30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: Anaheim Ducks

Here are my extremely detailed thoughts on the Anaheim Ducks. Those who make it through this should have absolutely no doubts as to why the Ducks are struggling, and what needs to happen from a management level if that is ever going to change. To get notified when new blogs on the NHL are posted, enter your email address and click the subscribe button in the top right corner and follow Shark Circle on twitter.

• Even with the slight decline of Ryan Getzlaf, the top line is still great. Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry may not be producing at their usual clip, but I believe it’s mostly an outlier. All three are still elite players. even if Ryan Getzlaf is not quite as elite as he used to be, and Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry look great, especially Perry. His Rocket Richard trophy last year was no fluke, he is an amazing player who can do everything. Their top line, overall, is still the most talented top line in the NHL save for the Sedin line.

Yet, despite their top-end talent, the Ducks still continue to struggle on both offense and defense. Why?

The Ducks are struggling because they are an awful team 5-on-5. But, you ask, how did they go from 4th in the Conference last season with almost an identical lineup to being a terrible team 5-on-5? Because, unbeknownst to many, they were always an awful team 5-on-5. Last year their power-play was so good at 3rd best, it masked some of their weak 5-on-5 play. But in reality, they were 21st out of 30 teams last year in 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio, scoring only 0.89 5-on-5 goals for every 1 they gave up. You might think that was solely a defensive issue, but it wasn’t. They were 25th in 5-on-5 goal-scoring last year. Their defense was actually better 5-on-5 than their offense at 19th.

This year, that systemic problem has just gotten worse. 5-on-5 For/Against Ratio is 2nd worst in the entire NHL, ahead of only the New York Islanders. Goals For 5-on-5 is 28th, Goals Against 5-on-5 is 24th.

That is not a recipe for long-term success whether your power-play is 1st or 30th. It was never going to be. Last year’s 4th place finish actually proves it much more than refuting it, as the power-play almost was 1st, and they were still eliminated in the 1st round of the playoffs by an injury-riddled Nashville squad.

If you’re terrible 5-on-5, guess what, probably 85% of the season is played at 5-on-5 or 4-on-4. With a 5-on-5 offense and defense both 19th or worse last season, and no major additions to this year’s lineup, this team was always bound for the basement of the NHL.

Think about it. Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Lubomir Visnovsky, Cam Fowler, and Jonas Hiller are seven great hockey players; Saku Koivu and Tony Lydman aren’t bad either. They make nine.

An NHL hockey team is made up of 20 players.

Many fans out there think of the Anaheim Ducks as a high-powered offensive team because of their star power; it’s an easy mistake to make, but there is a big difference between one great line and a great team. Wayne Gretzky, in the best goal-scoring season of all time by any player, scored 92 goals. Great, right? But if no one else on his team had scored any goals all season, 92 goals in a season for a team would have ranked dead last in scoring last season. Even two Gretzky’s on one team, in his best season, would have only ranked 29th.

If two Wayne Gretzky’s wouldn’t be able to provide enough offense to power a good team, should we really expect Ryan, Perry, Getzlaf, Selanne, and Visnovksy to do that much better? ‘

Hockey is a team game, and a rare one at that even by “team-game” standards where the best players still only play for between one-third and half of most games. This isn’t basketball. And if it was, even Michael Jordan wouldn’t have been able to outscore the other team singlehandedly if he only played 18 minutes out of 48, and none of his teammates scored. We have to remember that Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry are only on the ice for 20-25 minutes of a given game. The other 35-40 minutes, they may as well not even be on the team. They are non-factors. During that time it’s all in the hands of your depth players.

• And that’s where Anaheim gets into big trouble. Depth. If the management wants to improve the team, and I’m not sure they really care, or if Ducks fans want to push their team to improve, depth is the only word in anyone’s vocabulary that should matter. The only question Bob Murray should hear between now and either his Stanley Cup press conference or firing is, “When and how are you planning on improving the team’s depth?”

