Every year The Hockey News does a feature where they reveal where they believe each team will finish. Last year's predictions had us finishing 6th; a reasonable estimate given the monster seasons some of our stars had just turned in and the promise of a healthy Jonas Hiller. I can't say I was shocked we didn't make the playoffs. Last year's team didn't have the depth to overcome poor seasons by its top players.
The Hockey News has soured on the Ducks since last off-season. This year's predictions have the Ducks coming in at 11th. Before Anaheim fans get the pitchforks and torches, I'd like to point out that predictions like these are made by guys who watch and analyze a lot more hockey than we do. It might not be a prediction you like - even I'm not a big fan - but it's coming from a reasonable place. We can learn something from by seeing what some professional analysts have to say. Of course, I've got my opinions, too.
Why They Are Right
No Guaranteed Offense
Going into last season the sentiment was clear: as long as everyone else pitched in, RPG would dominate and lead the way. The problem is that Bobby Ryan has decided to be John Lennon to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf's George and Paul. (Ringo wasn't important then, and he isn't to this analogy.) Bobby doesn't want to play with the Twins, and as THN points out, there's still a cloud hovering over whether or not he even wants to be with the team.
As a result, looking at the lines for next year means looking at a lot of question marks. The Twins will be together, but with who? Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne will be together, but with who? Does Bobby play with the Finns or is he getting his own line? NHL teams shuffle lines, but there's usually a home base, a line you can go to when things aren't working and you can count on for chemistry. The Ducks don't have that.
The top six is essentially empty on the left side. This has been a small problem for years, specifically for the Finns who haven't had a solid LW. That lack of production has always been masked by an excellent PP, something the Ducks didn't show any signs of having under Bruce Boudreau. The Ducks have players who can score, but there are serious questions about the overall structure of our forward corps. It's fair to think they won't succeed next year, given the gaps.
This Defense Is Suspect
You can be as excited as you want about Sheldon Souray's stats last year, but the Ducks haven't seen that much gingerbread on the blueline since James Wisniewski left. I wouldn't be surprised if he pulled an Andy Sutton, got hurt in his first game, and missed the next 20+ games. Bryan Allen faced opposing team's best competition, but that competition was not, in terms of corsi, as good as the competition that Cam Fowler was facing. Allen also would have finished 5th on the Ducks in terms of corsi last season. To be fair, Allen was put in very tough defensive decisions, and that was certainly a contributing factor. He brings much needed size and grit to a blue line that has lacked it since Chris Pronger was traded.
These things have also come at the expense of offense. The Ducks traded away their best offensive defender in Lubomir Visnovsky [Ed. Note: For the most part, pending arbitration], and will be relying on increased output from the likes of Fowler and Luca Sbisa - without a guarantee that they'll put up the numbers. Mix in the persevered failures of Fowler in his own end and it's easy to see how THN will see this as a group of guys who are better, but probably not good enough to get the job done in the best defensive division in hockey.
Let's be real, we don't have anything on L.A, or San Jose when it comes to defense. I think Phoenix's is better as well, but that's a combination of players and phenomenal coaching. It's basically us and Dallas fighting it out for worst defensive corps in the division. If that's the case, it's a fair leap to presume a team that is 4th or 5th in its division won't make the playoffs.
Why They Are Wrong
Underestimating Cam Fowler
I don't think THN is the only group that underestimates him. I've seen a few posts this summer where he is mentioned as one of the worst defenseman in the league based on various assessments of the plus-minus stat. I could probably do a whole post on why Fowler is better than people think he is, and I'm sure Jen will ask me to later [Ed Note: Consider it assigned]. For now, I'll simply point out that he has the second worst team shooting percentage in 5-on-5 situations of our Top 6 defenders and the worst team save percentage. In other words, in 5-on-5 situations last year, the team really struggled to put the puck into the net at a reasonable rate when he was on the ice, and an irregular number of pucks went in while he was on the ice. I'd dissuade people from examining these statistics as anything but indicators of some level of luck.
There's no telling how much lower his plus-minus would have been if he could have just been closer to team averages in those categories. Fowler is a work-horse who has the potential to be a top defenseman. He does have a little bit of Scott Niedermayer in his game that cannot be ignored. He needs to work on the physical aspect of his positioning, namely not ceding territory in front of the net so easily, then he can be more effective on the PK. That can come in time. If Fowler is sturdy and improves as much this year,as he did last year, then Souray's inevitable injuries, and any question marks on the D, might become only minor concerns
The Prospects Are The Real Deal
The Ducks are banking that the youth can fill in the gaps in the forward corps, and it might not be as crazy of a bet as people think. Emerson Etem can absolutely fly on the ice, he has a great shot, and he can play in all situations. Devante Smith-Pelly was a physical force at 19, and his hands are continuing to develop. His wrist shot is as heavy as some slap shots. Kyle Palmieri's 30 goal campaign at the AHL wasn't a fluke, and he's shown some flashes of high quality play at the NHL level. Nick Bonino is - at worst - a reliable, two-way, third-line center. The Ducks can fill every question mark in the Top 6 with a capable rookie. If all of them click and find success with their veteran counterparts, then this team might have a successful campaign in it.
Personally, I think the Ducks should seriously consider getting some real NHL left wings for the Top 6. I think that would go much farther than a 2C for this season. I also think they'd be better off without the dangers of Souray's contract. However, I also feel the same way about them that I did last summer, and that in and of itself is a little depressing. This team will only go as far as its star players carry it.