Every single NHL team goes through a rebuilding process, especially since the salary cap was introduced as a result of the 2004-05 lockout. It’s exactly how the cap, and the draft for that matter, is intended to work: the good teams pay (and oftentimes overpay) their star players during their window of contention in order to keep the group together during their primes. They give up good future assets like high draft picks and promising prospects for “win-now” pieces that can help them immediately.
Then, these prime players hit the aging curve and start declining while still being paid handsomely. The lack of high draft picks and good prospects means teams can’t replace the talent, slowly being bled out as good players get older. Eventually (at least, somewhat competently managed teams), these past-their-prime teams use their high draft picks and acquire assets to knock off the old guard. The cycle begins anew.
The Anaheim Ducks currently fall into the rebuilding category. Well, less rebuilding and more “re-tooling”. What’s the difference? For most, a full rebuild is a franchise that bottoms out in the standings while selling off any remaining good assets they have for the future.
The Ducks only kind of bottomed out last season, picking ninth overall in the 2019 Entry Draft, their highest pick since 10th overall in the 2014 Entry Draft, and acquired what Bob Murray and Co. hope will be the team’s eventual elite, number one center in the near future in Trevor Zegras.
But they have only bottomed out for one season after making the playoffs for six straight seasons prior, thus consistently ensuring they would pick in the bottom third of the first round each year, where high-end talent is much more of a lottery than it is in the first third. The only significant asset sold off at the trade deadline was Brandon Montour for Brendan Guhle and a first round pick. Broken-down bodies (Ryan Kesler, Patrick Eaves) and buyouts (Corey Perry) did very little for the tangible future of the club other than offer some cap relief.
For an example of a true rebuild, teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs before landing Auston Matthews and, more recently, the New York Rangers are prime examples. Multiple years of top 10 picks, selling off of star players, and shrewd cap management have put the Maple Leafs into consistent contention and the Rangers on their way back to competitiveness in a hurry.
Call it what you want: rebuild, retool, etc. The bottom line is that, on paper, the Anaheim Ducks are not expected to be a true threat for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is a foreign concept to many Ducks fans. Years of playoff hockey in Anaheim bred new fans who have never known what non-contention looks like, and the distancing of the franchise from years where the team was never a consistent contender led to more veteran fans forgetting how it felt to have low expectations. From the 2005-06 season until now, the general fanbase has expected the Ducks to make a playoff run every year.
Yes, the Ducks have had early success this season. But consecutive losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins, along with a recent three-game losing streak, as well as a lack of offensive production in the games they have won (the game against the Winnipeg Jets not withstanding) has given way to griping amongst some.
It’s tough to really blame these fans for having high expectations; they don’t know anything else. For me personally, hockey was not a regular part of my life until the 2010-11 season, so one could say that I am in this boat as well. But the key to making over a team from the old guard to new contenders requires a shift in perception. Instead of paying attention to the results on the ice, the focus changes to the process.
Results do matter. At the end of the day, fans want their hockey team to win as much as possible. However, while the Ducks have several highly-regarded prospects attempting to establish themselves combined with a new coach implementing a new system and culture, realistic expectations for what this team can do should be limited.
I want to hammer this point home like I’m Joel Embiid’s Twitter account:
Process, process, process.
With the Ducks not realistically expected to compete for a Stanley Cup, the standings table takes a back seat to the in-game strategies, player deployment and development, and overall appearance of the team. So far, there have been some encouraging results.
Last season, General Manager Bob Murray claimed then-head coach Randy Carlyle would implement a new system; one that would have the Ducks playing faster to match the pace of the rest of the league. This did not pan out as many had hoped, with the only noticeable structure change coming from a single puck carrier attempting to skate into the zone with speed with other forwards either left behind due to the Ducks attempted high-danger chance-limiting defensive structure, or them at a stand-still straddling the blue line waiting for the puck carrier to enter the zone.
In either scenario, the puck-carrying skater would either have the play broken up at the blue line by competent defenses, or have exactly zero support from the trailing forwards to establish zone possession or to clean up rebounds.
Players had strictly defined roles and were given little room for any kind of creativity; hockey players on the Ducks competing in the best league on the planet were essentially being instructed on how to score goals.
But here’s the thing: the players in the NHL are generally the best hockey players in the world. Every single one of them has been playing since they were still finding their balance on solid ground. Even bottom-of-the-barrel fourth line grinders would absolutely torch most college and junior players. And with the focus of the game on packing as much skill as possible into a lineup, effectively telling professional hockey players how to score is a losing battle.
Under new head coach Dallas Eakins, however, the hand-holding is gone. Strictly defined positioning and on-ice roles have been replaced by general zone exit and entry strategies. Creativity and skill previously quelled become encouraged. Mistakes are no longer held against a player, but used as an opportunity to learn and grow.
This is readily apparent to anyone who has watched a Ducks game this season. Sure, they may be having issues generating offense on a consistent basis. This is hardly surprising when considering that this roster is filled with several rookies aged 22 and younger along with a defensive corps lacking puck movers. The team also has no apparent game-breaking prospects in the same vein as Elias Pettersson or Brady Tkachuk.
But the new system now places more evidence on puck speed and support. Zone exits are no longer built upon relieving pressure, but about building momentum towards the other end. Straddling the blue line becomes a secondary strategy while emphasis is placed upon entering the zone with speed and, more importantly, numbers in an attempt to overwhelm defenses while generating multiple chances to put pucks in the net. Defensemen are encouraged to join in the attack at all times as opposed to just when the team is losing.
They may not be generating much, but the chances they are getting are dangerous. And they’re more prone to offensive outbursts like their seven goal performance against the Jets on Tuesday.
As far as on-ice results go (shot metrics, goals, etc.), there has not been much improvement through the first month of the season compared to the same time last year. The difference, however, is the roster. Aging veterans have been phased out, and players that are still improving have replaced them. These metrics are likely the bottom; think of it as a baseline with nearly half the roster at stage of their careers where noticeable improvement can be made.
No one should expect any of these players to become the next Connor McDavid. But a roster with four or five players all 22 and younger with offensive upside getting better at the same time? That is reason for excitement.
Process, process, process. Not results.
The Ducks still have to address several issues long-term in order to be the Stanley Cup threat they were between 2014 and 2016. Defense, finishers, and a backup goaltender beyond this season with Ryan Miller questionable to continue his career after the year is out are all areas that need help. Some of that might come from within. Much of that will need to come from outside the organization.
But this team finally has a new core in place. Ryan Getzlaf is still the leader, but Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Jones, and Max Comtois are establishing themselves as the next core. Isac Lundestrom is not far behind. Josh Mahura showed off his potential last night.
The on-ice results might be the same as last year (so far, don’t make me keep teaching you lessons about sample size), but the product is completely different. And it’s not just different for different’s sake. It’s laying the foundations for something better.
This season will be a long one. It will, at times, be frustrating for fans who have never truly known what it is like to rebuild. But we are in it for the long haul. Look at this team not as a finished masterpiece, but as a work in progress trending in the right direction. While watching the game, look for the little details; the zone breakouts and entries, the penchant for creativity, the deployment in specific game situations, and the confidence of the prospects the team is leaning on to bring a new era of success in Anaheim.
The standings don’t matter this year. Any success they have should be viewed as a bonus, not a requirement. As long as it is apparent that the Ducks are planting the right seeds in the right places, this season will be considered a success.
Process, process, process.