To everyone reading, please forgive the next few paragraphs because I have to boast about something. I am by nature a modest person, or try to be, and one with many faults where many, many things come difficult to me, but if I don't brag here and mention my track record, you won't take what I say at face value. And it's important you take what I say at face value (well really, someone with influence with the Ducks, but that's never going to happen) because the Ducks season is going to rest on this.
First let me reiterate, there are a million subjects where I am nowhere near the smartest person in the room. I know that most people reading this are smarter than me in 99% of the ways that a person can be a smarter to me.
But I have to say this, the one area where I have to brag otherwise you'll just blow off what I'm saying: I have a natural eye for hockey, for talent, for scouting. Always have, ever since I started watching the game. I promise you that's the truth, but if you can't just believe some random person typing on the internet, you can look up my fan posts from the beginning of the year to see that I got everything right about this season, even more so than Bob Murray.
A couple games into this season, I wrote a fan post appalled that Hampus Lindholm was being benched in favor of Mark Fistric. And when I say I'm worried people won't take what I say at face value, it's because of the reactions I got to all the fan posts I wrote at the beginning of the year. Even something so obvious to everyone in hindsight, it wasn't so obvious to many people besides me back then. I literally had to argue with people that Hampus Lindholm was a better defenseman than Mark Fistric. I was adamant, 100% sure, I knew it as a fact, and yet people still argued the point with me.
Then there were the people arguing that the Ducks weren't really close enough to being a contender anyway, so they'd prefer Lindholm just develop an extra year and that we go for the Cup more next year.
I argued that point, too. And here's the real selling point when it comes to my natural eye for talent: I wrote a fan post saying the Ducks should win the Cup this year, that we were loaded and only a few smart moves by Bob Murray away from winning it all. I said we had the potential to roll four scoring lines this year like the Blackhawks last year, stacked with speed and skill, only better. Yes, better than the Cup winning Blackhawks. I said that. I predicted that.
Maybe now, over 3/4 of the way through an extremely successful season, many fans have forgotten just how ridiculous that sounded to pretty much every single person besides myself before the season started. No one argued with me. For the most part only I saw that, only I made such a crazy prediction. But sure enough, midway through the season, this team even had a 2:1 goal ratio at even strength, absolutely unheard of. We absolutely steamrolled the opposition when the right players were dressed, because this team is stacked with speed and skill... when the right players are dressed.
But that doesn't mean I always get everything right. Or even when I'm not wrong, things can change that I didn't think to predict. But when they do, my "eye" sees it and notices it and acknowledges it.
Case in point, in case you thought I'd never get to it: Sami Vatanen. I was one of many to criticize the Bob Murray quote during the offseason where he said he intentionally left the team's depth at defense where it was in order to force Bruce Boudreau to play Sami Vatanen more. To me that stunk of a terrible coach-GM relationship where, like in Moneyball, the GM has to trade a player or fail to sign needed players for the team in order for the coach to cooperate with the GM's vision. I felt the team still needed an upgrade on defense, and I didn't like that this was the apparent reason for why Bob Murray failed to address that need in the offseason.
That's not to say I disliked Sami Vatanen, but at the beginning of the season, all I saw was a good, acceptable undersized puck-moving defenseman, but not one with many elite qualities. Good skater, good hands, good shot, good hockey sense, but undersized, no elite speed or burst, no elite hands, no elite shot, still in need of some development.
But as the season went on, I noticed Vatenen developing at the speed of light. He kept gaining speed, gaining strength on the puck, gaining confidence. By the midway point of the season if not before, he was the team's second best defenseman behind Hampus Lindholm, and the team's best offensive defenseman period. Yes Fowler is a better skater and Lindholm is bigger and faster, but Vatenen has the best hands and the best shot of the three, and he just makes plays.
