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Editor’s Mailbag: Rounding Into Form

Another round of questions amidst mixed play from the Ducks.

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Edmonton Oilers v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

We’re more than a month into the season, which means some storylines are beginning to take shape. We’re still just shy of the 20 game mark for us to start using statistically significant sample sizes as reliable evidence for conclusions about team and player performance, but what was previously blurry is almost clear.

The Anaheim Ducks have had mixed results so far. Yes, they currently sit just two points out of a playoff spot of this moment, but they have been out-shot and out-chanced, once again relying on stellar goaltending to prop up their position.

The good news is that, even with the poor on-ice shot metrics, this team is significantly more fun to watch than last year. Their attacks are much more dangerous, the youth have shown flashes of potential, and some familiar faces are on pace for career years. In short, management and most fans are treating this as a rebuild year with much less pressure and lofty expectations placed upon a team that is reestablishing itself.

Let’s see what some of the fanbase is thinking for this month’s edition of Editor’s Mailbag.

My original season prediction went something like this:

Rookies who had a taste of the big time last season will start putting things together. Dallas Eakins will prove that he has learned from his time with the Edmonton Oilers and have the added benefit of culture and system buy-in from the very first night. Shooting percentages will rebound and Ryan Getzlaf will turn the clock back four years.

However, this team isn’t solid enough defensively and while Eakins’ high-flying rush-oriented offensive systems will give the team a nice boost in scoring, his deficiencies with tactics in his own zone and questionable personnel will cause John Gibson to bail out the team for several nights, yet still let in a decent amount of goals.

The Ducks will squeak into the second Wild Card spot on the last day of the season and lose in six games in the first round.

Again, we’re only a month into the season, but I still feel pretty good about much of this prediction. Eakins seems to have culture and system buy-in. Shooting percentages for several players have begun to rebound (like Getzlaf, who has indeed turned back the clock). But the defensive holes are indeed major issues and John Gibson is being relied upon again to bail out his team on a fairly regular basis. And when he’s not at his best, like we saw the last few games, things can get ugly in a hurry.

So far, my predictions of the rookies putting it together and the overall team offense increasing haven’t come to fruition. Yet. There’s still a lot of season to go. But in order for those parts of my prediction to come true, they’re going to have to start putting more pucks on net.

To me, it’s not exactly that the Ducks don’t have the players or system to put pucks on net, unlike last year. This time, it seems to be more about the defense having issues driving play towards the other end of the ice rather than around their own net. The Ducks’ blueline issues have been well-documented thus far, and with Josh Manson set to miss significant time combined with the trade of Erik Gudbranson, it appears that scoring chances and shots against will continue to be a theme of the foreseeable future.

Also, I like to go down with my ship if I’m wrong online. If the entirety of that prediction ends up being a bust by season’s end, well you can all say you told me so.

Absolutely. As much as I love hockey and want to spend almost every waking minute of every day watching it, a shorter regular season would likely have great benefits for both the players and the fans.

The player benefits are obvious: more recovery time for injuries, more energy during games, and single game production having a larger effect on their numbers which would theoretically lead to more negotiation leverage in contracts.

For the fans: more exciting hockey due to increased energy levels, goals meaning more over the course of a season and, most importantly, a more exciting Stanley Cup Playoffs due to less injuries and more explosive skill.

Yes, I said more exciting Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many people believe the NHL playoff season is the most exciting of the major North American sports leagues. I would personally amend that statement to saying the first and second rounds are the most exciting. Let’s be real here: it is rare for a conference final and Stanley Cup final to match the pace and intensity of the first round or two. Every playoff team by the time they reach the third round has multiple players dealing with injury, some very significant, as was the case with Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen both playing the 2017 Western Conference Finals with torn laburnums.

It’s the longest playoff tournament in sports, lasting from early April until the first week of June. Shortening the regular season to something like 72 or 74 games from the current 82 game schedule could go a long way in promoting healthy players and more exciting hockey down the stretch.

There’s just that little problem of the owners agreeing to less revenue during the regular season. But that can easily be bypassed. Right? Right?!

Given Murray’s lack of spending on big-name free agents every year, I would say no. He has never signed a top-tier free free agent in his tenure as the Ducks general manager (you could make an argument for Saku Koivu being top-tier, though he wasn’t in his prime by the time he came to Anaheim). Generally, this has served him well, as bidding wars usually inflate the price of these players.