Because the way I see it, this Ducks roster has about half the making of a truly elite Cup Contender, and half the making of a team that would struggle to make the playoffs in the AHL. GM Bob Murray apparently was read the Tortoise and the Hare too much as a child, because every offseason he only makes one or two small moves. Slow and steady does not win the race in this instance, I’m sorry to say, at least not unless you’re slow enough to end up with the #1 draft pick a few years in a row. One or two moves every offseason will not cut it for the Ducks. This team has so much dead weight on it, cutting 2 ounces of it out a year is not sufficient.

Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Lubomir Visnovsky, Cam Fowler, Tony Lydman, Francois Bouchemin, Luca Sbisa, Jonas Hiller, Jason Blake, Nicklas Hagman, and Andrew Cogliano are all players I could consider worth keeping in varying capacities, since I am in a generous mood, assuming the price and role is right for players like Blake and Hagman. Everywhere else needs to be upgraded.

Put it another way. Here is the Ducks current lineup with Jason Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky out injured.

Line 1: Bobby Ryan – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Line 2: Max Beleskey – Saku Koivu – Teemu Selanne
Line 3: Niklas Hagman – Andrew Cogliano – Devante Smith-Pelly
Line 4: Ben Maxwell – Maxime Macenauer – Andrew Gordon

Defense Pair 1: Cam Fowler – Francois Beauchemin
Defense Pair 2: Luca Sbisa – Toni Lydman
Defense Pair 3: Sheldon Broobank – Nate Guenin

Goaltender 1: Jonas Hiller
Goaltender 2: Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers

Here is what the Ducks lineup should look like, the bare minimum of what needs to happen if they are to become Cup Contenders once again. Positions left blank are positions in need of upgrade.

FORWARDS

Line 1: Bobby Ryan – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Line 2: ____________ – Teemu Selanne
Line 3: Niklas Hagman – Saku Koivu – ______
Line 4: Andrew Cogliano – ______ – Jason Blake

DEFENCEMEN

Defense Pair 1: Lubomir Visnovsky – ______
Defense Pair 2: Cam Fowler – Francois Beauchemin
Defense Pair 3: Luca Sbisa – Toni Lydman

Goaltender 1. Jonas Hiller
Goaltender 2. ______

I’ll start at the top, from left to right.

The first hole on the current Ducks team is the lack of a 2nd line Left Wing. Jason Blake played there most of last season, and had 16 goals and 32 points. This season, Andrew Cogliano (10 points in 25 games), Matt Beleskey (0 points in 20 games), and others equally as unfit for the job have played there. None of these options are good enough to compete with the 2nd line wingers on contending teams, such as Ryane Clowe, Martin Havlat, Logan Couture, one of Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa is always on the Blackhawks second line, even the likes of Detroit’s Valterri Filppula, or Dustin Brown and Simon Gagne of the offensively inept Kings, can be not competed with by any of the Ducks 2nd line LW’s. All of these players are typically at least in the 55 point range, and many of them range much higher than that. The Ducks have 30 point players. That needs to be fixed.

The second hole on the Ducks, that of the 2nd line center, is not as glaring because Saku Koivu has filled in there much better than Jason Blake or anyone else at the 2nd line LW spot. Yet, it may actually be important given the nature of the center position.

Saku Koivu has been the Ducks 2nd line center since arriving from Montreal. Last season he had 15 goals and 45 points. An admirable effort by an aging player with great heart, but still not good enough for a Cup Contender. All you need to do is look at the 2nd line centers on those rosters and that much becomes painfully obvious.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have Evgeni Malkin as their 2nd line center, a 100 point player. Even their 3rd line center, Jordan Staal, is much better than the Koivu. Big problem.

The Vancouver Canucks have Ryan Kesler, who had almost as many goals last season as Koivu had total points.

The San Jose Sharks have Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau all as 2nd line center options. All had over either 30 goals or 65 points last season. Joe Pavelski had 21 more points than Koivu last season as the Sharks 3rd line center (although he did get 1st power-play time).

