This was supposed to be The Year for the Anaheim Ducks. Partly out of opportunity — because they are a talented team coming off a run to the conference final and because the team that beat them had to restructure their roster to stay under the salary cap — and partly out of necessity — because most of the key young players become RFAs next summer and because Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler are on the wrong side of 30.
A combination of poor play and poorer luck in the first month of the regular season has put that conversation on hold. Now, the sole focus is on getting back into the playoff picture before it slips out of reach. So what does that mean for the future? Either the Ducks make the playoffs or they don't, but there are more than just two ways this season could end. I see six different possible scenarios.
1. Tanking and Rebuilding
A quick look at the league standings (and nothing else) would indicate that perhaps the best course of action would be to start flipping veterans for picks and prospects in an attempt to start a long-term rebuild with Auston Matthews or Jesse Puljujarvi as the centerpiece.
Most observers would agree that this won't work for the 2015-16 Ducks. For one thing, the NHL's new draft lottery rules no longer guarantee the last place team a top-two pick. But more importantly, this team is simply too good to tank. The notoriously patient general manager Bob Murray is not going to trade either of his two future Hall of Fame forwards, and the team's shooting percentage has nowhere to go but up. More wins are on their way; whether or not there will be enough of them is another question.
2. Missing the Playoffs and Re-Tooling for Next Year
Last year, the Los Angeles Kings famously became the first defending Cup champions to miss the playoffs since the Carolina Hurricanes did it in 2007. This year, a rested and re-tooled Kings roster looks to challenge for the Cup yet again. Perhaps the Ducks will follow a similar path.
Assuming the Ducks miss the playoffs but do not win the draft lottery, the best case scenario would be Murray cashing in on relatively unproductive seasons for his key RFAs. If Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, and Rickard Rakell all return, 2017 could become The Year.
3. Missing the Playoffs and Beginning a Long, Agonizing Decline
If the Ducks can't dig their way out of this early season hole but the key RFAs still manage to produce, Murray could be in for a nightmare situation. Rakell's agent could capitalize on the fact that, as the franchise's only young center with high-end offensive ability, the Ducks cannot afford to let him go. Murray would have to pay him what he wants, and the resulting cap squeeze would end up pushing one or two of the good defensemen out of town.
The Twins then play out the rest of their primes on a team not good enough to contend for a Cup and not bad enough soon enough to get help from a world-beating prospect.
4. Making the Playoffs and Not Winning the Cup
As of now, clawing back into the playoffs would be a victory in and of itself. But in order to get there, the Ducks will probably have to maintain a league-elite winning percentage throughout the last 70 games of the season, which would be enough to vault them back into the "favorites" category once the puck drops in Game 83. So head coach Bruce Boudreau would find himself in the same situation as always, with all the pressure on. It'd likely be Cup or bust for him at that point.
If most of the RFAs re-sign, maybe the Ducks can continue to contend for a couple years before the decline of the Twins begets the decline of the Ducks. In a 30-team league, contending for a few years is still pretty good. While nobody's going to be happy about being an also-ran, the reality is that most good teams don't end up winning the Cup.
5. Making the Playoffs and Winning the Cup
Nobody's thinking about this right now, which is as it should be for a team that needs every win it can get in November, but it still is possible. Winning it all this year might not make the Ducks' eventual decline any less likely to happen, but it will make it a lot more bearable. Put another way, being a Bruins fan right now is slightly better than being a Canucks fan.
6. All the RFAs Take Pay Cuts, Twins Age Like Wine, Bad Contracts Get Dealt
Unlikely? Sure. But impossible? Remember, Steve Yzerman was 32 when he hoisted the first of his three Stanley Cups for Detroit. It's tough to win with old superstars, but it isn't impossible.