Qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs is difficult.
Sure, there’s always some criticism levied at the NHL postseason because more than half of the league — 16 out of 31 teams — make up the tournament. But ask franchises like Buffalo or Edmonton how difficult it is to consistently compete (or in those cases, ever compete).
Because of that, there should be a lot of pride that the Anaheim Ducks were able to participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for six straight years. Entering the 2018-19 season, only the Pittsburgh Penguins boasted a longer streak of consecutive postseason appearances.
While the Ducks were unable to win a championship during that time frame, five Pacific Division titles and two Western Conference final appearances are nothing to scoff at. It was an unprecedented level of success for a franchise that, don’t forget, won only one playoff series in its first nine years of existence.
Unfortunately, that streak is done, the Ducks’ core that we’ve grown so familiar with is a year older, and a fresh wave of talent is knocking at the door.
Yes, the 2018-19 season was, for the most part, a major embarrassment for the franchise. The Ducks’ 12-game losing streak that spanned almost an entire month is one of the longest in NHL history, and the team also strung together two more losing streaks that lasted seven games. At one point, from Dec. 18 to Feb. 9, the Ducks played 21 games and won only two of them.
Anaheim finished with its lowest point total — save the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season — in seven years, and nearly became the first Ducks team since 2003-04 to finish with under 80 points in the regular season. They were one of only two teams, with Arizona being the other, to not have a player exceed 50 points (Ryan Getzlaf finished with 48 in 67 games).
All that, along with the silly stubbornness to relieve head coach Randy Carlyle, will be the legacy of the Ducks’ 25th anniversary team.
Now, the Ducks had a prime opportunity to bottom out, sell off every valuable player without a no-movement clause, and fully embrace a rebuild. Considering general manager Bob Murray’s actions, and his comments, he has no interest in throwing away seasons to land higher draft picks in the near future. Like it or not, Murray believes he can turn this ship around in a hurry.
How realistic is that? Oddly enough, despite one of the worst seasons in recent memory, the Ducks are trending up. Here’s why:
1. The post-Carlyle era was successful
When Randy Carlyle was fired on Feb. 10, the Ducks were the fourth-worst team in the NHL, possessing a 21-26-9 record for 51 points in 56 games. That pace was barely ahead of New Jersey (50 points in 55 games), Detroit (49 points in 56 games) and Ottawa (47 points in 55 games).
Record-wise, the Ducks may not have been the worst team in the league at that point, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the contrary. No team had scored less goals and only one team had allowed more shot attempts through Carlyle’s Feb. 10th firing. The Ducks’ goal differential of -56 was the worst in the league.
Post-Carlyle, the Ducks improved in almost every imaginable way. Since Feb. 11 when Bob Murray took over as interim coach (assistants Marty Wilford and Mark Morrison were really running the show), the Ducks went 14-11-1 for the 13th-best record in the league to end the season. Anaheim was also middle of the road in goals for and goals against, finishing at +4 during Murray’s 26 games behind the bench.
The Ducks also went 11-5-1 in their last 17 games, a stretch that included wins over Western Conference powers like Nashville and San Jose. With Murray, the Ducks’ power-play percentage increased from 14.9 to 21.9%, while the penalty kill essentially stayed the same. Anaheim’s shot attempts percentage also improved from 46.98% to 48.96%.
Essentially, by firing Carlyle, the Ducks went from being one of the NHL’s worst teams by any measure to at least league average, if not above average. Is this fool’s gold, or the product of teams not giving the Ducks their best shot? Possibly, but it’s better than an alternative of Anaheim continuing its substandard play.
2. The kids are coming
Prior to the 2018-19 season, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked the Ducks as having the 24th best farm system in the NHL. The previous year, he had Anaheim at 21st. The Sporting News placed the Ducks at No. 15 in August 2018.
That’s not very high praise, but a lot has happened since then. Troy Terry, Max Jones and Sam Steel all received extended looks at the NHL level and each had various levels of success. Max Comtois and 2018 first-round pick Isac Lundestrom made cameo appearances to start the season and didn’t look out of place.
Jones and Terry in particular showed glimpses of exciting potential. Jones is everything a power forward in 2019 should be, a perfect blend of speed, nastiness and skill; he’s everything Nick Ritchie wishes he could be. Jones’ 3.4% shooting percentage obviously isn’t great, but he generated chances. Since Jan. 17 — Jones’ first game with the Ducks — he took the fourth-most shots on goal on the team behind Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Corey Perry. With a little more ice time and luck, Jones should see a bump in success in 2019-20.
Terry is probably the most purely skilled player in the entire farm system and really came on in March with 10 points in 15 games. Unfortunately he suffered a broken leg and will miss a good chunk of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Steel’s play was a little more hit and miss, but he did score five goals in his final five games, including a hat trick March 26 in Vancouver.
The major knock against the Ducks’ farm system is that there’s no crown jewel. The aforementioned prospects could prove to be productive full-time NHLers, but are more likely to be ancillary pieces on a competitive team than the driving forces like Getzlaf and Perry have been for the last decade.
That’s the price of being an annual playoff participant, which the Ducks were from 2013 to 2018. There’s not an opportunity to pick the next Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid when your first draft pick comes in the 20s every year. The Ducks haven’t selected inside the top 10 since taking Hampus Lindholm in 2012. Their next-highest was No. 10 in 2014, a pick acquired in a trade from the Ottawa Senators in the Bobby Ryan deal. Otherwise, the Ducks’ first picks have been 26th, 27th, 24th, 50th, and 23rd.