So the reason I brought up my track record when commenting on the Ducks, how I've been right even about things that seemed extremely far fetched, was so you'd believe me when I told you this: Mark Fistric pretty much sucks at hockey, and Sami Vatanen is way, way better. You would be hard pressed to find a bigger gap between two defenseman on a single team in the NHL outside of absolute stars playing on bad teams like say P.K. Subban compared to Douglas Murray. Vatanen is miles better than Fistric. Now Fistric has gotten a little better this year, but he still can't skate, he's still a black hole when it comes to offense, and he's horrible at orchestrating the breakout, which is something a team built on transition, speed, and skill like the Ducks depends on, and something Sami Vatanen is expert at. Bryan Allen isn't very good either. Ben Lovejoy has made huge strides the last two seasons and I'm very happy with him as one of our depth defenseman, but he is not as good as Sami Vatanen either. Luca Sbisa had one very good stint where he, like Vatanen this year, seemed to gain a burst in his skating about two seasons ago late in the season, but ever since then he's been riddled with injuries and when he is in the lineup, he's not any good either. And then there's Lindholm, our best defenseman, Beauchemin, our third best defenseman after Vatanen, and Fowler, who has made huge strides this year as well, our fourth best defenseman.
But the only ones relevant to this discussion are the ones who don't deserve to be in the lineup, and who are keeping the player who deserves to be in the lineup, Sami Vatanen, from playing. Our top six defenseman should be Lindholm, Vatanen, Beauchemin, Fowler, Lovejoy, and Sbisa over Allen, or Souray when healthy. Both Bryan Allen and Mark Fistric can't skate and can't make breakout passes, and instead of the Ducks rushing up the ice flying by other teams like they do when almost anyone else is on the ice, we're often stuck chasing the puck around in our end when either of those two are on the ice because they're too slow to ever catch it themselves, and it's hard to win in the NHL playing with only four players on the ice who can catch the puck against five on the other team.
So what am I saying? Sometime when I get the chance, I'm going to look up the Ducks record with Vatanen in the lineup and compare it to the Ducks record with Fistric in the lineup, or even Sbisa. I don't have the time now, but regardless I can already tell you what that's going to look like because I've been paying attention to it all year and going nuts over it ever since Vatanen started playing so well.
And let it also be noted that national broadcasters have called Vatanen a young "star defenseman" at the Olympics, while the Sharks telecast crew were absolutely dumbfounded that he wasn't in the lineup against the Sharks for one game in a home and away series against SJ where I was stuck watching the Sharks feed. They said something like, "that Vatenen wasn't in the lineup last game (in a disbelieving, confused tone)...." "He really helps them...." "Yeah he does...." Of course we won the game he played and lost the game Fistric played, to no surprise.
And now the Sharks are right on our heels as we've gone into a slump ever since Sami Vatanen has been sent down to the AHL.
But the issue goes far beyond Sami Vatanen. I mean this with absolutely no hyperbole attached, but I have never seen a professional team with so much talent that refuses so often to play its best players. Who among you thinks Matt Beleskey is a better hockey player than Emerson Etem? Because if anyone thinks that, I've got a timeshare I'd like to sell you... Remember when Mathieu Perreault was on fire to start the season playing alongside Jakub Silfverberg (or other top-six wingers)? Well last night he had Tim Jackman as a winger instead. The results were predictable.
This team built their incredible first half of the season on speed and skill, pure and simple, but for some reason as the year has gone on, GM Bob Murray has decided to add more and more slow, gritty players to the mix for absolutely no reason. It's like he's never heard the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The team was playing fantastic hockey with Sbisa and Beleksey out injured the first half of the season, with the more mobile and much more skilled Vatanen on defense in Sbisa's place, and the much more skilled Etem at wing in Beleskey's place, but the moment both come back from injury, Boudreau just gives them back their spots no matter how well their replacements played. Rickard Rakell and even Peter Holland are both better players than the likes of Beleskey and Jackman too, but they've been toiling in the minors as well for most the season until Holland got traded to Toronto and Rakell was called up recently.
The bottom line is, this team probably has the most talent of any team in the NHL. People thought I was crazy saying that before the season, but now it's been borne out for the most part based on the their play. But more than that, I hope people can trust me now when I try to tell everyone these things. This team has the best chance of any team in the NHL of winning the Cup this year, but only if the right players are played. Mark Fistric cannot be playing anymore instead of Sami Vatanen. That decision right there is the most egregious of the lot and the most damaging to the team's play. Bryan Allen really shouldn't be playing at all either, but the team still managed to dominate the first half of the season even with him in the lineup, which is just another testament to how truly deep and talented a squad we have around him, carrying him on their shoulders whenever he's out there on the ice and using the time he's not out on the ice to make up for it. But when it's both him and Fistric in the lineup at once, that's just too much. That's two pairs of slow legs who can't make a breakout pass. The Ducks could hide one the first half of the year, but it's being shown now that they can't hide two. If Fistric continues to play instead of Vatanen, mark my words, we will lose the #1 seed in the west, which is a big, big deal. But even if we maintain the #1 seed, we're not going anywhere in the playoffs with Allen and Fistric both playing for us.
