It was the
best of times... who are we kidding? It was the worst of times.
The season began with a combination of trepidation and excitement. The Anaheim Ducks and their fans knew going into opening night that they would begin the season with a depleted roster, echoes of last year’s ails reverberating through the walls of Honda Center.
The difference between last season and this one, however, was that there seemed to be a new era of Ducks hockey on the horizon. With several roster spots up for grabs, Anaheim was about to see the first of three to four years of drafts focusing on forwards begin to push for roster spots.
Troy Terry (21), Sam Steel (20), Kiefer Sherwood (22), Max Comtois (19), and defenseman Marcus Pettersson (21) all made the opening night roster, setting a franchise record for most rookies on day one. Isac Lundestrom (18) would join them just a couple of games into the season. Finally, a new generation of Ducks arrived to help transition the team into the newer, younger, and faster era of hockey that had passed Anaheim by over the last few years.
For a while, things were good. The Ducks got off to a 5-1-1 start, marking a rare streak of wins in a time of year in which the team has traditionally struggled. But underneath the surface, the lava bubbled and swirled, ready to disrupt the positivity of a strong start.
The cracks were there from game one, with Anaheim taking the first game of the season against the San Jose Sharks 5-2, yet being outshot 33-15, leaving John Gibson to pick up where he had left off the previous season.
Let’s review the positives: Max Comtois earned his first career NHL goal on his first career shot. Rickard Rakell scored to begin another run at a third straight 30-goal campaign. Gibson began his revenge tour for being snubbed from a Vezina Trophy nomination the previous season. On camera and in writing, Randy Carlyle promised a new system of play. Yet, the belief that General Manager Bob Murray had entrusted in head coach Randy Carlyle to transition to a more modern style of game did not come to fruition, even with the early success.
Anaheim was outshot by a mark of 241-168 — easily the worst in the league — despite having one of the NHL’s best records in the infant season. Play continually ran in the direction of John Gibson and Ryan Miller as they worked night after night attempting to bail out a team with younger, faster players that could not transition properly or help with the sins of a disastrous defensive structure.
The early season standings party, as expected, did not last. Immediately following Anaheim’s fifth win of the season, the first of three major, record-setting losing streaks had the team searching for answers. It appeared that most of the rookies were not quite ready for prime time, and the Ducklings were found wanting. Murray signaled that view when he made the decision to send Troy Terry down first on October 19th. Sam Steel was sent next on Halloween, and Comtois followed in early November on a long-term injury conditioning loan before eventually being sent back to his junior team, the Drummondville Voltiguers. Lundestrom joined Comtois shortly thereafter, spending time in San Diego before heading home to Sweden.
The only rookies who stuck were defenseman Marcus Pettersson and Kiefer Sherwood. While Sherwood carved out a regular bottom-six role and endeared himself to Ducks fans, Bob Murray flashed his reputation for low-risk, high reward acquisitions by sending Pettersson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for 21-year-old forward Daniel Sprong. The young Dutchman proceeded to set a career high of 14 goals, and at one point was on a 30-goal pace over a full season.
Mixed success over the next month into mid-December, including a five game win streak, had the Ducks as little as one point out of a playoff spot, thanks to a Pacific Division seemingly content to politely insist that other teams walk through the open door to a playoff spot.
Then, The Streak 2.0™ happened. The Ducks proceeded to set a franchise record with 12 consecutive losses. And these losses weren’t just well-played, unlucky matchups. Anaheim averaged just 1.66 goals per game, by far the worst in the league over that span while giving up 3.58 goals per game. But Carlyle had taken the team to a Western Conference Final appearance and recused a playoff position last season through great coaching and not at all through being carried by Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, and the goalie-cyborg known as John Gibson, right? Right?!
