old can still handle top-four minutes and could receive an offer below his current $3.5 million hit to stay. If that works for him, he'd be welcomed back.
Clayton Stoner, who received general positive reviews for his physical play in the postseason, is locked in on the third pair. It's likely that veteran James Wisniewski (who didn't skate a shift in the postseason despite being the team's highest-paid blueliner) will be shopped around the league, although the $11 million owed him over the next two seasons won't be easy to move. Sheldon Souray, who missed the entire season, and Korbinian Holzer also are on their way out, clearing space for youngster like Josh Manson and possibly Shea Theodore to get a taste of action in 2015-16.
There'll be some who blame this loss on Bruce Boudreau, who now owns the grim distinction of being the only coach in NHL history to coach two different teams that have dropped three Game 7s at home. It's tough though to make the case that he was outwitted by Chicago's Joel Quenneville this time around. This was about execution more than planning and reaction, a fact that Getzlaf acknowledged after Game 7 when he said the Ducks were “more prepared” for this one than they were last year. Having guided the team to the conference final, and pushing the likely Stanley Cup champ to a seventh game for the second year in a row, Boudreau's job should be safe for at least another year.