Anaheim Ducks take flight with dynamic post-Christmas surge
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Two months after Bob Murray's talented hockey team languished in 29th place in a 30-team league, the Anaheim Ducks' general manager has been rewarded for demonstrating an incredibly rare quality in NHL executives.
A little bit of patience.
The three-time Pacific Division champion Ducks have rebounded from a pathetic start to their season with a dynamic surge that shows few signs of slowing. With the four-day Christmas break neatly serving as the dividing line between ineptitude and brilliance, Anaheim has followed up its 12-15-6 start with a 20-4-2 streak since the holidays.
The Ducks (32-19-8) have won six straight and 13 of 15 heading into Friday's visit from Edmonton, climbing into second place in the Pacific and steaming toward another playoff berth.
''This team has faced the adversity of a bad start and fought its way back into the picture of making the playoffs,'' Murray said in a phone interview Thursday. ''Right now, you look at them and say they're doing fine. ... It looks like there's chemistry now. Everybody has fit into a role and is accepting their roles, which is huge.''
The Ducks are doing it with largely the same roster that was the NHL's lowest-scoring group by a wide margin just two months ago. Murray made only a couple of timely additions, including revitalized forward David Perron, and got a couple of players back from injury, including dependable defenseman Simon Despres.
Murray tweaked the Ducks' roster in the offseason, and he realized the changes largely didn't help. So his next moves were all about what he didn't do.
He resisted the urge to fire Bruce Boudreau, one of the winningest coaches in recent NHL history. He also decided against blowing up his talented roster core, trading veterans for cheap youth, or even breaking up his coveted goaltending tandem of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson for distressed prices.
Instead, Murray decided to believe in his team - and he stayed behind Boudreau while hockey pundits widely predicted Murray would make the usual move in a notoriously impatient league.
''Some of the things that went on during the summer and right before camp started, some of those had nothing to do with the coach,'' Murray said. ''How can you always blame the coach when there are other things going on? Sometimes with coaches, it's time to make changes. At that point (this season), the things that were happening weren't the responsibility of the coach.''
Murray also said the Ducks eliminated a few unspecified distractions. The GM alluded to ''a couple of personal issues that weren't good'' and ''agent issues,'' but refused to go into detail about those off-ice woes, which haven't been widely discussed outside the Ducks' dressing room.
''The start of the year was a circus, and I couldn't get control of it quick enough,'' Murray said. ''I've got to be harder on certain situations in the years going forward.''
For all of those reasons, Anaheim got off to one of the worst starts by a title-contending team in recent NHL history after falling one game short of the Stanley Cup Final last summer. The Ducks went 1-7-2 in October and barely improved before Christmas.
The Ducks largely credit the four-day holiday break for their improved mental state, citing the inactivity as a chance to remember what works. Anaheim won three straight games to close out 2015 and just kept rolling, with only one regulation defeat in its last 15 games since mid-January.
''Every night, we're going into the game knowing we're going to win,'' said center Ryan Kesler, who has 21 points in Anaheim's last 23 games after managing just 12 points in the first 36.
Although they largely credit their turnaround to their embrace of a defense-first mindset promoted by Boudreau in response to their offensive woes, the Ducks' scoring touch also has returned.
Anaheim's confounding slump was exemplified by captain Ryan Getzlaf, who went into the holiday break with just one goal - into an empty net, no less. Getzlaf leads the NHL in scoring after the All-Star break with 17 points in 13 games, including a current nine-game points streak.
''Maybe now we're learning from our experiences earlier in the season,'' said forward Rickard Rakell, the Ducks' third-leading scorer with 33 points. ''Things don't bother us anymore. We just keep coming. We're a different group now.''
Murray's patience isn't breeding complacence. He's entertaining offers to improve his team at the trade deadline next week, particularly on the wings.
But the Ducks' rebound has ensured he's no longer thinking about starting over.
''It's going to be an interesting summer around here, I'll tell you that,'' Murray said.