After the 11th loss in a row against the Winnipeg Jets on January 13th, Murray issued a statement to fans and the media amid rumors of a coaching change and internal dysfunction:
A statement from Executive Vice President and General Manager Bob Murray. pic.twitter.com/UyocDVbmjJ— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) January 14, 2019
This statement prompted a Ducks’ fan online riot. Anyone turning on the game could see the team wasn’t competitive in most of these games. Carlyle, while not being 100% responsible for the losses, was certainly one of the most significant parts of them.
As the fans gnashed their teeth to Murray’s statement, he followed up his comments about the players with action only a few hours later. The General Manager surprised everyone by trading fan-favorite and known-leader Andrew Cogliano to Dallas for center Devin Shore. Next, he traded Joseph Blandisi to the Pittsburgh Penguins in order to re-acquire center Derek Grant. Not quite finished, Murray flipped Luke Schenn and a seventh-round-pick for Michael Del Zotto.
While Shore gave the Ducks more control for a younger player, the moves could be viewed as mostly re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Two wins in a row shortly after this turn of events helped placate some of the distressed fandom, but the third losing streak of the season took hold soon after. And this one, despite being only seven games, was arguably the worst one yet.
Anaheim spent that streak losing by a margin of more than four goals per game on average, including a humiliating 9-3 blowout by the Winnipeg Jets. The Ducks had become the pity pit of the hockey world; laughing at them just seemed too cruel.
One of the players who couldn’t realistically be blamed was John Gibson. Putting up otherworldly numbers through December, Gibson shined in a display that screamed, “I’m the best goalie in the world”. He was so good, in fact, that several people had him tabbed as their Vezina Trophy pick halfway through the season, with some even suggesting he be considered for the Hart Trophy.
And who could blame them? Regularly facing more than 30-40 shots night in and night out, Gibson was one of the only reasons the Ducks were able to win any games at all in the first half of the season. Especially with the loss of Ryan Miller to a wrist injury and the emergency trade of Chad Johnson to help fill in, Gibson was called upon to give the Ducks a fighting chance most nights.
Unfortunately, he finally collapsed under the weight of his workload halfway through the season. Carlyle never seemed to fully understand the grinder he was putting his starting goalie through, as evidenced when, after giving up six goals against the Winnipeg Jets, captain Ryan Getzlaf had to force Carlyle to pull Gibson. The situation was so bad, that Bob Murray — far, far later than wisdom allowed — admitted that Gibson had lost an alarming amount of weight during that span and still had not brought it back to normal by season’s end.
Fans will be discussing this season’s woes long into the future, and the troubling injuries and neglect of our players will dominate the conversation. The injuries stacked up: Patrick Eaves, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry to begin the season, Ondrej Kase, and Ryan Miller among those who missed extended time. The single skater to play all 82 games: Adam Henrique.
By the time the Ducks had dropped a 4-1 contest to the Montreal Canadiens, Murray had seen enough. He ended a scouting trip to Europe early and returned to Anaheim to ask owners Henry and Susan Samueli for permission to relieve Randy Carlyle of his duties. He waited for the Ducks to return home after dropping two more contests before informing Carlyle and the hockey world that Carlyle 2.0 was over. Fans let out their collective breath.
Instead of going the usual interim coach route, however, Murray made the unusual move of appointing himself the leader behind the bench.
“I didn’t feel it was right to bring anybody in at this point in time,” Murray told Eric Stephens of The Athletic. “I had to be here. I had to go downstairs. I had to live it with these guys. I have to find out everything going on down here. It’s more problematic than I thought a while ago. So I figured the only way I felt it was fair was for me to get down here.”
Most of the interest in this move is what Murray did not say. Stepping behind the bench was his way of saying that the Ducks would not compete for a playoff spot for the first time in seven years. He would also be there to audition youngsters from San Diego and to evaluate which veterans on the team fit into the Ducks’ plans moving forward. The actual day-to-day coaching minutiae would be handled by the assistants.
Immediately after Murray took over, the team changed. It was immediately apparent that there was more life, more energy. More of the compete-level Murray had been so obsessed with over the previous few months.
Now, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The Ducks went from controlling 46.98% of the shot attempts on the ice under Carlyle to 48.98% under new leadership. An improvement to be sure, but not a significant one.