And remember, it's not just that Fistric is bad, it's that Vatanen is really, really good. Notice scoring goals has been a problem for us for the first time really all season. That's because for one, the breakout passes are so much worse with both Fistric and Allen in the lineup, and we're getting hemmed in the defensive zone much more because of them, but also because Vatanen was the defenseman who created the most offense for us, by far. He plays a little bit like Erik Karlsson with his sold hands and really improved mobility, and he skates it and stickhandles it all over the offensive zone creating passing lanes and shooting lanes. He also rushes the puck up the ice and helps our transition. Lindholm has the size and range and hockey sense to be our best overall defenseman right now by a hair, but Vatanen has really closed that gap as the season's gone on, and he's the one who's much more aggressive and creates the offense. If you took Dan Boyle away from the Sharks, you would see a big drop off for them, and it's the same here. Yes, Vatanen is reaching that Boyle level. Remember, everyone but our own GM and coach is already calling this guy a star. I thought he played a little bit like Slava Voynov when he first started out this year, but he's far surpassed Voynov. He's much faster, more creative, creates more plays.
So we're missing our #2 defenseman right now. Not just our #2 defenseman, but a #2 defenseman period. He is a young star. I just have no idea what he's doing in the minors.
And then there's the forwards. This team's rightful identity is speed and skill. Perry and Getzlaf play that way, although they can play any way you want them to with their combination of size and skill, but Winnik, Koivu, Cogliano, Silfverberg, Palmieri, Selanne Perreault, they really play that way, and pretty much only that way. You can say Winnik has some size and grit too, but the rest of them are all about speed, hands, creativity, skill. Transition. Blackhawks. That's how this team's core is meant to play, and when Vatanen, Lindholm, Beauchemin, Fowler, and Lovejoy were the team's top 5 on defense early in the year skating the puck everywhere themselves, matching that style of play, everything clicked and it was a joy to watch.
Now I'm not saying you can't mix in a big bruiser with all these fast skilled guys, like a Patrick Maroon, but for the most part, those guys don't mesh with the way most the players on this team like to play, and the way that this team plays best. Having Maroon in there with Getzlaf and Perry who can carry him a little bit and cover his weaknesses is one thing, but putting Maroon in and then Jackman and Beleskey too on top of it, and therefore having at least one of these no-hands guys on three out of the four lines, it completely messes up the mix and as you might expect putting players with no hands onto what would otherwise be scoring lines, each of their presences hinders the offensive potential of those three out of four lines. With just the insertion of three forwards, you alter the team from having four natural, unimpeded scoring lines each full of three offensively-capable players with skilled hands, to having only one natural, unimpeded scoring line full of three offensively-capable players with skilled hands, while the other three lines are now each strapped with a forward who can't handle the puck and who the other two forwards now have to carry in that regard. And it's just not the same. As I said earlier, the result you get is that instead of Perreault getting to work off Selanne and Silfverberg, who also have hands like him, and speed like him, and like to play like him, you have Perreault stuck with Tim Jackman and it doesn't work at all. Even when the other winger is still Silfverberg, or Selanne, it's just not anywhere near as effective so long as Tim Jackman has taken one of those wing spots away from one of those forwards with speed and skill who plays the same style that Perreault does, and that most of the Ducks forwards play (and like to play).
In closing, I truly have never seen a coach/GM waste so much talent before in my life. They deserve tons of credit for amassing so much talent, speed and skill on one hockey team, I mean it's unbelievable, but they also deserve incredible blame for putting it all to waste like this. You have a budding star puck moving defenseman in Vatanen, but somehow re-signing Mark Fistric at the expense of his spot in the lineup (potentially not only this year but next year too) is what appeals to you? It's beyond words, beyond logic.
