I wanted to write this the moment I saw the lineup card for our first game of the season, then we lost and I wanted to write it even more, but didn't get around to it. We've since won our last two games, thankfully, but that doesn't change the two facts about this team that frustrate me:
1. Our management and coaching staff is not playing our 20 best healthy players in the games. They haven't once.
2. Our 23 best players are not as good as they could be if Bob Murray even did his most basic job last summer.
Before I explain, let me first say that it's not just our team. Even our cross town rival, the LA Kings, who have won a Cup recently, aren't playing all their best players. Colin Fraser is still in their lineup inexplicably while Tyler Toffoli toils in the minors. Daryl Sutter mentioned in preseason that their bottom-six forwards were the lowest-scoring in the NHL last year, and that really needs to improve this season, and then he preceded to play the exact same six bottom-six forwards as last season, except for the only one who can score goals, Tyler Toffoli. And Dean Lombardi failed to sign one scoring bottom-six forward in the offseason even though the Kings organization is apparently aware that their bottom-six forwards were the lowest scoring, which is similar to how Bob Murray failed to address the Ducks defense over the summer, even with small moves. Instead Lombardi wasted cap space on more non-scoring players like Daniel Carcillo, Jeff Schultz, and Keaton Ellerby, similar to Bob Murray's wasteful acquisition of Zack Stortini. Kings coach Daryl Sutter even gave Colin Fraser two shifts at the end of the Kings game against the Jets a few days ago when the Kings were down one goal with five minutes left in the game. Instead of playing Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown as much as possible to try to get a goal and tie the game before the buzzer, he casually rolled out his AHL-calibre 4th line center not once, but twice in the waning minutes of the game.
Or what about the reigning Cup champions the Chicago Blackhawks? They had it all four years ago and let Dustin Byfuglien go, one of the most unique talents in the NHL, in order to keep Dave Bolland, who they just traded this summer for picks. AEHHHH, wrong choice. And when they traded Byfuglien, along with Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, they got a whole lot of assets that have amounted to a whole lot of nothing. All those much hyped prospects they received for three different true impact players have amounted to nothing. They got Viktor Stalberg from Toronto, who's gone now, and that's it. They basically traded those three fantastic pieces for nothing. Not to mention they still haven't found a second line center, and they just gave Corey Crawford over $5 million dollars per year, needlessly, as it's a certainty he would have ended up having to sign for less if they negotiated properly.
My point being, even the best organizations in this league are run extremely poorly compared to any other business on the planet, or just common sense. Even the Red Wings wasted the last years of Nicklas Lidstrom's career because once Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson left the team in 2009, so did their GM. He signed Ville Leino out of Europe only to give him away shortly after, and besides that, he just stopped making moves.
All the organizations in this league are run poorly. It is a race between snails. The difference between the best managed teams and the worst managed teams it that the best managed teams only make six bad moves for every four good ones they make, while the worst ones make eight bad moves for every four good ones. While every other major business in the world is operated by highly educated people who only get their jobs based on their rare intellect, creativity, and ingenuity (and often greed and evil but that's neither here nor there), the people in charge of managing cap numbers, finding market inefficiencies, and creating and executing a unique vision for NHL teams as GMs are usually awarded the job based not on intellect and creativity, but the wrist shot they had twenty years prior, or their reputation as a good "character" in the locker room once upon a time. Assets that have nothing to do with most management-skills. And the results are usually commensurate with the fact 90% of NHL GM jobs today are still awarded based on entirely incorrect criteria. It should be no surprise then that these GMs build their teams on wrong criteria, too. Even the GMs that make a few good moves seem to quickly follow them up with bad ones. Almost none of them seem to have any consistency in what they do.
But none of that changes how frustrating it is when it's your team's GM failing when it should be just so, so darn easy.
Let me take you back to this offseason. Bob Murray literally came out in the press and admitted that he had no idea how to run an organization, and that the Ducks under his watch were completely dysfunctional.
"Really?" You're thinking, "He really said that? How did I miss that?" Yes, he said that, just with different words. He came out and said that he wanted Sami Vatenen to play more this season, and to achieve this, he boasted that he purposely made sure that the Ducks defense would have no depth so that Bruce Boudreau would be forced to play Sami Vatenen more. Then Sheldon Souray got injured and we were left with no depth to replace him, as anyone could have predicted would happen when you intentionally build a team with no depth on defense, and where one of the defensemen you do employ is very injury prone. Pure incompetence.
