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Murray's Tough Question: Are the Ducks a Contender?

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Strapped for cap space, cash and with three key pieces of the Ducks' future up for raises this summer, Murray will face a decision this season that will define his tenure in Anaheim.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get some things out of the way. I am well aware that I am Murray's biggest critic. This post isn't really about firing Murray, although that might be warranted given the circumstances. Rather, this is a post about where Murray currently finds himself in his tenure as GM of the Ducks. Whether you buy into the Sod moniker or you believe Murray is too harshly judged for circumstances he can't fully control, there's no denying we've reached the apex of his work in Anaheim. Murray has been the GM in Anaheim since November of 2008.  He is working on his 8th season as captain of the Anaheim ship, and his best showing was last year's trip to the Western Conference Final. Eight years is a long time for a "retooling." By now, the Ducks should be more of a serious contender than a team trying to find solutions after a pitiful start.

The Situation: That brings us to the present money problem. Anaheim has 55.62(I rounded up to avoid listing all the 6s) tied up in 13 players and a Fistric buy-out. Commissioner Bettman stated in early December of 2015 that initial cap projections could be  +/- 3 million dollars.  For the sake of wiggle room, let's say the cap increases 4 million next season, putting the cap at 75.4 million. That means the Ducks have 19.8 million for 10 roster spots. Keeping Rakell, Lindholm, and Vatanen should be priorities. I think Hamilton is the best starting point for evaluating how much Lindy and Vats get.  The point totals are close, and Vatanen is on pace for 43 this year, and was on pace for 45 last year. Even if they don't get the full 5.75 that Hamilton got, you could easily see them splitting 10 million.  Rakell should at least get Silfverberg money, and now you're staring at 6 million dollars for 7 roster spots. This is where the Ducks sit in terms of the salary cap. This also doesn't take into consideration the Samuelis might clamp down with an  internal budget and blow this whole thing up. This strain on our cap space is putting Murray in a very tough situation.

The Dilemma: You'd be hard pressed to find a defensive core that is as young and talented as the one in Anaheim.  Unfortunately, the cheap price often associated with young players has run its course, and now it's time to pay. Murray spent a lot of money trying to solidify the roster for a Cup run this year, which lead to the previously established cap constraints. Murray wants to win the Cup, you know like every team, and that costs money.  Murray had to know  which contracts were coming up for renewal and have at least some idea of what the neighborhood of those prices would be.  All of this points to the conclusion that Murray was willing to gamble on those RFA contracts-specifically Rakell, Lindholm, and Vatanen-to push for a Cup this season.  After an abysmal start, the Ducks find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. According to an average taken from Hockey Reference, Playoff Status, and Sports Club Stats, the Ducks have a 30% chance of making the playoffs.  Of course, being only one point out of the playoff position makes for a much more seductive picture. Murray is facing a tough decision: does he hold onto his current roster and burn assets to stay in the hunt this year, or does he embrace the tankening(can we trademark this?) to hopefully keep the younger players as a core going forward?

The Decision...?: It really depends on if he thinks THIS team can win the Cup. The Ducks are about 2.5 percentage points down in terms of on-ice shooting percentage. They are also 9th in Shots for%. Those are good signs.  The team SV% is 92.5, which is sustainable. However, hoping Gibson keeps his personal SV% at 93.2 is probably asking a lot. There will be more goals scored down the stretch, but there will also be a few more allowed as Gibson's SV% normalizes. While the Ducks are still getting the better of the shot distribution, they still aren't generating a ton of shots; they are 16th at 29.5 per game.  If the overall S% goes from 6.4 to a more reasonable 8 for the entirety of the last 44 games, the Ducks will score about 106 for the rest of the year, or 2.41 goals a game.  That would still be in the bottom third of the league.  The Ducks aren't going to make deep into the playoffs without some help on offense. Acquiring a rental is risky, because they usually cost a first round pick, which the Ducks REALLY don't want to do with the talent in this year's draft. The new lottery rules have turned every pick in the top 14 into a lottery ticket.  A long term solution will further cut into the Ducks very limited cap space for next season, and might force the Ducks to part with one of the core defenders they should be trying to keep.  This is where Murray finds himself: should he double-down on this roster, or admit he made a mistake and try to ship out some of his longer term contracts to keep his defense together? Does he push hard for the Cup, or does he focus on retaining the core and once again restructuring his lines over the summer? It's no secret where I fall in all of this, but that's probably another post for another time.

The Impact: This will be a tenure defining moment for Murray. If he makes the right moves to finally get this team a Cup, Murray will silence the doubters, put a stamp on all his efforts, and leave the mess of the future to another GM. If he fails in acquiring the Cup, he will most likely leave the Ducks in a state of disrepair.  Kesler's contract is an anchor. Hagelin and Silf have never reached 20 goals or 40 points in a season, but are making a combined 7.75 against the cap, plus Hagelin has a limited no trade clause that kicks in next season.  Bieksa and Stoner are still on the books. There's a lot of deadweight eating up cap space around here. If Murray doesn't find something to do with it, it could cost the Ducks some of their better young players, players the Ducks will need to be competitive going forward.  Murray is in a precarious position, and he needs to navigate it cautiously. His moves this season will impact this franchise for many years to come.  If he plays his cards right, it could be one bad year, a hiccup.  If he tries too hard to win it all this year, the Ducks could find themselves facing a full rebuild in a few seasons.