The Blackhawks 2nd line center was Patrick Sharp last season, and now it is Patrick Kane. Both had over 70 points last season. Dave Bolland, the Blackhawks 3rd line center, may even be better than Koivu when healthy.

Even the Los Angeles Kings, the 28th worst scoring team in the league, has a much better 2nd line center in Mike Richards, 66 points last year, 4 goals less this season in 25 games than Koivu had all of last season.

Similar to the situation at left-wing, the Ducks production from the 2nd line center position is very, very inadequate.

The next hole is that of the 3rd line right-wing, currently occupied by Devante Smith-Pelly. Pelly is a good young player with loads of potential, but he does not quite look NHL ready yet, and with only 4 points in 23 games, he is not producing enough for a 3rd line right-wing. He is on pace for only 7 goals this season, and that is unacceptable. You look to get 12+ goals from your 3rd line wingers, if not 14-15. 10 I consider a bare minimum. The Ducks need to add another player of at least Niklas Hagman’s quality to play on the 3rd line right-wing, at least for this season. Maybe by next year Pelly will be ready, or, if I was a Ducks fan, I would be hoping Etem is ready to break out. Regardless, Pelly is currently insufficient as a 3rd line right-wing.

On the fourth line, I believe Andrew Cogliano would be a good fit to play one of the wings. Can he play on the 3rd line? Absolutely, but if you can find someone better and have Cogliano as a plus 4th liner instead of an average 3rd liner, your team will be all the better for it.

The next holes are the 4th line center and right-wing positions. Maxwell, Gordon, and Macenauer are all AHL quality players with very few distinguishable abilities. Yes, Macenauer is the one who is a bit better at penalty killing, and Gordon has the speed, I can’t remember anything about Maxwell… But, their small distinguishing characteristics are far too slight. As fans, we have to remember that sometimes we can get sucked by something a player does well and then grow attached to it, even when everything else the player does is insufficient. These players may not be without any strengths whatsoever, but they don’t have nearly enough. They are passengers, bland players who don’t bring enough size, skill, shooting ability, creativity, defensive ability, or physicality to contribute at the NHL level. They are young, so they will develop into good NHL players in the future, but right now that’s all they should be doing, developing their talents–elsewhere.

On defense, the Ducks have a few problems. For one, their only right hand shot is Kurtis Foster. Maybe on that basis, you keep him. He certainly brings a unique and “fun” skillset to the 3rd pairing, but I’m not sure he brings enough to the table besides his hard (and very inaccurate) shot and size.

Why is it important to have right-handed shots on defense? *** I go into that in long detail after the bullet points for those interested in that subtopic. But for now, suffice to say that having three right-left pairings is definitely an advantage. Not nearly as important as the skill level of a given defenseman or defense pair, regardless of whether they all get to play on their strong side, but it’s important.

In that light, I would characterize the Ducks first and biggest hole on defense as, #1. a physical, top-pairing two-way defenseman, and, if you can get it, #1A. a right-shot, physical, top-pairing two-way defenseman. A right-handed Chris Pronger in his prime would be perfect. Brent Seabrook fits the mold. So does Shea Weber. Ducks fans would probably even settle for Zdeno Chara even though he’s a left shot (right?).

This is an absolutely key need the Ducks have had since losing Chris Pronger, Scott Neidermayer, and Ryan Whitney (but especially Chris Pronger). The Ducks actually have an underrated defense in terms of puck-movers, but when it comes to actual defending, they lack muscle, and defensive-acumen in general. The Ducks used to own the area all around the net–behind it, definitely in front of it, even the boards. Really, it would probably be easier to say that they owned the entire defensive zone, if not the neutral zone as well. Now other teams own them in those key places. It’s become a complete reversal. The Ducks need to fix that.

Unfortunately, there are few players as rare in today’s NHL as elite, complete defencemen with size, skill, and showdown ability. There are probably only about five players in the entire league that fit the mold of what the Ducks need, and they traded one away. The only ones I can think of are Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, Chris Pronger, and Brent Seabrook. Dion Phaneuf and Marc Staal are the only other ones close. Drew Doughty, Brent Burns, Tyler Myers, and Erik Johnson could make the list if they were either bigger and/or stronger and/or better defensively.