In a functional organization, the coach and GM would work together. When Billy Beane had to trade one of the Oakland A's best power hitters in the book/movie "Moneyball" so that the coach would have no choice but to play the high on-base percentage player instead, that wasn't because the organization was functioning smoothly, it's precisely because it wasn't. The coach wouldn't listen to Billy Beane, the GM, and didn't believe in Billy Beane's philosophy, and was worried more about how playing that guy would look in potential future job interviews with other teams than he was about working with Billy Beane and winning at all costs with the A's.
And it seems, in only Bruce Boudreau's third season with the Ducks, that a similar disconnect has materialized within the Ducks management hierarchy. If the relationship between Boudreau and Bob Murray was actually functional, Murray would have just been told Boudreau he wanted Vatenen to get more playing time this year, and that he wants Boudreau to help develop him because that's what the organization needs right now, and Boudreau would have done it. Instead, Murray apparently felt like he needed to pull a "Moneyball" and intentionally handicap the roster on defense so that Boudreau would be forced to play Vatenen.
I mean really, what the fuck? I can't believe this didn't get more analysis in the offseason. I know everyone caught on to what a ridiculous statement Murray made, and how dumb it was, but I don't think most people realized the full implications of what he said. Boudreau apparently won't listen to him, and isn't on the same page as him, otherwise he could have just asked Boudreau to play Vatenen. I know some people think "the coach has to decide the lineup," but in reality, since the GM is the one who literally decides what players will be on the team that the coach can even pick from, there has to be some collaboration where the GM is deciding on parts of the lineup as well.
Worse, even when healthy, this defense is not good enough for a Cup contending team. Like Kings coach Daryl Sutter saying what a problem it was that the Kings' bottom-six forwards were the lowest scoring in the NHL season, but Kings GM Dean Lombardi doing nothing about it despite all the cheap bottom-six forwards with skill available this summer in free agency, I don't understand how Bob Murray could go the whole summer not even doing anything to improve the defense despite how problematic it was last season. And watching the Toronto Maple Leafs game the other night, it became even more frustrating because of how easy it would have been for Boudreau to improve the team. A few years ago, there was a defenseman named Paul Ranger who played for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was one of the best young defenseman in the NHL, but he decided to "retire" due to personal reasons. This season, still only 29 years old, he decided he wanted to come back. One of the best young defensemen in the NHL just a few years ago. And how much did the Toronto Maple Leafs have to pay him to sign him? $1 million dollars for just one year. Or only 100k more than the Ducks are paying the hapless, cement-skates Mark Fistric. 350k less than Matt Beleskey, who we don't even need. 100k less than Ben Lovejoy, who is better than Mark Fistric, but not better than Paul Ranger. Or $2.5 million less than Mark Fistric 2.0, Bryan Allen, is getting paid per season.
Which brings me to the Maple Leafs game the other day. There I was sitting, when I saw a #15 in blue skating around with the puck, and I asked myself, who is that fairly big, smooth skating new Maple Leafs defenseman handling the puck with complete ease, looking like a star player? It was, of course, Paul Ranger, the $1 million dollar man. Who could have guessed that signing one of the best young defenseman in the NHL for only $1 million dollars would work out? A defenseman who can skate, handle the puck, and pass, all at 6'2", 215 pounds?
I just don't understand how moves this simple get by so many GMs. Douglas Murray netted the San Jose Sharks, the Ducks big rival, two 2nd round picks at the deadline last season because NHL teams are just so(!!!) desperate(!!!!) for defensemen(!!!!!) because there just aren't enough to go around they say, but then someone with 100x the talent gets scooped up in the offseason for $1 million on a one-year deal with absolutely no fanfare. But how it got by other GMs it doesn't even matter. Bob Murray is the GM who had a real desperate need on defense. Bob Murray is the GM who should have been looking, paying attention, scouring every corner of the hockey universe to find a cheap defensive upgrade, if not a more expensive #1. But he didn't, and that's what's so frustrating. You'd think moves like that would be the easiest, most basic, minimum requirement of every GM in the summer. That when you have a big need, they will at least go out and make one low-risk, high-reward signing at the position for someone talented who might break out and really help you. And if he doesn't, he's so cheap you haven't even risked anything.