So what changed? The biggest difference was the drop in goals allowed per game from 3.21 with Carlyle to 2.62 without him, which took them from bottom five in the league to top ten. The team credits the significant tightening of defensive systems to a switch to a zone-coverage defense as opposed to more of a man-to-man style they ran under Carlyle.
Another change? The kids. Max Jones and Troy Terry were recalled from San Diego for good shortly after Murray took over. Sam Steel, technically on emergency recall due to injuries, later in the month. Kevin Roy and Kiefer Sherwood got looks, as did Jacob Larsson and Andy Welinski. But the biggest impact came from Jones, Terry, Sprong, and Steel, who contributed 30 points over the 25 games played post-Carlyle.
Other than a seven-point over four game stretch from Terry, none of the kids lit the world on fire. But anyone who watched those games could tell that the youngsters were making their presence known on the ice. Max Jones showed incredible, yet unpolished, skill with the potential to raise fans out of their seats. Troy Terry revealed how far his playmaking had come, especially with the man-advantage, which he commanded like a 10-year veteran. Sam Steel demonstrated how quickly he could think, especially in his last few games setting up Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg, and earning a hat trick in Vancouver. And Sprong continued to flash one of the most dangerous wrist shots on the team.
In a season where no Ducks player eclipsed 50 points in a non-lockout year for the first time in franchise history, one of the lone bright spots on the offense was Jakob Silfverberg. Murray repeatedly, vocally, praised the 28-year-old Swede on his desire to win, his leadership capabilities, and his consistency on the ice.
Admittedly, many of us here at Anaheim Calling were against the decision to extend him for five years and $26.25 million. We believed he could have fetched future assets (possibly even a first round pick) and believed that a 45-50 point player was not the answer to the Ducks scoring issues moving forward.
Honestly, some of us still think all of that.
But we have to give credit where credit is due. Without being tied down to a center with one good hip being deployed in a shutdown role, Silfverberg unleashed with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in the 25 games after Murray took over the team, leading the team in scoring. Granted, he did this with a 19.30 shooting percentage, but he certainly made his case to Murray that he deserved the extension.
Rickard Rakell, mystified with only nine goals in his first 54 games, turned it on for 17 points (9 goals, 8 assists) at a very sustainable 11.54 shooting percentage in his last 25 games of the year, including a hat trick against the Oilers. Another player rebounding to career norms.
Perhaps the biggest change in the roster outside of the Andrew Cogliano trade was sending defenseman Brandon Montour to the Buffalo Sabres for Brendan Guhle and a first round draft pick. While Montour was one of the better offensive blueliners for Anaheim, filing for arbitration over the summer as well as his issues in his own end led to him falling out of favor with Murray.
In return, the Ducks got a second first rounder (where they will select between 20th and 31th overall, depending on how far the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks make it in the playoffs, and 21-year-old defenseman Brendan Guhle. The Edmonton native was the Sabres’ top defensive prospect before Rasmus Dahlin happened, and brings elite speed combined with more stable defensive skills than what Montour would be able to provide. I had this to say about Guhle in my trade deadline recap from February:
As for Guhle, the former 2nd round pick in 2015 was considered the top defensive prospect in the Sabres’ system before they drafted Rasmus Dahlin. That’s not to say that his stock had fallen in the eyes of Buffalo, but rather that they got the opportunity to draft an elite talent on the blueline.
Scouts who have watched Guhle praise him as an elite skater who set the sixth-best time in AHL All Star history in the Fastest Skater competition. He profiles as a 2-way defenseman who can be very difficult to play against with the ceiling of a reliable top-4 puck mover.
While not considered to have the offensive ceiling of Montour, Guhle showed great instincts activating and joining the rush once he was moved to the left side of Cam Fowler in the second period of yesterday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks. At the very least, it appears that there is some offensive talent to work with.
