On the heels of signing a 2-year extension to keep him at the helm of the Anaheim Ducks through the 2021-2022 season, Bob Murray finally made public his thoughts on the direction of the team.
One of Murray’s biggest criticisms this season has been his silence on what the goals of this team are for the present as well as the immediate future. At a press conference announcing the extension however, those secrets were finally revealed to the media.
There’s a few other parts discussing how the extension process played out as well as injury updates, but for now, we’re going to dissect the parts related to Murray’s evaluation of the team and its future. If you’d like to read all of his answers, this summary from the Ducks is a good recap.
Question: What type of vision did you have to lay out with ownership?
Answer: “There’s been ongoing discussions about where the organization is going, and how we’re going to do it. The goal is to get back to a point where we’re a true Stanley Cup contender. There are playoff teams and Stanley Cup contenders. We want to get back into contention to win a Stanley Cup. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s a little difficult because of injuries. That’s not an excuse. You think you’re going to wait until you get healthy to see exactly how certain things are fitting or not fitting. We may never get healthy, so it’s the business these days in the NHL. Lots of teams have injuries. We have a game plan, and we’re going to go about it.”
Question: Are you a playoff team or a Stanley Cup contender right now?
Answer: “I don’t think, at the moment, the way we’re playing, we’re a Stanley Cup contender. Every night you can’t get out-chanced. We have a lot of work to do, on and off the ice.”
These two questions and answers go hand-in-hand. For the first time, we have public confirmation that the Ducks’ General Manager does not believe that the Anaheim Ducks are Stanley Cup contenders. His thoughts mirror most of the Anaheim Calling staff’s where the belief is that they can make the playoffs, but will likely not be considered one of the top teams for a championship.
Of course, once you get into the playoffs, it becomes a series of gambles. Hockey is weird and dumb and lucky and unlucky all rolled into this crazy sport we love, and one John Gibson goalie god-mode run a la 2003 J.S. Giguere could put this team into the Finals. But winning a championship in professional sports is more of gamble than it is an exact science. All you can do is increase your odds of winning, not guarantee it. And if you’re ok with, say, a 5 to 10 percent chance given by this team (and my super scientific, peer-reviewed odds formula I just made up), then you can’t be surprised if the Ducks are swept out of the 1st round yet again.
Something that is good to see is Murray explicitly saying that injuries are not an excuse. While I don’t think that this is 100% accurate, this statement is encouraging because it’s one of the first times in a long time we have seen the GM accept some accountability for the way the team plays. It belies the truth that the best teams will find ways to overcome them through depth and shrewd moves (i.e. not giving Kevin Bieksa a full NMC before playing a single game for the franchise).
If Murray doesn’t believe injuries are an excuse, then neither should you.
In summary, the head hockey honcho believes his team is a playoff team, not a Stanley Cup team.
Question: Is the foundation there with some of the young players?
Answer: “I think we have a good starting point. We have some good young players. I’m protective of them. The temptation is to bring them in and play them. The best way is to let them grow and get comfortable. Periodically during the year, you bring them up and give them a look so they understand what they have to do to make the next step properly. We’ve got a good base, but we need to work on it. We have some work to do.”
Murray has built a reputation of being notoriously protective of his prospects, for better or for worse. It was speculated at the trade deadline last year that the Ducks were a serious destination for then-Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty. Further rumors suggested that Murray pulled out of those trade talks because Montreal GM Marc Bergevin was asking for one of the Ducks’ prized forward prospects in return – likely Sam Steel.
These comments seem to indicate that Murray has learned that bringing up promising prospects too soon can hamper development. Nick Ritchie is a perfect example here.
Even though almost all of the long-awaited forward prospects started the season with Anaheim, it’s clear that Murray did not intend for them to be the long-term solution. Sending them back to the AHL or juniors was probably part of the plan all along. His comments hint that one or more of the youngsters could be brought back up at some point, but that will depend on how the rest of the season and roster develops.
The length of Murray’s extension isn’t just some random number. With almost a full year to develop in lower leagues, the next 3 seasons will reveal the results of Murray’s gamble. Are the next generation of Ducks capable of leading Anaheim to Stanley Cup contender status currently playing in the AHL and CHL? Or has he overvalued his draft picks and suffered from rose-colored glasses syndrome?
Question: Was there any point this season you considered making a coaching change?
Answer: “No. I will focus more on the players, how we’re playing, and worry about that at this point in time. I told the coaching staff in the summer some things I wanted to see changed. How we play the game. Some things worked and a lot of things haven’t worked. I have to give them a little bit of time to figure some things out with our group. You can blame some of that on the coaching staff. Some of the things we tried early in the year didn’t work. Some things just didn’t work with our group. That’s not always the coaches’ responsibility, when things don’t work. So they need to find a way to make things work with our group. It’s a work in progress. We’re in a transition stage at the moment.”