But I've gone on long enough. The point is, the fact that Vatanen isn't playing right now is an absolute outrage. it's inexcusable. And to a lesser extent, same with them playing Jackman over Etem.
Let me just put it like this. Here is (approximately) how the lineup would look if we actually played all our best players every night, and here is (approximately) what the lineup needs to look like if we're going to do damage in the playoffs this year, which we have more potential to do than anyone, even the Blackhawks, because our depth is just sick, better than anyone's when you consider we have three top-three defenseman now with Lindholm, Vatanen, and Beauchemin, and a very uniquely talented #4 in Fowler.
Here's the lineup that should be. Lines can always be changed around, it's the 18 skaters that are dressed that are important.
Rakell - Getzlaf - Perry
Silfverberg - Perreault - Selanne
Cogliano - Koivu - Winnik
Etem - Bonino - Palmieri
Beauchemin - Vatanen
Fowler - Lindholm
Sbisa - Lovejoy
I mean look at that lineup, will you? First let me say that I'm a big Nick Bonino fan and I don't actually mean for him to get like five minutes a game as a traditional "fourth line center." These are four quality lines with three forwards capable of scoring on every single line that can be rolled one after the other to dominate and wear teams down. But just look at that depth, we have Emerson Etem and Kyle Palmieri as our 4th line wingers, and not by some cheating by putting 4th liners onto the top two lines or anything. In fact you can shuffle the order of those lines around any way you want, and we would still have top-7 forward calibre scorers on our fourth line. Both wings. It's unheard of. No other team in the NHL has that kind of depth, not even the Blackhawks. That's Kyle Palmieri of the US World Championship team where he did not look out of place.
And remember we actually had that fourth line play earlier in the season! Boudreau actually tried it (or it might have been with Rakell as the center between Etem and Palmieri) and it was amazing. They were like bees out there. Every single shift they chased down the puck within about five seconds and blazed the other way for a scoring chance. Like clockwork. I have no idea why Boudreau disassembled them, they were awesome.
But that seems like so long ago, almost another season entirely, because since then Boudreau and Bob Murray have completely altered the makeup of the team by replacing the skilled players with no-hands grinders like Jackman, Beleskey, Maroon to an extent (he, like Jackman actually, actually has average hands, better than Beleskey's by a mile, but like Jackman still lacks the speed and skill to produce regularly without the help of Perry and Getzlaf), and Fistric and Sbisa on defense. The chemistry that was dominant early in the season between Perreault and Silfverberg, really Perreault and any two quality skilled wingers, is gone because now Perreault is playing with Tim Jackman instead. It makes no sense. That offensively-dominant, two-way dominant, frickin awesome fourth line with Etem and Palmieri blazing the wings is gone. I just don't get it. If we ice the right roster like that, no one would be able to match our forward depth.
And guess what? We're so dominant in pure talent, no one would be able to match our defense offensively either! It sounds crazy I know, we're not known to have a star-studded defense, at least we weren't going into this season, but that has all changed. Vatanen can skate, handle the puck, and score. So can Lindholm. Beauchemin can skate, score, and create offense. Fowler is an amazing skater and while his hands aren't quite as good as Vatanen's or even Lindholm's, they're above average and he creates offense too. That's all four of our top-four defenseman who can skate and score goals and create offense. That's also unheard of. No one can match that. No one. Are you thinking of Chicago? Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook. That's two. Hjalmarsson is an excellent defenseman, but he doesn't score. Neither does Oduya. Like I said, it's not normal at all. It's extraordinary. The best other teams have two defensemen in their top-four who can provide offense. LA with Doughty and Voynov, maybe you count Muzzin as three, but neither Muzzin nor Voynov has been doing it at the level that all four of our top guys have this season. And that's one of the deepest defenses in the NHL, and even they can't match it. Vatanen, Lindholm, Fowler, Beauchemin: four offensive weapons as our top-four defenseman, and they all play very underrated defense as well.