Indeed, Guhle looked very good alongside Cam Fowler in his six games with the Ducks before being sidelined with a lower body injury. His addition to the roster mix now gives the Ducks yet another young piece as the team continues its retool toward a younger and faster game.
In at the trade deadline: Brendan Guhle, Patrick Sieloff, a first round draft pick, and a sixth round draft pick.
Out at the deadline: Brandon Montour, Brian Gibbons, and Michael Del Zotto.
The Ducks continued to play well (or screw up the tank for the best odds at a top draft pick, depending on how you look at it) through March. Ryan Kesler played his 1000th career game on March 5th, played in his 1001st game at home after a special ceremony honoring him, then was promptly scratched for the rest of the season in an effort to prevent further damage to his body.
An article for Sports Illustrated detailed Kesler’s excruciating road to hit the 1000 game mark, diving into his hip issues and recovery, including the fact that the 34-year-old center could not even walk at certain points over the last year. With all of this information coming out after hitting his milestone, don’t be surprised to see Kesler stashed on LTIR for the remaining two years of his contract as he focuses on trying to give himself a decent quality of life after hockey.
Bob Murray finished his NHL coaching career with a 14-11-1 record. Ryan Getzlaf led the team in points for the eighth time in his career with 48 and in assists for the 12th consecutive year with 34. Jakob Silfverberg led the team in goals for the first time in his career with 24. Cam Fowler pass Scott Niedermayer for the most career points by a defender in franchise history.
John Gibson, despite his numbers taking a dive under his insane workload in the first half of the season, still finished the year with an 18.66 GSAA according to Corsica, topping the NHL.
Anaheim finished 23rd in the league, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011-2012. They will have a 6% chance of landing either Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes with the first overall pick in the draft lottery, and a 19.5% chance of landing in the top three selections. But with two first round picks, including one in the top 10, the Ducks are in the rare position of having a chance to add a game-changing piece to their roster in addition to several young pieces ready to make an impact next season.
Murray has already begun the search for a new head coach, but we most likely will not see an official hire until after the Stanley Cup Finals have concluded, given Murray’s exit interview comments on waiting for certain teams to be eliminated before he begins talking to assistant coaches on his shortlist for the main job in Anaheim.
Murray confirms his staff has already comprised lists of internal as well as external candidates for the head coaching position. Process will start as soon as season is over— Anaheim Calling (@AnaheimCalling) March 9, 2019
It was a tale of two seasons. The first one initially filled with cautious optimism fueled by highly-touted rookies only to crash and burn quickly after false hope and fan rage at the lack of action and accountability. The second offering rays of hope brought about by the prospect of a new and more capable coach, young players showing off their development, a shot at a game-changing player through the draft, and established veterans bouncing back.
A season filled with nostalgia celebrating the franchise’s 25th anniversary with a popular alternate throwback jersey and the retiring of both Paul Kariya’s and Scott Niedermayer’s numbers brought much-needed joy to those who struggled to find happiness watching hockey this year.
Many questions remain, as well as plenty of holes to fill. This team is still a work in progress, even with the kids putting forth great auditions. But for the first time in a long time, Ducks fans have reason for optimism:
The youth movement is charging full steam ahead, a lengthy off-season for the best goaltender on the planet to recover and come back to (hopefully) a more defensively sound team in front of him.
A new coach with new systems and, one would hope, a grasp on what it takes for players to succeed in today’s game.
A General Manager with renewed focus after a season that he admitted was an eye-opener for him.
Murray asked about increasing scoring going forward seems to indicate that he believed another 100 point season would just happen and caught a bit off guard when it didn’t. So he’s looking to move forward and address that issue moreso than in recent years.— Anaheim Calling (@AnaheimCalling) March 9, 2019
And a fanbase, used to disappointment after high expectations, looking toward a new era of Ducks hockey in a quest not just to make the playoffs, but to bring the Stanley Cup back home to Anaheim.
October can take its time getting here, despite our desire to fill the seats. We have work to do. Hold on, Ducks fans, it’s going to be an interesting summer.