Really, there are only four or five, and Pronger will retire soon. Shows you how poor the talent in our league is. Unless the Ducks draft one or offer Shea Weber a 25 year contract for 12M a year in free agency, it’s going to be difficult for them to replace Pronger. i would honestly not be surprised if a decade from now we are still talking about how the Ducks need a big two-way defenseman, just like the Calgary Flames have gone over a decade searching in vain for a top line center to play with Iginla. But even first line centers are easier to find than the likes of Chris Pronger. That is the problem when you trade a top 5 defenseman in the league and get no one to replace him in return. Luca Sbisa was never going to be anything like Pronger, or anywhere near as good.

It’s unlikely they will be able to replace him, but if they want to win another Cup, they have to.

The rest of the defense, while Bob Murray could stand to upgrade Beauchemin and Sbisa’s slots a well, he can live without doing so as long as he addresses the other needs. Plus, Sbisa has potential, so you can’t exactly just replace him unless you’re ready to give up on that potential.

In terms of goaltending, Jonas Hiller is great as long as he’s healthy. However, in the tight Western Conference, making the playoffs often comes down to just a game or two. Well, backup goaltenders don’t just play a game or two over the course of a season, they play 10 to 20+, sometimes. By not having a reliable backup goaltender, the Ducks will cost themselves precious points in the standings.

To be fair to Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, I am no expert on his game, not in the least. For that reason I will not focus on him, but the need for good back-up goaltending as a concept (at least for a team that struggles to get the points necessary to make the playoffs. If the Ducks address all their other, more important needs, then they can let this slide). Whether that be Deslauriers stepping up and playing great hockey, or Dan Ellis, or someone else, it is important for the Ducks as currently constructed to spend the extra 0.300M per year on an above average back-up goaltender.

In concluding this very long bullet point on depth, I believe the Ducks need to add all of the following before they can become a truly elite team:

  • A 60 point 2nd line LW
  • A 60 point 2nd line C, preferably with some size and a good two-way game
  • An NHL quality 3rd line RW with some size and grit (although Jason Blake or Andrew Cogliano would probably suffice, especially Blake when he’s going right)
  • A 4th line C who can win faceoffs
  • The next Chris Pronger

That’s a long list, which is precisely why Bob Murray’s strategy of adding one or two players every offseason is failing. If I’m a Ducks fan and I don’t get at least four or five significant additions to my team between now and the start of next season, I don’t want Bob Murray as my GM anymore. Because if you’re going to remain in win-now mode, then you have to make the moves necessary. If you’re not willing to spend the necessary money to ice a full team of NHL-level-talent, then there is no point because you won’t “win now,” and you may as well just rebuild. I am not advocating that for the Ducks, but management has to choose one path or another and stick to it. Personally, if I was GM, I would go about filling as many of the easy-to-fill holes as I could right away. You’re not going to find a 2nd line center, LW, or top-pairing defenseman immediately, but the depth holes on the bottom lines should have been filled years ago. Those types of players are always readily available, especially in the summer during free agency, which is what makes it all the more alarming that Bob Murray still hasn’t sorted out the mess in his bottom-six. I honestly think if he or ownership cared at all about winning, they would have fixed that problem ages ago.

But they didn’t. If I was GM, that’s what I would focus on first, and then eventually I would hope that some elite players became available at the positions I needed, and I would pounce on those opportunities.

But if Bob Murray and company aren’t even willing to fill the depth holes, let alone the significant ones, then forget it. They may as well just rebuilt, because the Ducks will never get anywhere as a one line team, or even a two-line team. An NHL roster is 20 players; that’s what Bob Murray does not seem to understand.

