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Bullies No More: Ducks In Desperate Need Of An Identity Change

Tough decisions loom this offseason

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for a change.

No, this is not a cry to trade everybody, blow up the roster and earn a No. 1 overall draft pick in hopes of selecting the next Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid.

Instead, it’s a plea for the Anaheim Ducks, as an organization, to look in the mirror and realize, “The way we play hockey is no longer suitable for a championship-level team.”

Ever since the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2006-07, the mantra has remained the same. The big, bad Ducks will fight for every puck and every inch of ice, oftentimes illegally, to win hockey games. Anaheim didn’t care that it had gained a reputation as a bunch of dirty players, nor did it care that this style of play frequently led to trips to the penalty box.

Nastiness and brutality was the way of the Ducks, the bullies of the National Hockey League. “They hate us and we don’t care.”

“Heavy” hockey, popularized when the Los Angeles Kings won their first Stanley Cup in 2011-12, became the name of the game. The Ducks were already bred that way — almost every decision with trades, draft picks and free agents was made with the idea that the way to win in the playoffs is by out-forechecking, out-physicaling, and out-willing your opponent. The Kings winning the Stanley Cup twice in three years only reinforced that.

But in carrying that DNA, the Ducks have allowed the NHL to pass them by. That was never more evident than this most recent trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the Ducks were handily swept by the San Jose Sharks in four games.

San Jose was too quick, too skilled and too smart for the Ducks. When Anaheim tried to play physically, the Sharks shook it off. When Anaheim tried to be the bully, they took penalties and the Sharks converted power-play goals. When Anaheim tried to goad San Jose into nonsense after the whistle, the Sharks laughed and skated away. They were not going to let the Ducks dictate the series with knock-them-down, drag-them-out hockey.

Consider that through the first six days of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, no team had taken more penalties than the Anaheim Ducks and no team was as dreadful as the Ducks on the penalty kill. Anaheim had a miserable 64.7 percent PK% through Game 3, digging itself too big a hole to climb out of. The Ducks cleaned up their act in Game 4 to an extent with only three penalties, but the timing and necessity of each was frustrating.

The penalties are one thing, but when it’s the leadership core doing all the damage in front of a head coach refusing to hold his players accountable, the problem amplifies. Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry, the three most experienced and highest-paid players on the team, combined for an incredible 32 PIMs in the first three games of the series.

Those are three players the Ducks rely on and they’re not contributing anything from the penalty box.

This isn’t a problem that’s popped up over the last year. The Ducks have been shorthanded more times than any team in the NHL since 2007-08 and during that time only the Philadelphia Flyers have more total PIMs.

Randy Carlyle shouldn’t be absolved from blame — when he was rehired before the 2016-17 season, Carlyle promised he had evolved as a head coach. Really, he was hired to hold his players accountable because of his reputation as a disciplinarian (and because of blind faith from Ducks general manager Bob Murray, an old friend of Carlyle’s).

Imagine being Andrew Cogliano or Hampus Lindholm or Josh Manson or Rickard Rakell or Cam Fowler (who was unavailable for this series due to injury) or whomever — all players who play hard, do their part and hardly ever hurt their team because of a lack of discipline.

The Ducks are too slow. They take too many penalties. Their offense is predicated on chipping pucks into corners and generating offense through the cycle. They try to win in the NHL like teams did five or 10 years ago, instead of with the skill and pace of current powerhouses like the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, Vegas Golden Knights and, obviously, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It’s time for an identity change. It won’t be easy — as mentioned above, the Ducks have built their team for years and years a certain way, and breaking that mold will not be an overnight process. But it will be a necessary one if the Ducks want to avoid NHL purgatory.

For starters, Randy Carlyle must go. It was a controversial decision to bring back Carlyle after firing Bruce Boudreau two years ago, and while he helped push the Ducks past their Game 7 demons, his style is no more effective in the playoffs than his predecessor. Under Carlyle, the Ducks developed into a team that frequently lacks urgency and is far too comfortable with any lead. Overall, his methods are the same that led to his firing six years ago — Carlyle is overly reliant on chasing match-ups, he’s overly committed to certain veteran players over youth and his teams simply don’t value the puck enough. The Ducks are in desperate need of fresh blood and new ideas, not a retread with philosophies fit for the NHL a decade ago.

Fresh blood should be pursued on the ice too. One of the more agonizing aspects of the Ducks this season was the utter reluctance to utilize their prospect pool. Why were players like Marcus Pettersson and Andy Welinski only in the lineup as a last resort? The trial by fire approach by the Ducks with these two in particular was mind-boggling — Pettersson only became a regular lineup addition because of Kevin Bieksa’s late-season injury, while Welinski was called up following an injury to Fowler with three games remaining in the regular season (he had only seven games of NHL experience entering the playoffs).

The Ducks had an ample opportunity to season these players, and maybe others, while Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen (since traded) were unavailable to start the year. Maybe more experience doesn’t make players like Pettersson or Welinski more effective come April, but it’s better than leaning on mistake-prone veterans like Bieksa or Francois Beauchemin who will have no use to the franchise in the future and are simply stop-gaps instead of solutions.

It’s not just Pettersson and Welinski — the Ducks signed prospect Troy Terry, fresh out of the University of Denver, to an entry-level deal on March 26 and proceeded to use him twice in the regular season and not at all in the playoffs while the Ducks’ forward group struggled to generate consistent offense. Hopefully it was worth it, because the Ducks burned a year off his entry-level deal for those two games.

Perhaps the most difficult decisions will come when considering the future of the Ducks’ aforementioned leadership group. Kesler will be 34 years old by the start of next season while Getzlaf and Perry will be 33, and that core is simply too old to carry the Ducks through two or three rounds in April, May and June.

Getzlaf is still the Ducks’ most valuable player and likely would’ve garnered more attention for the impressive season he had if not for missing so much time. Kesler and Perry are significantly less valuable, and their age and contracts make them huge obstacles to improving the team externally. As GM, Bob Murray should explore any avenue to rid the team of those contracts. Both carry no-movement clauses, but the Ducks can buy out Kesler in June and save $4.45 million in salary cap space for the next four years. Perry is a little more tricky because a buyout wouldn’t be as beneficial and, at the end of the day, he’s still a 50-point scorer. TSN’s Darren Dreger floated the idea that there would be suitors for Perry (and Getzlaf) if the Ducks wanted to move in a different direction, and while it would be bittersweet to see the franchise’s only Hart Trophy winner leave, Anaheim will be hard-pressed to improve with Perry clogging up a roster spot and money.

Should Murray be the one making these decisions? That’s a tougher call. Few have been better at finding legitimate players through the NHL Draft and he’s locked down some integral players to very team-friendly contracts. He led the Ducks out of the salary cap hell left behind from Brian Burke and built a team that’s made the playoffs for six straight years — a feat only the Pittsburgh Penguins can look down upon.

But he’s also hired two different head coaches, let too much talent walk out the door for almost nothing (Shea Theodore and Kyle Palmieri being the most egregious cases), and allowed his team to become out of touch with the upper-echelon franchises of the NHL.

Yes, it’s time for a change. And maybe that begins at the top.