There has been increasingly vocal commentary this season as to the state of the Ducks. While their decline has been somewhat unavoidable, the second consecutive season with multiple big name injuries has taken a toll on a fan base who have become accustomed to the “good times.” After six consecutive playoff seasons, many of the newer fans may not recall a time when their beloved team ever struggled like they’re currently perceived to be struggling.
“How long have you felt this pain?” the doc inquires, to which we reply, “It’s a new twinge, intermittent at most.” Yet this perception may not entirely be true. We have been here before. Let me consult my records.
Under Bruce Boudreau’s leadership, there was a season in which the Ducks relied heavily upon points gained in overtime. Then, too, they struggled to score goals. So much did they struggle to score that, under Boudreau, they turned from an offensively oriented team to one that focused entirely on defense. That is to say, if I were a physician reading the logs, the signs that the current sickness the Ducks are suffering would arrive were apparent, if one knew where to look.
Nonetheless, these Ducks are struggling and their fans are taking the temperature and calling for an ambulance. After an injured year in which the Ducks were clean swept out of the playoffs, the comforting lies are no longer holding up to harsh reality. Hot flashes, chills, erratic behavior, inconsistency and inability to function? Check. It’s time for a visit to the ER.
So what are the symptoms, we’re asked? It turns out that “big name” acquisitions, Ryan Kesler and Adam Henrique, are not able to lead a team to victory. That the prospects are exactly as good as experts said they’d be. That addition by subtraction (i.e. Kevin Bieksa OUT) is only relevant if the players filling those spots are actually better than the players going out. That meticulously stripping a team of scoring each season will eventually result in a team that struggles to score. That signing guys who get injured will actually result in injured guys not contributing.
Yet fans continue to believe that their heroes of yesterday are still their bolder, mightier, earlier selves, in the same way that a 35-year old believes that he can do the same things he could do back in his early 20’s. Instead of a real shake up, they question the coaching. And indeed, Carlyle should be questioned. He has a long résumé of struggling to coach fast teams, of presenting teams that are systematically out-shot and out-chanced. All buzzwords in today’s NHL.
Yet I would ask: “To what end?”
Last night’s Ducks team is icing a defensive corp with one genuine (and somewhat overrated) top 4 defenseman in Josh Manson. Crippled by the absence of injured Hampus Lindholm, their already struggling core has taken another hit. Brandon Montour, the next most experienced player, has a long way to go to earn those stripes, although it should be noted that the past two games have seen longer minutes and impressive play from him; he gained a goal and two assists against the Avalanche. At least offensively, he is improving. His defensive play still requires strides to be called mediocre.
Prized prospects Jacob Larsson and Marcus Pettersson, are not living up to the hype, despite Ahler’s and Hayzie’s best efforts to pump them up each night. Larsson, in particular, appears to be clueless behind his own net, choosing to chase his opposing forward to the exact wrong side and opening up ice in the slot (and being scored upon) on multiple occasions in the past few games. Off-season additions Luke Schenn and Andrej Sustr have been exactly what most fans thought they’d be, over-the-counter meds that weren’t strong enough to help, and are now playing for the San Diego Gulls, having passed through waivers.
No current or newly-hired coach is turning this into a serviceable defensive unit. Contrarily, it’s the defensive unit of a team in a complete an utter rebuild. There is no spoonful of sugar for this medicine, folks.
Let’s survey the damage: Up front, ailing veteran Eaves, oft-injured prior to his stint with the Ducks is injured once more.
Old man Kesler, post-surgery, is a shadow of the player he was in Vancouver, and truthfully swings between serviceable and awful on a near shift by shift basis.
Last season’s career-year-scorer crowned as a savior to the team, Adam Henrique, has followed the trend his career was taking by producing less shot attempts and subsequent goal scoring, while giving up more opportunities to be scored upon.
Ryan Getzlaf missed games, but has produced at a reasonable pace for someone of his stature. Still, his passes aren’t connecting and he’s had to shoot on net to get the job done more and more frequently.
Rickard Rakell, leads the team in scoring, but his glorious numbers of yesterseason are nowhere in sight, and the fans are grumbling, sharpening their pitchforks. He has been given the Corey Perry treatment as so many past Ducks stars have. No goals = no good in the critical eyes of the fans.
Pontus Aberg, the 25-year-old waiver wire pick up, is the Ducks current leading goal scorer. While I love a good cult to follow, it should reflect the state of the team that his name tops the leaderboard.
Wonderful player and poster boy for survival in the grittiest of times, Andrew Cogliano, simply isn't a top 6 option if scoring is required. Yet he’s been a top 6 option in Anaheim for seasons now.
Ditto for Ondrej Kase. He’s a wonderful youth who sprung for a 20-goal season last year. Yet he’s neither an accurate shot nor a particularly skilled player. He’s energetic and works hard. All things that fans love. But he’s been promoted prematurely. To clarify, he’s another 3rd-liner who has been put on the Ducks’ top line, to fill a void.
Now for the awful-tasting medicine, dear readers: this isn't a line-up that a new coach is going to come in and make into a high octane offensive unit. This team needs a multi-symptom flu tonic, while the fans foolishly call for an aspirin.
They yearn for that one injured player to return and fix their woes. Turn on Carlyle en masse. They truly believe that a different coach is the magic pill that will unlock potential in this team in a way that the coach with the 4th best current winning percentage cannot. Oh, and before you turn on me, too, this is no defense of Carlyle. Just a note that in seasons where Carlyle had either a healthy or half-way competent team, he’s found results. At least according to the standings (math and science). Ignore math and science for a moment. Should we agree that it’s the head that needs examination? After all, other teams have excised their head coaches recently. After fewer ailments than ours. Why is this not a done-deal, doc?
