Before you bring out your torches and pitchforks, I would like to kick this article off by being clear that I am not advocating for the Ducks to tank. There are some potential benefits to tanking, of course, and I will lay those out in good time.
Instead, this article will examine the events of late last season as well as the current season’s woes in an effort to explore a question that might have some merit to it: Has General Manager Bob Murray kicked off a stealth tank this season in an effort to win a lottery pick for the 2019 Entry Draft?
Let’s give some context. Why would Anaheim want to tank? This is a team that has made the playoffs for the past 6 straight years with the best goaltender on the planet, a captain that’s showing no signs of aging, a multiple-season 30+ goal scoring winger, and one of the better top 4 on-paper defenses in the league.
But let’s face it: this team isn’t the same one that took the Chicago Blackhawks to 7 games in the Western Conference Finals. Or the one that got out to a slow start playing relatively well but got horribly unlucky the following year with, arguably, one of the top rosters in the league. This is a team with significant holes in their bottom defensive pairing as well as no one particularly threatening in their bottom 6 forward group.
Since the 2016-2017 season, Anaheim ranks:
21st in goals per game
22nd on the power play
27th in shots per game
22nd in Corsi For %
22nd in expected Goals For %
Goaltending is what has allowed this team to make the playoffs the last two seasons. This is an objectively true fact.
Outside of Getzlaf and a of couple others, there isn’t much going on in the offensive zone. Depth scoring has been an issue for awhile now, and in order to win a Stanley Cup, that secondary threat is absolutely essential.
There’s also the oft-talked about question of age. The Ducks’ core is aging rapidly, and there are plenty of signs that Kesler and Perry are hitting their respective decline (with the exception of Getzlaf). But even the captain won’t play at this level for much longer. That’s a fact we’re all going to have to accept sooner rather than later. We hope he continues at his elite level for as long as he can, but we can’t expect him to straddle giants for several more seasons. He’s much closer to his decline than to his prime.
A point in our favor is that Anaheim has a relatively deep prospect pool. Deep, as in, they have quite a few names who will likely be solid players for a long time. However, it must be acknowledged, they are not elite yet. None of them can be considered true blue-chip prospects like Elias Pettersson or Brady Tkachuk – players who could change the direction of a franchise.
Sam Steel is smart and skilled. Max Comtois has shown some offensive upside. Isac Lundestrom is already incredibly polished as an 18-year-old. Troy Terry has shown flashes of high-end skill. But none of them have put up the kind of eye-popping numbers of true blue-chip prospects, with the exception of Sam Steel’s one junior season, which might have been an outlier looking at his results.
Can the rookies develop into blue-chips and be late-bloomers? Of course it’s possible. They’re all very young and have a lot of development left, but we need to be real with ourselves and recognize that these kids currently project out as good middle-six players. In positive terms, they can be middle-six players who could easily become the secondary scoring Anaheim has needed for years. The Ducks could quite possibly elevate themselves back into the realm of true contenders with a premier scoring/playmaking talent.
Enter the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
While we still have about six months until the draft, this year’s class is shaping up to be top-heavy. 17-year-old center Jack Hughes, playing for the US National Development team, looks like a game-changer on the level of Auston Matthews. Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko is beating grown men in the highest league in Finland and could challenge Hughes for the number one overall pick. Alex Turcotte already looks primed for top-six action in the NHL with more development likely. Vasili Podkolzin is the complete package for a scoring winger. Dylan Cozens has been lighting up juniors for a few seasons now.
Any of these players, especially Kakko and Hughes, could be the talent to lead the next generation of Ducks. Grabbing one of these players at the top of the the 2019 class would be an immediate shot in the arm to an anemic offense.
The Evidence of the Tank
We know that there’s high-end talent at the very top of this draft. All 31 teams would undoubtedly love to draft any of these players. Now, let’s look at some of the evidence that supports the idea that Bob Murray is gunning for a lottery pick.
I use the term “stealth tank” for two reasons:
- The Anaheim fanbase in general isn’t large enough to openly tank. They likely can’t pull off what the Rangers began with an open letter to fans outlining what their rebuild would look like. While this team is, by all accounts, financially healthy, they can’t afford sub-10,000 attendance every night. Especially with the hype surrounding the 25th anniversary season. I mean, the logo is pregnant! We can’t abandon it when there’s such a monumental milestone being celebrated.
- Asking a team with players like Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Ryan Kesler, John Gibson, and more to actively go against their natural instincts of playing as hard as they can to win games is just not advisable. These are pro athletes who are among the best in the world at their sport. This roster has enough talent on it that a 2014-2015 Buffalo Sabres-type tank just isn’t realistic. So if Murray wants a lottery pick, he’s going to have to try and get it through more subtle methods.
So, where is the evidence of this alleged “stealth tank”, you ask? Let’s go back to the trade deadline last season.
Anaheim was clawing desperately for a playoff spot, barely sitting in the Wild Card with the Calgary Flames hot on their heels. Injuries had devastated the team early in the season, and while mostly healthy past the new year, still weren’t world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination.
Translation: if the Ducks wanted to make a deep playoff run, they would need to make a significant trade to help with their scoring.
Bob Murray answered the call with: drumroll please...
Jason Chimera. And signing Chris Kelly. Yeah.
Murray specifically stated, “I wasn’t going to move a first round-pick this year, and certain other young assets I didn’t want to move”.