Question: How would you grade Carlyle’s performance thus far?
Answer: “We’re over .500, but, in saying that, we all know goaltending is a huge part of a hockey team, and we have that going forward. You have no starting point without goaltending. Everybody knows that’s big reason why our record is what it is. Some things have improved. Some things are better. We have to continually strive to play a more up-tempo game. There are lots of ways - and we won’t get into the details of how to do that - but we have to get our players to do things to play a more up-tempo game. It’s not there yet.”
Another two questions that go hand-in-hand. These are pretty ambiguous answers, but are not particularly surprising. If nothing else, it indicates that likely scenario that Randy Carlyle finishes out the season no matter what.
The positive takeaway from this answer is Murray’s willingness to admit that things he wanted to see changed didn’t work. What those specific things are is hard to pinpoint. Many on the Anaheim Calling staff, including myself, believe that the only significant change Carlyle made to his system was to encourage the players to skate faster, not actually play a quicker puck moving game. Maybe there was more that was attempted but never ended up manifesting itself in the team’s on-ice play. Regardless, the Ducks are now on a hot streak and in the thick of the playoff race. So things are working to an extent now.
This is the final year of Carlyle’s contract with Anaheim, albeit with a team option for an additional year. Will the Ducks exercise that option? The LA Times’ Helene Elliott wrote early in November that Carlyle is “guaranteed a front-office job after he stops coaching”. So he’ll remain with the organization regardless. There’s nothing in Murray’s answer that seems to give us a hint one way or the other, but it does appear he puts some of the blame of the early season struggles on the coaching staff. However, this reinforces something we already knew: that Murray tends to only fire a coach as a last-resort. At least he admits that goaltending is the primary reason for the team’s current record.
Question: Scoring has been an issue with your team. Are you looking to improve on that front?
Answer: Definitely actively looking to improve. Scoring is up in the game again. It seems we’re going through another era like in the 1980s where there were lots of goals. We brought in Daniel [Sprong] because he likes to shoot and score. That doesn’t mean we’re stopping there. We have to find ways to score more goals. It’s a problem. The power play is an issue. Even as bad as we played last night, we had a chance to get back into the game, but the power play wasn’t very good. It’s on our minds big time.
Question: Is there something that could trigger you to take action sooner than later?
Answer: Teams are staring to make deals earlier in the year now. I think that has to do with the trade deadline. Things were really quiet because of the Toronto-Nylander situation. Since that has been put to bed, there has been a lot more chatter since that time.
It appears that Murray is planning to be active leading up to the trade deadline, and the acquisition of Daniel Sprong looks like it’s just the beginning. How big will those moves be? There’s really no way of knowing. But we can realistically assume from Murray’s earlier comments that, unless there’s an unbeatable offer out there, Murray will not part with any of his top prospects (read: Terry, Steel, Comtois, Mahura, Lundestrom). And with his belief that the Ducks are not currently Stanley Cup contenders, there’s not a lot of incentive for him to move them if his grand plan is to see if these prospects are indeed the next wave of stars.
Ergo, don’t expect any blockbuster moves.
This thought process would logically lead us to expect several other depth and complementary moves early on in the trade deadline season, as opposed to waiting till the last minute when prices are usually inflated by market forces.
If nothing else, it’s good to see that Murray is slowly starting to move away from the thought process that “defense wins championships”. If you look at the last 3 years of Stanley Cup finalists, it’s clear that defense is no longer the number one consideration of a championship team. It’s all about scoring now. Bye bye, early 2000s hockey, hello 1980s hockey!
On how Seattle starting in 2021-22 affects the expansion draft.
Answer: Once we knew it was probably going to happen, you have two different lists. You have the earlier year where you have some guys with no-trades and no-moves who would’ve had to have been protected. And you move one year later. Those guys are all up except for Kesler. Then you start looking at the young players. The lists are made right now, of who we might possibly have to protect and not to protect. But there’s development time in here now. We have some good young players in our system, but I can’t tell you which guys are or aren’t going to come along. We will approach it differently this time, as will most other teams. We will be very well prepared when the time comes.
The Ducks have already started planning for the 2021 expansion draft and will be approaching it differently than last time. All of the kids will need to be protected (with the exception of Max Comtois), but Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler will not, either because of them not being under contract (barring extensions) or, in the case of Kesler, having a modified no-trade clause as opposed to a full no-movement clause.
This team has the potential to look very different come expansion draft time. So, while it’s good to hear that Murray will be approaching it differently and hopefully this time not overthinking it, there’s not much use in speculating who will be available to Seattle. There’s just too much that will change between now and then.