Once again, the trade deadline has come and gone.
Once again, Ducks General Manager Bob Murray did not make a headline-grabbing move for a premier forward like so many have wanted.
Once again, the Ducks continue to cling to their surplus of young defensemen.
There are some differences this year, however. The Ducks have a new (old?) head coach with the return of Randy Carlyle after 5 years away. Their roster is also generally considered to be weaker than previous years with players like David Perron and Jamie McGinn leaving due to salary cap constraints.
The Ducks also are not the dominant regular season team they used to be after four straight Pacific Division titles; the San Jose Sharks appear to be ready to take that throne. However, they still sit in a playoff spot - albeit with Calgary only 2 points behind for the 3rd playoff spot in the division. The Ducks are still a full 7 points clear of the St. Louis Blues in the 2nd Wild Card spot, so they’re not in danger of falling out of contention - yet.
Patrick Eaves was the only significant piece added by the Ducks this year. Does he make this team better? I believe that yes, he does. But does he make this team a true Stanley Cup Finals threat?
I’d say the answer to that is a resounding no.
There’s been quite a lot of doom-and-gloom talk recently with the way the Ducks have been playing. Combine that with the fact that Murray did not sufficiently address an area of need; the talk has reached deafening levels.
This brings me to the crux of this article:
There’s no reason to throw in the towel yet.
For starters, let’s look at the Ducks current lineup:
I actually believe that is a very good-looking lineup. Everyone in the top 3 lines has scoring ability. The top line is one of the best shutdown lines in the NHL. And the 4th line can win absurd amounts of faceoffs and cycle the puck well. Could it be better? Sure. But on paper this is a team that should make the playoffs with relative ease.
As for Bob Murray, well, that’s a little more complicated.
The Ducks are a notoriously tight-lipped organization. Just how long a leash owners Henry and Susan Samueli have with Murray is hard to say. I do believe 100% that the Samuelis own this team to win. I can’t think of any other reason why owners who spend tens of millions of dollars in arena upgrades and who give their blessing for a historical budget team to push right up against the cap in order to sign young talent all while supposedly losing double digit millions every year wouldn’t want to win.
However, one has to imagine that Murray’s seat is getting hotter by the day. It’s obvious where the Ducks strengths and weakness lie. And it’s obvious that Murray has done little to leverage those strengths to remedy those weaknesses.
Look at where this team is though. The Ducks have a mere $2.8 million in cap space, which includes Stoner and Despres making a combined $6.95 million on long-term injured reserve.
With Stoner set to make a return soon, Murray and another GM would have had to have gotten extremely creative to make any sort of a forward trade work beyond Eaves, let alone a top-flight winger (for those of you saying simply dump Stoner or Bieksa, I guarantee you not a single one of the other 29 GMs were willing to take those on; remember no one would even take Stoner for free when he was put on waivers earlier this season).
The Ducks have a core group that will probably start hitting their decline in the next season or two (if they haven’t already, which some could rightfully argue that they have). There’s also a relative lack of forward talent in the prospect pool to serve as immediate replacements, though that’s beginning to change with the recent drafting of Sam Steel, Max Jones, and Troy Terry.
The expansion draft will likely be Murray’s last chance to prove himself. The Ducks can still trade a defenseman before to ensure that they don’t lose a talented player for nothing. Depending on how someone like Sami Vatanen plays the rest of the season and potentially the playoffs, Murray may be able to get a much larger return for the future of the franchise. That obviously doesn’t help for the playoff push, though.
There’s also his head coach hiring, which leads me to my next point:
We’re a little more than 2⁄3 of the way through his first season back and already the cries to fire him are deafening. What other team in the NHL sitting in a playoff spot can claim that the majority of their fan base wants the new head coach canned?
To be fair, I get it.
I understand that we have bad memories from the end of his first tenure here. I understand people saw what he did in Toronto. I watch the games and see that there’s likely system issues. I also see that this team isn’t as good in the regular season as the Bruce Boudreau-coached teams.
But here’s the thing. What matters is the playoffs. Literally the entire reason Boudreau was ousted was because he couldn’t close out a playoff series when the huge “do-or-die” games came up. Teemu Selanne took major issue with Boudreau in his biography, saying that he’d rather play for the Kings then play under the former Ducks coach specifically because, as Selanne claims, he would become dead-silent and practically non-existent when pushed against the metaphorical wall.
And while Carlyle has clearly not shown that his regular-season teams can perform at the same level as Boudreau’s, we know that he can motivate. Carlyle was the last coach the Ducks had that could pull the very best out of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in a playoff series. The Ducks are going to specifically need these two players to find the next level if they have any hope at making a deep playoff run this year.
Which is why, unless the Ducks keep slipping and miss the playoffs entirely, I’m not going to level a definitive judgement on Carlyle yet. Remember, the very guys Carlyle supposedly lost in the locker room during his first tenure were fully supportive and even pushed for him returning to give the team some needed accountability. Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler, and even Selanne pushed for it.
But if this team gets bounced in the first round of the playoffs again, the judgement will come. It will be swift and fierce, in that scenario.
Is this a team that can win a Stanley Cup? I believe it is.
Is this a team that is likely to win a Stanley Cup? I don’t really think so.
Keep in mind, Murray has gone on record saying that he would like to give this group one last chance to win a cup. If he’s true to his word, and the Ducks don’t win it all, then we will expect him to blow the team up from a player perspective.
I understand the panic. I understand the cynicism. Maybe it’s been rightfully earned given the Ducks’ history.
Maybe this is the optimist in me, but I’m not willing to throw in the towel just yet. Am I skeptical? Of course I am. But I would much rather choose to look forward to every game and cheer as hard as I can for a win rather than choose to give up before the season is even over and remain a miserable hockey fan until April.
When all is said and done, and the Ducks are either out of the playoffs or lifting the Cup above their heads, the judgement will come then.
It’s all about the playoffs. Everything goes out the window.
And then it’s on.