Even the Edmonton Oilers managed to add a quality defenseman in the offseason. Their new GM Craig Mactavish showed a little creativity and signed the KHL defenseman of the year. There are about 200 defenseman in the NHL every year, many of the ones ranking 195 through 200 playing for the Oilers every year, and so guess what? It turns out the best defenseman in the second best league in the world, the KHL, is actually a little bit better than the 200th best defenseman in the NHL! Who could have guessed! It would seem awfully obvious that the NHL isn't quite 200 times better than the KHL, but apparently most NHL GMs don't seem to realize it because you barely ever see them signing top KHL players. But pretty much every time someone tries, not only is it cheap, but they're great players. Mark Giordano for the Calgary Flames, who is now their captain. Anton Belov for the Oilers looks like a stud.
Where was Bob Murray when the Oilers signed Anton Belov to, and I can't believe this, a two-way contract worth 925k in cap hit, with 600k more in bonuses, if he plays in the NHL, but only 70k in the AHL. Anton Belov was really to risk getting paid only 70k this season in order to attempt a transition to the NHL, which would be a huge pay cut from his KHL salary. Where was Bob Murray? All he had to do was offer a one-way deal, which the Oilers weren't offering, and Anton Belov would be a "Duck" right now.
Less flashy still, the effective two-way defenseman Ron Hainsey, who unlike Mark Fistric can skate, was available very late in free agency, even after Sheldon Souray got injured, I believe, so Murray even knew he was down a defenseman when Hainsey was still available... he ended up having to settle for $2 million over one year. Not as good a deal, with as high a reward, as the Paul Ranger or Antov Belov signings, but Hainsey still would have been a stabilizing force for the Ducks, and a decent replacement for Toni Lydman.
Shouldn't a signing like this have at least been the minimum requirement for Bob Murray this offseason? Nevermind the fact that we now have two 1st round picks and a ton of prospects in the Cupboard, and many teams, including our rival the Sharks, have turned far less into a #1 defenseman in a trade. But it seems as the years go on since the Ducks cup that ownership just doesn't want to have to spend for one of those. Regardless, where has Bob Murray done? How could he continually pass on extremely cheap, very high-skilled defensemen like Ranger and Belov, but then use that money on Mark Fistric, of all people, literally the worst option he could have picked out of the twenty or so different choices he had.
And I haven't even talked about the forward group yet. Why would you spend $2 million on Dustin Penner rather than Damien Brunner (at 2.5) or Mikael Grabovski (at 3). It's like they're so incompetent, they don't even know which players are better or worse than each other.
And if Peter Holland and Rickard Rakell aren't NHL-ready, which I totally contend especially with Rakell, then why didn't they sign someone? They still could. Players like Matt Beleskey and Patrick Maroon have no business on the top line, or in the top-nine at all, of this team. Vinny Prospal, who scored 30 points last season and would have been among our leading scorers, is still available very cheap. Peter Mueller had to go to Europe because no NHL GM would sign him, that's how cheap he would have been available, and he's extremely talented. Nick Antropov had to leave, too. He has a bit of the Russian factor, but he's also a 6'6" forward with hands. Why they signed Dustin Penner, but not him, when he's bigger, faster, and more skilled, and probably would have been even cheaper than Penner, again completely baffles me.
And lastly, let me bring it back to coaching. One move that Murray made recently that has exceeded my expectations, that I give him credit for, is the trade for Mathieu Perreault. Perreault has played the best hockey of his career these first few games with Anaheim, skating really well, and his speed and skill has worked well next to Jacob Silfverberg's speed and skill.
