How To Lose In Victory And Fail At Failing: Why The Anaheim Ducks Win Streak Could Prove More Costly Than Any Loss

In professional sports, all that matters is winning, but in the case of the Anaheim Ducks, winning is the last thing they should be doing right now. Coming into this season, Ducks’ fans were optimistic coming off a fourth place regular season finish in the Western Conference, but optimism quickly turned to pessimism as the Ducks once again proved that hockey is not basketball, and four great players cannot win all by themselves in a 20-player sport. Of course I’m exaggerating, as the Ducks do have more than four quality players, but the point is the same: whatever the number, it’s not nearly enough. If General Manager Bob Murray was foolish enough to doubt that fact after the Ducks first-round playoff exit to an impotent and banged-up Nashville Predators squad last year, I would hope the Ducks’ performance this season has removed any and all doubt that the team’s depth is among the league’s worst.

Indeed, as we pass the halfway point of the season, the Anaheim Ducks find themselves at the bottom of their division, and 29th in the NHL. Fortunately, the painful process of crushing all the fans’ hopes coming into the season is over, and Ducks nation has come to grips with the reality of being a bad team. Even Ducks GM Bob Murray has essentially conceded that the team is playing for next season, that they have next to no shot of making the playoffs.

But here’s the catch. There is no way of “playing for next year,” at least not directly. You cannot transfer victories from this season over to next; you can’t defer points in the standings. In fact, ever since a draft system was implemented in the NHL where the worst teams are rewarded with the highest picks, the most effective way of assuring success for “next year” is to actually do the opposite this year. If you’re going to fail, and the Ducks certainly are, fail big.

Up until about two weeks ago, the Ducks were doing a great job of this, but now that they’ve won three in a row and six of their last seven, I have to ask, what are they doing? The season is already lost. The fans not loyal or interested enough to support a non-playoff team are already gone, and the rest have already accepted the Ducks’ fate this year. If Bob Murray and company really want to repay the loyalty of their remaining fans, how about bringing in a new star scoring forward that the Ducks’ 21st ranked offense could desperately use?

Fans would quickly jump to point out that the Ducks lack the budget to bring in such a player through free agency or trade, and they would be right. Luckily, I’m not talking about a high-priced free agent or trade target. I’m talking about a young, (relatively) cheap high draft pick like Nail Yakupov.

Think about what the Ducks are going up against as an organization. Their internal budget is crippling to any hope of ultimate success, and worse yet, their General Manager Bob Murray has demonstrated a complete inability to make even two good moves in a row. The way I see it, there is one way, and one way only, for this franchise to succeed under such dire constraints, and that is for them to receive an opportunity so obvious in its benefits that even Bob Murray cannot miss it or mess it up, with it also being cheap enough that they can afford it.

As all hockey fans know, these two factors tend to be mutually exclusive in free agency or the trade market. In hockey and in life, having your cake and eating it too can prove a difficult proposition. Unless you own a bakery, of course, but that’s a whole different discussion, and I don’t want to get sidetracked. My point is, a star UFA like Zach Parise may be an obvious benefit to any team, but he will cost a ton of money to sign. Likewise, there are plenty of cheaper players available, but none of Parise’s quality.

The only magical circumstance where you can find young, healthy, elite talent that will come to a losing team for a (relatively) low salary, and immediately help, is if your team ends up with the #1 overall draft pick in the NHL Entry Draft (sometimes the 2nd overall pick also yields this result, but less so recently). For a Ducks team operating under such crippling constraints as a low internal budget and average General Manager, I see this as their one and only chance of succeeding in a league filled with wealthier and better managed teams. Russian phenom Nail Yakupov is slated to go #1 overall at next year’s draft, and apparently he is such an obvious consensus #1 pick, that I wager even Bob Murray would not pass on him given the opportunity to draft him. And since there is a maximum dollar amount for entry-level contracts, Murray would be able to sign Yakupov to a cheap, bonus-laden contract that even the Ducks could afford.