That’ll change this season; while the Ducks weren’t on the lucky side of the NHL’s convoluted draft lottery process, ninth overall will provide a strong opportunity to add an impact player. The Ducks also have a second first-rounder in their back pocket from the Brandon Montour trade, which will likely be in the 20s. If Murray is unhappy with No. 9, he can always package his two first-rounders to move up.
Side note: The Ducks also have the best goaltender in the world, and he’s only 25 years old.
3. The salary cap is healthy
No NHL general manager has a perfect ERA. Look up and down the league and you’ll find irresponsible contracts plaguing salary caps, and Bob Murray’s history is no different. That said, he’s done an amicable job under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The Ducks are rarely major players in unrestricted free agency. Anaheim hasn’t signed a UFA away from another team for more than $3 million per year since Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen joined the club in 2012. The Ducks haven’t signed a UFA for more than $5 million per year since Scott Niedermayer in 2005. That’s just not how the team operates. Cap space is valuable to the Ducks only for the sake of re-signing their own.
Murray doesn’t have to worry about any restricted free agents until after the 2019-20 season when Terry is due for a new deal. Every other prospect of major significance — Jones, Steel, Comtois, Lundestrom — doesn’t become an RFA until the summer of 2021, which is the same time that Getzlaf’s and Perry’s contracts come off the books.
Aside from Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan Kesler, every player on the roster is either being paid at or below market value, and the Ducks can live with that. Looking ahead to 2019-20, the only major hole to fill will likely be the backup goaltender, as Ryan Miller is a UFA and it’s unclear what his future holds; it’s possible the Ducks will choose to go younger and cheaper at that position behind John Gibson.
Under the premise that the salary cap of $79.5 million doesn’t increase (though it most likely will for the seventh straight year), the Ducks have just under $7 million in space to fill out the fringes of the roster. If Murray doesn’t feel comfortable with that amount, he can always place Kesler on long-term injured reserve (the Ducks will still have to pay his salary but it doesn’t count against the salary cap) or buy him out (only a portion of his salary counts against the cap).
Gibson, the aforementioned best goalie in the NHL and, obviously, the Ducks’ best player, will have the seventh-highest salary in the league next year as his eight-year, $51.2 million deal kicks in.
4. A new sheriff in town
It’s almost hard to believe that the Ducks haven’t hired a *new* coach since December 2011 when Bruce Boudreau was brought in for Randy Carlyle. Boudreau lasted five very sucessful seasons before he was replaced by … Carlyle.
While Carlyle won a Stanley Cup as coach of the Ducks in 2006-07, the decision to bring him back was an uninspiring one. While the rest of the league was zigging toward speed, skill and new age ideas, Carlyle continued to zag toward the only kind of hockey he knew, and that brutish style eventually caught up with him.
The Ducks haven’t made their decision concerning the next head coach and likely won’t for awhile. The leader in the clubhouse seems to be Dallas Eakins, who has coached the Ducks’ AHL team in San Diego for the last four years and compiled a 154-95-23 record during his tenure.
The knock against Eakins is that his first NHL coaching job, in Edmonton, was a giant disaster. Considering more experienced NHL head coaches like Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock have also failed miserably with the Oilers, it’s hard to place Eakins’ failures solely on the head coach.
Unless another candidate blows Murray out of the water during the interview process, the final choice should be Eakins. Veteran coaches like McLellan, Alain Vigneault and Joel Quenneville have already been hired to other destinations, and it wouldn’t make sense to hire a different AHL coach when the one in house already has familiarity with your players and, more importantly, has been successful.
Regardless of who the Ducks ultimately land on, it’s paramount that the new boss stresses speed and skill, can connect with the team’s young players, and is willing to adapt as the NHL continues to evolve. All of those qualifies were missing with Carlyle.
5. The difference between bad, good and great is slim
It’s disarming that the NHL spends 1,271 regular season games to determine who wins the Presidents’ Trophy, who wins each division and who qualifies for the postseason, only for April to arrive and negate everything that happened in the previous seven months.
One of the winning-est teams in NHL history did not win a single playoff game. The team that has won two of the last three Stanley Cups also did not win a playoff game. The team that had the second-worst record in the NHL on Nov. 20 fired its head coach and is now two wins away from advancing to the second round.
With a little more health and a better coach, maybe it could’ve been the Ducks making waves in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately, Anaheim didn’t have those two things last season and now the Ducks are watching teams with a marginal difference in quality, like Colorado, Dallas, New York and St. Louis, either advance or put itself in a strong position to do so.
Sure, the Ducks are more than a coach or a system away from being the Tampa Bay Lightning (regular season version), but they’re not far off from the team that, in terms of quality, nearly made the Stanley Cup Final two years ago. This isn’t Buffalo or Edmonton, where a decade (or more) of losing has ruined the franchise.
With a new direction and some new blood, there’s no reason the Ducks can’t be back in the mix in the foreseeable future. As one window closes, another opens, and the future, even with some unknowns, is something to look forward to.
(Statistics courtesy of NHL.com; cap figures courtesy of capfriendly.com)