The General Manager is not dumb, not by a long shot. There’s no conceivable way Murray would believe that the Ducks were a Stanley Cup-contending team, because all of the stats, even with a mostly healthy roster, were extremely average as Anaheim continued to be carried by John Gibson and Ryan Miller.
Why, then, would Murray refuse to move any assets for, say, Evander Kane? Or Max Pacioretty, who the Ducks were rumored to be one of the finalists for at the deadline? True difference-makers who could have had a major impact on the team. This isn’t the move of a GM who thinks his team is going to contend.
Fast forward to April 21st. Anaheim had just suffered a humiliating sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks. As players, coaches, and Murray gave exit interviews, the theme that arose over and over again was speed. Playing faster. Getting faster. Every permutation of that idea.
“...if your team plays fast, you can make players faster. And that’s the first thing that has to be addressed around here,” Murray told reporters at that time.
It would be logical to think, then, that the Ducks would move on to another coach to transition to that system. After all, Carlyle has had more than 6 years on his head coaching resume between the end of his first stint with Anaheim and parts of 4 seasons with Toronto that shows he has not been able to change a system that, while once effective in the late 2000s, has since fallen from grace.
Instead, the exact opposite happened. Carlyle got a vote of confidence from his boss that he could change. That he could completely overhaul his system to a brand new style of game never before implemented by this head coach.
“I know he definitely knows some things have to change. Hopefully I can give him a healthy hockey team to start the year to see if they will change,” Murray said at exit interviews.
Obviously, the healthy team part didn’t come to fruition with Anaheim beginning the season with another array of injuries. It would be short-sighted to not acknowledge that health has been a contributor to this season’s struggles.
However, there is enough talent on this roster to not be historically bad. As the shot share graph in the 2nd tweet from The Athletic’s Sean Tierney shows, Anaheim’s ability to generate shots on net has been almost non-existent.
Shot share— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) November 5, 2018
Due to the ever-so-slight improvements by ANA and the bottom-drop-complete-collapse by OTT, these two teams find themselves linked at the bottom of the chart. That's not good. pic.twitter.com/Mhb6g8Kx5N
It’s been so bad, in fact, that, until just a couple of games ago, Anaheim was giving up more shots per game than the 1974-1975 Washington Capitals. A team widely regarded as the worst NHL team of all time. A team that won 8 games all season. Keep in mind that, even with several injuries, this team has had a healthy defense for most of the season.
Then there’s the roster itself.
Right off the bat, losing Francois Beauchemin, Kevin Bieksa, and Antoine Vermette, with the chance for prospects to win those spots, seemed to be a classic case of addition by subtraction.
That is, until the free agency period opened. Murray responded to the playoff sweep and calls for faster play by signing Luke Schenn, Andrej Sustr, Ben Street, Brian Gibbons, and Carter Rowney.
Street and Gibbons fit the profile of fast skaters, even if they’re not particularly skilled. However, Luke Schenn has put up defensive metrics almost as bad as Kevin Bieksa in recent seasons. And Andrej Sustr, while not quite as bad, never excelled on a juggernaut Tampa Bay team. 29-year-old Cartner Rowney, who had 71 NHL games to his name playing mostly on Pittsburgh’s 4th line, was inexplicably signed to a 3-year contract.
When it became apparent that injuries would be the theme of the opening weeks of the season for the 2nd year in a row, Anaheim’s much-awaited prospect group got a taste of NHL action. Some of whom are still playing 14 games into the season. While they’ve shown flashes of their promised skill, none of them is near the title of Anaheim’s best player early in the season.
Extensions like Adam Henrique and John Gibson, however, make a lot of sense for a rebuilding period in Anaheim. Henrique is a tremendously popular leader both on and off the ice, both in the locker room, and outside of it. Having a veteran mentor who can pot a goal every now and again is undoubtedly an invaluable asset to a team steadily getting younger and learning how to compete at the highest levels.
Gibson doesn’t need much explanation. He’s 25 years old. He’s been the best goaltender in the league for the past two seasons. He might even be getting better. Eight more years, with most of those in his theoretical prime, is more than enough time for the Ducks to reinvent themselves into cup contenders, if the right decisions are made.
Getzlaf will likely be on a series of short-term details as he (hopefully) begins his graceful aging process and continues his mentorship of the next wave of Ducks stars. Corey Perry, barring a significant turnaround, will likely be gone. Ryan Kesler will likely be gone. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, and Brandon Montour will all be in their late 20s, still more than capable NHL players. Ready to be surrounded by a potential superstar taken at the top of this year’s draft in addition to the existing complementary prospects.
We have to concede that many of these decisions from the front office have been made with other goals in mind. Yes, the Ducks could be the product of a GM who does not want to admit his mistake of rehiring a coach he previously fired. Maybe he just misfired on several free agent signings. Maybe the injury bug didn’t provide a convienent cover for him and he wants to see how things play out once fully healthy. Maybe he believes several of his prospects have hidden superstar potential in them.
Or maybe, we here at Anaheim Calling are looking for things that don’t exist in an effort to explain this train wreck start to a season and salivating over the thought of a Ducks sweater with “Hughes” or “Kakko” across the back.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, this is not an endorsement of a tank. Despite what some would like to believe, most of us are fans of the team and don’t want the Ducks to lose. We want them to win the Cup as much as every other die-hard fan of this franchise.
But, given the events of the season and the decisions of the front office dating back to the trade deadline, the possibility that a stealth tank exists is one worth exploring.
There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played, however. Only time will tell where this team stands and what its future looks like in a season that, no matter what, stands as a transitional period between the Ducks of old, and the Ducks of new.