Let’s look at different medicinal options. Suppose that the Ducks do make a change behind the bench. To what end? What is the direction they’re taking? For surely a clear direction is important for any new hire to work towards. Is it winning this season? Is it to challenge for the Cup? Will the team suddenly perform differently if a change is made up top?
If so I have only this to say, while I pull out my lab results, prior notes and tomes of clinical studies: attempting to win with this team is setting the coach up for failure.
And thus I prescribe the bitterest pill of all: the truth. This team cannot win a cup. It simply isn't good enough. It doesn't have enough firepower up front to hang with the big dogs of the league, and the defensive players never really developed to the prowess they were hyped to achieve. It’s a team built to win three years ago, in the style the Kings won with three years before that. Let us not forget, that Kings team only just snuck into the playoffs each time and went on some crazy hot streaks. They were, however, a much better defensive unit than this Ducks team has ever been.
So if medicine isn’t a functional option, are we looking at surgery? Can the Ducks surgical team make some careful cuts, i.e. trades to get this team back on track?
Unfortunately, this is unlikely. This team is also incredibly expensive. Up against the cap, and with big money players (i.e. Corey Perry) expected to return before the season is over, no big name help is coming. William Nylander would be a wonderful addition, but his reported asking price would be difficult for the Ducks to fit onto their team, even if they were interested. An interest which I doubt was there to begin with.
Similarly, the Ducks have few players to trade away. Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry both hold No-Movement Clauses, and thus no matter how much fans (or the franchise) may wish them to be moved, they simply won’t be. Nor will the Ducks buy out such expensive contracts. As a traditional budget team, the Ducks would be extremely unlikely to buy these players out, and use the resulting cap space to acquire further players of the same ilk. Trading away players such as Eaves is an unlikely occurence due to his injured status. He surely could be moved, however it would cost the Ducks assets. Assets that they don't have many of, especially given that the Devils hold this season’s 3rd round pick, as a holdover from the Henrique trade. Henrique has yet to play a game under his extension, but it seems unlikely that the Ducks would give up an additional pick (this year’s 3rd), to extend a player then trade him before it kicks in.
This leaves only Jakob Silfverberg. The player who once started the Ducks’ exodus of offensive talent (shipping 30 goal scorer Bobby Ryan out for him) now sits 2nd on the team in goals, and 3rd in points. He is, however, out of contract this season, and the coming cap squeeze has many fans assuming he’ll be traded. Many, in fact, wished he was traded prior to the season starting, so that predicted NHL superstar Troy Terry could play in the top 6. Assuming that Silfverberg isn’t extended (which I personally believe will be the case), what value does he bring in trade today? It seems most likely that he’ll garner a greater return closer to the trade deadline.
Sure, Andrew Cogliano could be moved, but it seems unlikely given that his return would be at best a 2nd round pick. The same return could be received at the deadline. Alternatively, the Ducks could acquire another, cheaper, veteran and a lesser pick in return. A way to cut salary and fill a roster spot, yet this seems like circle work that isn't really going to help a rebuild, nor push the prospects in the right direction.
After gutting the Ducks’ vaunted defense over the past couple years, trading out Shea Theodore and Sami Vatanen, the Ducks have precious little to trade from this position once considered a strength. The remaining players are either considered too valuable, or are injured. Can the Ducks stomach trading a player such as Montour, who was an original reason it was okay to move Theodore, when they have had to reach deep into their prospect pool to play first year pro Josh Mahura in current days? Does it even make sense to trade him given his age would fit right in with a total rebuild anyway?
Thus, the surgeon shrugs. Cutting does not seem to be the cure. The argument above suggests that it’s going to be near impossible to clear enough cap space to make meaningful trades. Simultaneously, it also shows that the Ducks have precious little to trade if they wish to kick off a rebuild/retooling. This team was always going to be beholden to Ryan Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Adding Cam Fowler’s and Adam Henrique’s new contracts to the books merely doubled down on a core of players that wasn't quite getting it done. While optimistic fans once only had to wait for Kesler to come off the books, they’re now waiting for Henrique and Fowler to be moved on as well.
Make no mistake, this Ducks team is a bubble playoff team. Not good enough to matter in the post-season, and not bad enough to fall far enough to get targeted draft selections and make a quick rebuild a possibility.
The disease did its damage over time, relatively unnoticed. It’s taken a long time for the Ducks to erode their strengths to become this bad and this expensive. It’s going to take just as long for them to acquire the assets necessary to start a rebuild. New coach or not, win or rebuild, fans should settle themselves in for a few years of rough hockey. Perhaps we should get our “affairs in order.”
However, and here’s the barely legible doctor’s orders: just hold your nose, open your mouth, and take the damn medicine. That sour taste will be here a while, and there’s no lollipop to sweeten the pain. Until the franchise abandons its one foot in, one foot out mentality, fans are going to be stuck in limbo unsure of what to ask for and where to put their faith.
That the Ducks appear to have a “the whole world is against us mentality” with the media, and refuse to communicate even the most basic information (like player movements between club and affiliate), doesn't work in their favour in this instance. There are too many questions. Is this team trying to win? Is this team embarking on a stealth tank/rebuild, like CJ suggested earlier this month? Is this team comfortable doing nothing and backing its current to either sink or swim as they desire? All decisions would be acceptable given context.
We as fans are sitting naked on the evaluating table in an uncomfortable paper gown, waiting for the doc to give us the bad news, without even a cute nurse to lessen the pain with a hero bandaid and a smile, much less a cheeky peek under our gown. Clearly, decisive decisions are required, and a clear line of communication between franchise and fans needs to be established. We need a prescription, some meds, and a palliative care plan.
All things this current Ducks administration seem loath to give us.