Last Monday after the Ducks had won their fourth game in a row in San Jose, Dan Ellis said that this year's Ducks team has "arguably the best D Corps in the league."
Last October that sentence would have made no sense whatsoever, and frankly it is still a pretty big reach. When healthy, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Nashville and (as much as we don't want to admit it) LA all have significantly better defense than the Ducks. But to his point, since the beginning of last season the Ducks have improved their depth at just about every position.
Ellis himself is a prime example. In goal the Ducks are almost immeasurably better than they were at the start of last season. I think we all remember the horrors of Curtis McElhenny taking the reins when Jonas Hiller was struck by vertigo. Now the Ducks have three goalies with experience as an NHL starter with Hiller, Ellis and Jeff Deslauriers who played 48 games with Edmonton in 2009-10. That's even after having to say goodbye to Ray Emery who was a savior last season.
Since the departures of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, the Ducks don't have that larger than life presence on the blue line, but as Ellis went on to explain, there is "a little bit of everything" in the Ducks' defense this year. Between speed, skill, grit, shot blocking etc., the Ducks have a good balance to their defense this year that wasn't evident before the emergence of Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa as legitimate NHLers, the reacquisition of Francois Beauchemin and the unloading of Andy Sutton.
With that balance the Ducks are able to give different looks to their defensive pairings to fit the situation. For the most part Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman are considered the top pair with a combination of offensive and defensive ability. In the closing minutes with a lead however, it's often a double dose of defense brought to you by the pairing of Lydman and Beauchemin. Conversely the top power play D-pair is Lubo with Fowler. And that's without even mentioning Luca Sbisa (aka Beauch Jr.).
That versatility doesn't stop at the defense either. Andrews Cogliano and Gordon, Maxime Macenauer, Brandon McMillan, Devante Smith-Pelly (if he isn't sent back to juniors) and Matt Beleskey all have the ability to move up and down the lineup and play in all kinds of different situations. They probably won't crack the power play much, barring injury, but with bottom six forwards that can contribute defensively, on the penalty kill and chip in on the score sheet, the Ducks are deeper at forward than they have been since trading away Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Chris Kunitz in 2009.
Since then, the Ducks have been trying to put together some kind of third scoring line. That still hasn't come to fruition yet with only a goal each from Cogliano and Macenauer of the bottom six, but there is potential, should they get some ice time. Randy Carlyle needs to make some adjustments in the way he distributes the time on ice based on the new makeup of his forward lines.
For most of his first four seasons with the Ducks, Carlyle had a good thing going with two lines of scorers, a bromance inspiring checking line and a fourth line of grinders and bruisers including the likes of George Parros, Brad May and Shawn Thornton. Without the checking line for the last two years he's relied on the top two lines to do everything.
Now there is a respite, but Carlyle still hasn't adjusted. Last night in Chicago Ryan Getzlaf played 28:13. I repeat: TWENTY EIGHT MINUTES AND THIRTEEN SECONDS!!! Even with overtime, that is way too much for any forward, and probably most defensemen, especially in the first game of a seven game road trip over the course of only 12 days.
I've never been much of a Carlyle-basher, but he has to trust in his lower lines more. This group is better than he's had in the past two seasons, but they can't prove themselves if he only rolls two lines. It becomes even more important for Carlyle to take some burden off of the top two lines this season as there is a real possibility that the entire second line as we know it will be gone next year. Saku Koivu and Jason Blake are both unrestricted free agents this summer and this appears to be 41-year-old Teemu Selanne's last season.
It's not a crisis because the depth of forward even continues into the lower leagues. Kyle Palmieri is leading the AHL in goals with eight so far this season in Syracuse. Emerson Etem has 16 goals in 12 games (!!) with Medicine Hat of the WHL. Patrick Maroon was even put on the first line in his NHL debut last night to provide a little Dustin Penner feel alongside Getzlaf and Perry.
Having these guys to look forward to will be a huge relief next year when the entire second line goes UFA and/or retires, but only if Carlyle can find it in himself to give "arguably the best line in the game today" a break once in a while.