Slowly and steadily, the Anaheim Ducks have been building a head of steam over the past three seasons in the quest to bring the Stanley Cup back to its first California summer spot. Now, fresh off a Western Conference Final appearance for the first time since that 2006-07 campaign and featuring a loaded but retooled lineup, Anaheim is in the discussion as one of the favorites to claim the chalice. As part of SB Nation's NHL Season Preview, here are the three big questions facing the Ducks with that weight of expectation on their shoulders.
1. Is this year make or break for the Ducks?
Year by year progression is a good thing, until that progress stalls or even worse is blown up in an early playoff loss. Just ask the St. Louis Blues of the late 90's-early 00's, or the San Jose Sharks of the late 00's-early 10's, great regular season teams that never could break through the Western Conference to even get the opportunity to play for the title. While the four seasons would arguably still be a bit early to affix the "can't get it done" tag to this core in Anaheim, there are a number of factors that add up to the 15-16 season needing to be the ultimate breakthrough year for the Ducks.
First and foremost is age of the top-dollar players. Both Ryan Getzlaf ($8.25 mil. AAV) and Corey Perry ($8.65 mi. AAV) will turn 31 in May, and while they both remain world class players, the looming age-based decline concerns are real. Ryan Kesler turns 32 in August, just in time for his new six-year, $6.875 mil. AAV extension to kick in, while Kevin Bieksa's two-year, $4 mil. AAV extension engages after he turns 35 in June. That's $27.775 locked in for four players who either face the prospect of, or already are slowing down production-wise thanks to age. It likely means tough decisions will need to be made this offseason, with early to mid-20's forwards Rickard Rakell and Jiri Sekac, defensemen Hampus Lindholm, Simon Despres, and Sami Vatanen, and goalie Frederik Andersen all facing restricted free agent status.
Though the Ducks have several players that could step in and fill hypothetical holes from their farm system in the future, it appears that this is likely the one chance that this whole collection has to claim the Cup. Should Anaheim succeed, it seems the team would likely have to restructure in the manner of recent Chicago Blackhawks champions, rather than keep everyone together as the Los Angeles Kings were able to. The acquisition of Kesler last summer was a sign of the Ducks seriousness about taking the next step; with the collection of talent and uncertainty surrounding the youth for the coming offseason, it's clear if Anaheim is going to do it, this may be their best shot to bring the Cup back to Orange County.
2. Which defenseman steps up?
Though coach Bruce Boudreau made some noise in training camp that it's not a rule that teams need a number one defenseman to win the Stanley Cup, one has to go all the way back to the 05-06 Carolina Hurricanes to find a champion that lacked a defenseman that averaged over 25 minutes a night during the regular season and playoffs. In recent seasons that role has gone to Francois Beauchemin, who at 35 years old was allowed to leave for Colorado during free agency. Now with the acquisition of Bieksa in the offseason to keep a veteran presence in the group, it's up to the collection of four defenders aged 21 to 24 to prove one of them can fill that number one role.
Lindholm would appear the immediate most likely candidate, as for the past two seasons he skated with Beauchemin on the top pairing, averaging 21:45 of ice time during the regular season and 23:15 in the playoffs last season. However, after ranking 17th in the league in even strength shot attempts percentage before the trade deadline at 50.5, following the acquisition of Despres from the Penguins for Ben Lovejoy the team lurched to a 5th in the league 53.8 SAT% over the final 18 games and ranked 4th in the playoffs at 51.7 SAT%. Despres unleashed Cam Fowler, who had posted a 49.9 SAT% over the first 63 games, improving to 51.3 over the last 17 regular season games while Despres posted a 53.0 SAT%. The two were a reliable second pair in the playoffs, a 51.8 SAT% mark between them.
Fowler has been a sore spot for some Ducks fans, despite putting up three 30+ point seasons the 23-year old with 345 games of regular season and 42 playoff games experience has yet to fully actualize into the defender imagined when Anaheim took him 12th overall in 2010. With the smooth skating, shot suppressing Despres, Fowler should have more opportunities to do so in this his sixth season in the league. Still, it's hard to bet against the 21-year old Lindholm, who posted a 51.6 SAT% during the regular season and lurched to 54.5 during the playoffs despite facing the second-toughest zone starts of the group. One of the two will need to take the lead role.
3. Can Frederik Andersen lead this team to a title?
It's worth keeping in mind that last season was Andersen's first as an NHL starter, and his 54 regular season games played is more than he'd appeared in any other year's season plus playoffs combined in his career. It's understandable then that his save percentage would fall from .923 in 28 games in the 13-14 season to .914 last year. Andersen started for 20 consecutive games from November 7 to December 18, and appeared in 41 of the Ducks first 50 games. Despite the heavy workload he still managed to post a .919 SV% over those games, but began scuffling in early February before suffering a freak injury when the net fell on the back of his head in Tampa Bay on February 8. In his final 10 appearances after returning he struggled with a .907 SV%, but improved to a .913 mark for the playoffs.
There are a couple of comparisons that show Andersen favorably through his first two seasons. Two-time Stanley Cup champions Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick had two playoffs as starter before breaking through and leading their teams to the title; Andersen's .909 SV% through his first two runs is better than Quick's (.907) but slightly below Crawford's (.912). Each goalie suffered a save percentage dip during their second full regular season, again Andersen in the middle dropping off .009 while Crawford fell .014 and Quick .007. Yet perhaps the best comparison is to Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, both considering similar frame and similar circumstance of being in a contract season in second full year as a starter. Through their first two full NHL seasons Andersen and Holtby have virtually identical save percentages (.918 vs .917), and Holtby bouncing back and earning his big money deal in his second year as a starter.
With Anton Khudobin and his .919 career save percentage acquired in the offseason, and having had a whole summer knowing the physical rigors of an NHL starting job to prepare, Andersen is well positioned to have a similar sort of bounce back season with a proven competitive backup and the lure of playing for a new contract. The Kings in 2014 proved that it doesn't take a world beating goaltending performance (Quick had a .911 SV%) if the team in front can dominate possession and gets diverse scoring. Anaheim wasn't that far off last season with Andersen; if more regularly rested and better physically prepared this season, it's hard to think the guy known as 'Fredo' won't improve, and in turn improve the Ducks title hopes.