I would expect both Alex Pietrangelo and Tyson Barrie to fetch $8 million AAV minimum. The only UFAs the Ducks will have after this season are Nicolas Deslauriers, Derek Grant, Korbinian Holzer, and Michael Del Zotto. Every one of them is making under $1 million this season. Combined with Corey Perry’s buyout cap hit increasing by $4 million next year, there is not enough room as of this moment to sign either of them, even if Murray wanted to. Unfortunately, the trade for Erik Gudbranson and his $4 million wiped out almost all of the Ducks projected cap space for next season.

Any help on the blueline will either come from within, by hockey trades, or by salary dump trades. Is it possible Gudbranson could be moved? Of course. Is it likely anyone will take him at full salary? Extremely unlikely. Who would do that (nervous glancing at Honda Center)?

This is definitely linked to the previous question. Murray certainly has a history of bringing in defenseman on relatively expensive deals who play a throwback style of game that doesn’t really have a place in today’s era.

Here is a saying I have been fond saying the past few years: “Josh Manson is the defenseman Murray thinks (insert Kevin Bieksa, Clayton Stoner, Erik Gudbranson, and a host of others here) is.” He’s looking for big guys who can theoretically protect the kids and who can hit hard, because in his mind, being “tough to play against” primarily means that the Ducks have people who can pile-drive you into the ice.

Players who can do that still exist in this league. Manson is a prime example. However, the problem is that there are several of these players who’s only positive skill is said physicality; that’s the reality outside of the tunnel vision some GMs have in this scenario (Murray is far from the only executive in the league who has this tendency). Many old-school hockey analysts praised the St. Louis Blues for winning the cup last year as a big team who hit a lot. While this is true, they conveniently didn’t mention that most of those big players who hit a lot are also good puck-movers who make smart decisions and look to move play into the offensive zone as fast as possible.

Playing fast doesn’t necessarily mean skating fast. Puck speed beats foot speed every time, and while the Blues’ skaters could crush opponents physically, they were moving the puck up ice quickly at the same time. We have years worth of data that suggests players like Gudbranson and others play games that revolve around hitting the puck carrier and then just getting it in deep, as opposed to players like Hampus Lindholm and Manson who are always looking to get the puck up ice quickly and who have no problem joining in on a rush the other way to try and overwhelm opposing defenses.

Again, I believe that big skaters who can play a physical game have value in the modern NHL. But those guys have to be more dynamic than those who just “hit hard”. They need to contribute getting the puck towards the opponent’s net.

As for time ticking on Murray, unless the Ducks go on another disastrous losing streak like last season, his job is safe. Unlike previous years, this season has never been portrayed as one where Anaheim would be truly competitive. Management is focused primarily on the development of the next wave of young Ducks, and any regular or postseason success is viewed as a bonus. In my opinion, Murray and Eakins have set expectations for this season appropriately. If you feel like you’re struggling with that concept, though, I wrote about the tools it takes to support a rebuilding team.

I believe both of these players could be moved for the right package. While the Ducks forward corps are obviously having issues generating offense, it’s clear that the more pressing need are for defensemen.

That being said, I’m not convinced either one of these players would fetch a young RHD with upside; someone like Brendan Guhle, for instance. Fans tend to overrate their teams’ prospects for the most part. It makes sense: you want your young players to succeed and are pinning your hopes on them leading your team to its next championship. I’ve been guilty of this myself on multiple occasions. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic demonstrates this very clearly with his annual front office confidence rankings. Most of the teams have a much higher confidence in their drafting and developing amongst their fanbase as opposed to the rest of the league.

A concept that many people seem to miss with trade proposals is that you need to understand the value of the asset you are trying to trade and the value of the asset you are trying to get back. What makes you think you can bash Nick Ritchie and his play, then turn around and think Ritchie and a 3rd is a realistic trade scenario for William Nylander? General managers “robbing” one another in trades is not a very common scenario. Believe it or not, most hockey executives are better than the general public and assessing the value of trade pieces. While Daniel Sprong can score goals and Kiefer Sherwood plays with a lot of energy, they are down in San Diego at a much lower competition level for a reason. Joseph Blandisi, who was one of the Gulls’ leading scorers last season and was considered to have some scoring upside in the NHL, was traded for Derek Grant last year. That’s a more realistic return for either Sprong or Sherwood at this point.

Banking on Murray to “fleece” another GM into giving up a high-ceiling RHD for one of these players is a losing battle.

Salary and cap information courtesy of CapFriendly.