Following arguably the worst statistical season of his career, plenty of questions arose about what the future held for Anaheim Ducks center and longtime captain Ryan Getzlaf.
Getzlaf was one of many Ducks that succumbed to substandard play in 2018-19, posting his lowest point total — 48 in 67 games — since his rookie year. While he was solid through the first three months last season, posting 29 points in 35 games, Getzlaf fell victim to the same black hole as many of his teammates once January hit. Over his last 32 games, Getzlaf was held to only 19 points.
Recognizing the need for new direction the Ducks hired Dallas Eakins, who previously coached Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in San Diego. Eakins’ responsibility was not only to help right the ship, but invigorate the Ducks’ lineup with youth, speed, and skill.
General manager Bob Murray helped facilitate that movement by buying out winger Corey Perry’s contract while declaring center Ryan Kesler and winger Patrick Eaves out for the 2019-20 season.
With those moves, Getzlaf remains one of only four players on the roster that are at least 30 years old — backup goaltender Ryan Miller, fourth-line forward Carter Rowney, and spare defenseman Korbinian Holzer are the others.
While Eakins during the offseason expressed his excitement at the prospect of working with Getzlaf, the Ducks’ moves were a major hint that Getzlaf’s role would evolve into more of a supporting one moving forward.
Through the first month of the season, there’s now a better understanding of exactly what that means and how Getzlaf is performing in a reduced capacity.
For all his greatness, Getzlaf’s pass-first mentality has been a longtime source of frustration for observers that wonder why a player with such a tantalizing shot doesn’t use it more often.
In his 15-year NHL career, Getzlaf has only one season with more than 30 goals — he scored 31 in 2013-14 — and only three seasons with more than 200 shots on goal. While he’ll never be a shoot-first player, Getzlaf has been a more willing shooter so far in 2019-20.
Through the first 16 games, Getzlaf already has seven goals and 41 shots on goal. His goals per game average (0.44) is currently the highest of his entire career, while his shots per game average (2.56) would be the third-highest of his career. That shots per game average would be his highest since 2013-14.
There are a handful of explanations for why Getzlaf is shooting more often. Undoubtedly Eakins is imploring Getzlaf to shoot as frequently as possible (and he’s certainly not the first coach to do so), but Getzlaf’s surroundings are a factor too. Perry, his longtime linemate, is in Dallas; Rickard Rakell, who developed strong chemistry with Getzlaf in recent years, is patrolling a different line. Suddenly, without reliable scorers like Perry or Rakell on his wings, Getzlaf is the most dangerous shooter on his line, and he’s taking advantage.
Speaking of linemates, the search for Getzlaf’s wing men is ongoing. Most of Getzlaf’s 5-on-5 minutes in 2018-19 came with Rakell on one side and Perry or Pontus Aberg (who only played 37 games in Anaheim) on the other.
This season, Getzlaf and Rakell have played less than 20 minutes together at 5-on-5. Instead, Getzlaf has most often played with Ondrej Kase (102 minutes), Max Comtois (97 minutes) and Nick Ritchie (82 minutes).
Because of his creativity and skill, Kase is a suitable winger for Gezlaf, but he played in only 30 games last season and has already missed time with a jaw injury this season. Rakell is also an ideal match, but he’s thriving with Jakob Silfverberg. While Ritchie and Comtois have big bodies that can open up space, they’re not finishers, and without finishers on his line, Getzlaf has just four assists in 16 games.
At 34 years old, Getzlaf is being asked to play with a lot of inexperienced players. How he builds chemistry with those players will be one of the keys to his success, and the Ducks’ success, this season.
Few players in the NHL have played as many minutes as Getzlaf over the last decade, and Eakins appears intent on dialing back the load.
From 2009-10 to 2018-19, only three centers — Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Anze Kopitar — averaged more time on ice per game than Getzlaf. That’s the reality for a top-line center that mans the No. 1 power-play unit and also plays significant minutes on the penalty kill. The Ducks have leaned on Getzlaf a lot in his career, and entering 2019-20 Getzlaf’s average time on ice was 19:43.
Through 16 games this season, Getzlaf is averaging 17:56 of ice time per game, almost two full minutes less than his career average.
There’s multiple reasons for Getzlaf’s decreased ice time. Eakins clearly wants to roll four lines as often as possible. Of the 15 forwards that have appeared in at least one game this year for the Ducks, only Nicolas Deslauriers is averaging less than 10 minutes per game, and Deslauriers is still at 9:29.
Eakins is also using Getzlaf less than normal on special teams, as both his power play and penalty kill minutes are down from the last three seasons under Randy Carlyle.
Most significant, as previously mentioned, is that Getzlaf is now 34, and he’s been limited to 56 and 67 games the last two seasons. So far in 2019-20 he hasn’t missed a game, and Eakins seems mindful that the Ducks need their No. 1 forward around in March and April, even if it means playing less in October and November.
The Ducks would be wise to copy Joe Thornton’s formula with the San Jose Sharks regarding Getzlaf’s ice time. Through age 32, Thornton averaged 19:43 per game, the exact same average Getzlaf had entering this season. Since then, Thornton is averaging 17:54 per game, and that is a major reason why his career has extended into his 40s.
Getzlaf might not play until he’s 40 like Thornton, but he’s under contract for another year after this one and the Ducks need him to be as productive as possible during that time. By limiting the quantity of Getzlaf’s minutes, the Ducks can greater ensure the quality.
One striking difference so far this season is how opposing teams choose to defend Getzlaf. When the Ducks faced Boston on Oct. 14, the Bruins deployed Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy against the Adam Henrique-Rakell-Silfverberg line, not Getzlaf’s.
For so long, Getzlaf was always matched up against the Bergerons, the Kopitars and the Jonathan Toewses of the NHL. While the Bruins’ decision doesn’t necessarily reflect that they view Henrique as being the better player, it does show that opposing teams feel the Ducks’ top scoring line is the one that features Rakell and Silfverberg.
How Getzlaf responds playing against worse competition will determine if this trend continues. Right now, opposing teams are comfortable matching up Getzlaf against second units, but that could change if Rakell and Silfverberg are split up, or if Getzlaf continues to score at his current pace.