That's because shared strengths amplify each other. Skill feeds off skill. And this is why I have been advocating all summer that all our most skilled young guns play. I want Peter Holland in the lineup. I want Rickard Rakell in the lineup. I want Getzlaf, Perry, Palmieri, Silfverberg, Perreault, Selanne, Holland, Rakell, Etem, Cogliano, Winnik, and Saku Koivu all playing together. No big, clumsy Maroon or Penner. No no-hands Matt Beleskey, who is just as clumsy in his own way with his hands. How is this team ever supposed to improve, and reach elite status, if Boudreau won't even play the best lineup? The vision I have for this team is a Chicago Blackhawks-style forward group like they had last year, but even deeper. Four scoring lines that you can roll and run by teams with. Three speedy, skilled forwards on every single line. We've seen flashes of how well that can work with Perreault and Silfverberg playing together. A lot of these players, like those two, and Rakell, Holland, Palmieri, Etem, they're not "great" players yet that will take over games individually, but they're "good," and when you put them all together with linemates who play their same style, and have three skilled guys to work with on every line with no weak link like Beleskey or Maroon who fumbles the puck every time they pass to them because they don't have to hands to keep, their shared strengths of speed and skill will combine to create a high octane offense like hasn't been seen in Anaheim in a long time. If the players I mentioned were all dressed in the same game and all played together, this would be the highest scoring team in the league.
But Bruce Boudreau can't see this vision. The magic that Perreault and Silfverberg have shown so far, they've had to create despite having Dustin Penner on their wing. Imagine what they could do with Etem or Rakell on their wing. It would be like having two Silfverberg's with Perreault instead of just one. Additionally, Boudreau insists on hampering two other lines with Beleksey on one and Maroon on the other. Now instead of four speedy, skilled scoring lines like I've envisioned for this team, we only have one pure speed/skill line, the Koivu line with Cogliano and Winnik, which ironically enough would actually be the least skilled line on the team if Boudreau dressed the correct lineup, even though they're very good. Which tells you just how good this team could be, if Boudreau dressed the right team and that was the least talented line. But the way he's managing the team, that's the only line he's left "pure," with no one holding it down. The other three have Penner holding down one line with his lack of speed, Beleskey holding down another with his lack of skill and hands, and Maroon holding down another with his lack of speed and skill.
I want to see Etem in there for Maroon when he's healthy, Rakell in there for Penner, and Holland in there for Beleskey. Only then will everyone really see the potential of this team. And finally last night Boudreau played Hampuis Lindholm instead of Mark Fistric, and the difference was evident. Lindholm can play at the NHL level, despite being considered a prospect. And ironically enough, Fistric, considered the NHL-veteran, honestly can't. It was a really poor signing when Bob Murray made it, completely incomprehensible to me, and nothing about Fistric's play the first two games has changed my opinion of him. He's not an NHL-defenseman in the post-2004 lockout game, and if Boudreau goes back to him again after tonight, we will have more problems.
In closing, why hasn't Bob Murray done even his most basic job in the offseason and signed a cheap, low-risk, high-reward defenseman? Or is that what he thought Mark Fistric was? If so, that tells us all we need to know about his eye for talent. And why won't Bruce Boudreau play the best players? Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm were both excellent in preseason, and yet both started the season in the press box behind less talented players like Matt Beleskey, Patrick Maroon, and Mark Fistric. And why isn't Peter Holland getting any shot at all? Do they want to stall his development completely? He clearly has top-six NHL talent at this point. They need to throw him into the pool and let him try to swim. Otherwise if they keep acting like they don't believe he can do it despite having all the tools to, he might start believing them, and that's a recipe for wasting a very talented prospect and stalling his development out.
But then, most of all, why aren't Boudreau and Murray working together? Why did Murray have to intentionally sacrifice the depth of the defense--and hey maybe that's why he refused to sign a Paul Ranger or Anton Belov, in which case that would just be even more tragic and infuriating for Ducks fans, just so Boudreau would play Vatenen? And if Boudreau isn't going to play Rakell or Holland, why can't he and Murray at least get on the same page about it so Murray can sign a Vinny Prospal or someone like that to fill out the forward corps because clearly, Matt Beleskey and Patrick Maroon do not fit the new identity of this team built around speed and skill, as we've seen with Perreault and Silverberg, as well as the Koivu line, and obviously Getzlaf and Perry are more than capable of displaying those two qualities, as is Kyle Palmieri. But I just don't understand why Murray can't even do the very basics of his job, or why Bruce Boudreau won't play his best young players.