That’s all on the Anaheim Ducks. Thanks for reading. Check back soon for quarter season report cards on the every NHL team, headlined by the Sharks, as well as 30 Teams 30,000 Thoughts: Phoenix Coyotes, and whatever else I come up with. Also keep reading below if you are interested in the sub topic briefly touched upon earlier of why having right-left defense pairings is important.

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*** Why are left-right defense pairings important? Ask teams like the Detroit Red Wings with only one right-handed defencemen, and they might tell you it’s not. But then they’ll get beaten for the billionth time in a row by the San Jose Sharks, a detail-oriented team with three proper left-right pairings, and that might change their mind. In my opinion, there are a couple of reasons why it’s beneficial to have right-left defense pairings.

As a defenseman, when playing on your strong side, you keep your body to the inside as you backskate and use your stick to contain forwards to the outside. This is the textbook way to defend. But when you’re on your wrong side, it changes your positioning. And in the defensive zone, it changes the passing lanes a team can cover in a very subtle fashion, or it at least forces defencemen to position themselves a bit differently. Those are a couple of reasons.

The biggest reason, though, for me, is not defending without the puck, but attempting to make break-out passes under great pressure once you get the puck. Stating the obvious here, but it is harder to make break-out passes on your backhand. This is especially a problem when forecheckers are charging down at you and sealing the boards.

Picture a scenario where the puck has been rimmed behind the net and starts rolling halfway up the boards. A forechecker or “pincher” is barreling down the boards at full speed trying to push the puck deep and keep it in the zone, and the opposing defenseman is coming up the boards from down low, trying to get to to the puck first and poke it out of the zone. What normally happens in these situations is both players get there at about the same time, maybe the defenseman even gets there a split second ahead. The problem is, the pinching player on offense will put his body right up against the boards, so that even if the defenseman gets to the puck first, it will be difficult for him to poke it up the boards passed the forward.

This is where having defencemen on their backhands becomes very problematic. Situations like these happen dozens of times every game. Goals are often scored after a defenseman fails to clear the puck because the forecheck blocks him off. A defenseman on his forhand, when he gets to that puck, has more options.

For one, he can get more power on his attempted clear out of the zone, so even if the onrushing pincher tries to seal the boards, the attempted clear might still have enough power to get out of the zone even after it hits the forechecker.

Another advantage he has is avoiding the forechecker all-together. When defenders or forecheckers are sealing the boards, it usually means they are leaving open the outlet man in the middle of the ice. Players on their forehand, when they reach the puck along the boards, can pivot their bodies open along with their stick, using the stick’s inward-curled tip to sort of the swing the puck into the middle, to their outlet man. It is much, much more difficult to do that on your backhand.

Yet another advantage is reach. Everyone knows a player’s reach on their forehand is longer than on their backhand. That’s because on your forehand, you can simply reach out and forward with your stick, extending both your arms, but on your backhand you have to reach across your body, and your off-hand is bent. On your forehand, you can get to that puck along the boards a split second sooner, which gives you a greater chance of getting the puck out.

Yet another advantage is passing accuracy. There are situations where you may very well have an open outlet man in the middle waiting for a pass, and you may even have that extra split second necessary to swing the puck to him on your backhand. However, if the passing lane is somewhat small, you may not be able to risk the turnover. Where it may be a fairly simple pass on the forehand, on your backhand it’s much difficult to fit it in, and you can’t risk it. Now you’re stuck trying to chip a puck passed the pinching player sealing the boards, all while on your backhand.

And what does chipping out a puck entail? Lifting it. And we all know it is much more difficult to elevate the puck on your backhand than on your forehand, especially when under pressure in the defensive zone, likely getting your stick tied up, maybe even hooked a bit.

And the last problem is delay of game penalties. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but it stands to reason more pucks are accidentally elevated over the glass from the backhand than from the forehand, simply because elevating the puck is less exact on the backhand.

So as you can see, there are a myriad of problems that result from playing defencemen on their weak-sides. Good defencemen should be good no matter which side you put them on, but sidedness can definitely has an effect.

That’s it! I’ll try to work on giving you more to read next time,

(Written by) Shark Circle

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