Our scoring depth is unmatched at forward, and our scoring depth is unmatched on defense. We have the potential to be a juggernaut, the highest scoring team the NHL has seen in years, if only Boudreau plays the right players. I said this before the season and no one believed me. But we saw glimpses of it, when the right players like Beleskey and Sbisa were injured so that the right players who deserved to be in the lineup could get their shots, like Vatanen and Etem, and the net result was a 2:1 Goals For/Goals Against ratio at one point in the season. Absolutely unheard of. It's gone back down since Beleskey and Sbisa have gotten inserted back into the lineup, and Tim Jackman was traded for, and Sami Vatanen was removed from the lineup in favor of Fistric, but i'm telling you, as right as I was about this before the season even started, I am more sure of it than ever now that I've gotten to see the development of Sami Vatanen this year, as well as the development of Mathieu Perreault ever since he came to the Ducks. If Boudreau just ices the lineup I'm saying he should, or something very similar, this team will start scoring 4 - 6 goals almost every game, just like before, and it will be totally unprecedented in this era of hockey, just like before.
Because not only does that lineup give us the best scoring depth at forward in the NHL, and the best scoring depth on defense in the NHL, but let's not forget depth is only one part of the equation: there's also the matter of top-end talent, and we happen to have the best top line in the NHL, too. Like I said, juggernaut. What was so great about early in the season was that Corey Perry kind of started the season off slow, but it didn't even matter because all the other three lines, stacked with skill with Etem and Vatanen in the lineup and no Beleskey or Jackman or Fistric once Boudreau figured out what Lindholm could do, carried the team. But that's the big problem now. To his credit Perry has really started flying, really improved his skating since early in the year, and he and Getzlaf are playing fantastic. The problem is, now we're totally dependent on those two. We're a one line team again because Perreault can't play the same with Jackman as his winger, and the second line can't play the same with Beleskey on its wing instead of Etem, and the whole team can't break out of the zone as well and move through the neutral zone with speed and gain the offensive zone and create scoring opportunities as well with Mark Fistric skating the puck up the ice and feeding them bouncing breakout passes instead of Sami Vatanen smoothly taking the puck up the ice and distributing it cleanly to their sticks.
Boudreau needs to play the best players. It's not that complicated for every other team, just play the best players. I've never been more frustrated as a sports fan in my life than watching the Ducks this year as I have to watch my team refuse to play its best players every night. I still can't believe I'm having to write a fan post about something so basic but like I said at the top, whether Boudreau figures this out in time or not is going to determine the outcome of our season, plain and simple.
And please, if you're a fan of Fistric, or more likely Beleskey or Maroon, just please consider my track record on this subject before deciding to disagree. Beleskey and Maroon have definitely had a few good games, Maroon using his size on the forecheck protecting the puck (usually with Perry and Getzlaf's help), Beleskey using his speed and tireless work ethic. I can see why someone, from a fan's perspective rather than the perspective of analyzing what would be best for the team over the long haul, could adopt either of these players as a "fan favorite," so to speak. And sometimes as fans, it just takes a couple good games from someone to see the potential in them and overlook their faults, even if their faults occur much more often after that than the good games. And in the end, when I say they shouldn't be in the lineup over these other players, it's not even a commentary on Beleskey and Maroon in a bubble, by themselves. They are better depth players than many other teams have. But it's the other players we have, who could be playing in their places, who we need to compare them to when deciding what is best for the team. And I'm telling you, maybe you haven't seen this yourself, but I swear to you I've seen it with my own eyes, that this team functions much better, and skilled players like Perreault, Silfverberg, Selanne, and Palmieri function much better, when they get to play with other skilled players such as themselves, who like to play the same style of game as they do, such as Emerson Etem and Rickard Rakell, rather than Patrick Maroon or Matt Beleskey who just don't have the skill to keep up with that style of play. And it's been proven that they function better with other skilled, fast players like themselves rather than bigger, less-skilled players because we've seen them play with both examples this season, and the results aren't even comparable.
If you still doubt what I'm saying, just think back to the first half of the season, when Vatanen was playing, Beleskey and Sbisa were still out injured, and Tim Jackman had yet to be acquired, and compare it to now, and you will see there's no comparison. You will realize what I'm saying is true. The team played way better before Beleskey, Sbisa, and Jackman were inserted into this lineup at the expense of the more skilled players. So please believe me because I am absolutely sure of it. I've been on top of this since before the first game of this season, and I have been paying attention to it and studying the way this team changes drastically based on Boudreau's lineup decisions all season long. I may be wrong about hundreds of other things in my life, but this I am 100% on top of, 100% sure of, and 100% right about. Please believe me.