It’s the type of win-win scenario that is very rare to find for a franchise so set up to lose from the top down, which is why I am so baffled at the Ducks’ current determination to avoid the opportunity by wining games right now. They won’t get another chance like this; I highly doubt they want to throw away next season, too, so why not go for the top pick this year? Rumor has it that Bob Murray wants to add a top defenseman, not a forward, but the Ducks don’t currently have enough scoring punch where they can afford to trade one of their top forwards for a top defenseman. That’s the whole point, it’s not just the defense, or the forwards, it’s everything. The Ducks have major holes everywhere and no money to even fill one of them at market-rates, let alone all of them. It’s a paradox that the conventional means teams use to improve their rosters, like free agency and the trade market, simply do not have a solution for. There is only one way to fill major roster holes at far the below market rate, without giving up valuable assets of your own and creating a new hole, and that is drafting someone like Nail Yakupov by virtue of what essentially amounts to a free gift, the #1 overall draft pick.

If Bob Murray then wants to improve his defense, drafting a Yakupov opens up all sorts of beneficial possibilities for a franchise that currently doesn’t seem to have many, that seems to have hit a dead-end in a way. The increased forward depth would then make trading, say, Bobby Ryan for a top defenseman, a more feasible option. For the Ducks, that #1 overall draft pick would be that rare and magical gift afforded to very few in life which would allow them to get something for nothing, so to speak, or more precisely, something of fantastic value for very little value in return, only a small portion of their cap money and no assets whatsoever in exchange for an exciting, marketable, game-winning, fan-drawing franchise player for the next 15 years. I cannot emphasize the value of these #1 picks enough. They don’t just count for more wins, they count for more money, better brand recognition… they do it all, and have been known to completely turn around struggling franchises like nothing else. That’s why, when all you have to do to get one is play the same way (or worse!) for the second half of the season as you did for the first half, you should do it. Especially if you’re the Ducks.

Because if any team needs that #1 overall pick because they simply don’t seem to have any means of progressing forward without it, it’s the Ducks. When you don’t have the money to afford talent of the quality required to sufficiently improve your team, what you need is a gift, and a high draft pick is the only thing that can quickly change the fortunes of a reeling franchise lacking funds. That is, short of another team donating their best player to your cause, while also agreeing to pay his salary for you. Exactly, not going to happen.

That’s why I’m so shocked at Bob Murray’s actions. He is running away from the one true opportunity his franchise has for improving instead of embracing it. If I were him, and obviously I’m not—I have a plan, for one, but if I was him, I would be not just be rooting against my own team for the rest of the year, but also making a few subtle moves to ensure that they kept losing. I certainly wouldn’t be urging them to “get on a run” like he’s been doing, or threatening through the media to trade my core players if they don’t immediately step up their games. Such actions are simply nonsensical at this point in the season. You do that in the offseason, after you’ve drafted Nail Yakupov. Then you tell your core they need to prepare for the season much better than they prepared for this one, and, if you deem it necessary to their motivation, threaten them with trades otherwise. But you don’t use that tactic now, when you need to lose, not win. That’s insanity. Murray’s mindset really makes you question if he even knows what day it is, let alone if he understands the situation his team is in.

The Ducks need that #1 overall pick. Without it, they will struggle to improve over the next few seasons just as they did the last few. Their offense struggles too much to trade a key forward for a defenseman, their defense struggles too much to do the opposite, and their budget struggles too much to simply add a top player through free agency without giving anyone (and their salary) up. Moreover, even if they had money, Bob Murray’s track record suggests he probably wouldn’t make good enough use of it.

How could anyone possibly improve under those circumstances? (Short of being gifted great value in exchange for no assets and low money, a.k.a a top draft pick). I mean come on!

It’s either that top draft pick, or perhaps by ignoring the significant, expensive-to-fill holes on the roster in favor of improving the depth of the team, which would definitely help, but still only take you so far as long as the bigger holes remained. And, unfortunately, Bob Murray hasn’t even demonstrated he’s capable of filling the minor holes. It’s going on four years now where he’s failed to even sign a viable third-line center for his club, that is except for the player currently centering his second line because he’s failed to properly fill that void, too.

So how do you improve under all these constraints? I keep coming back to it, but the Ducks need that top pick. Ducks fans have to be flabbergasted. I’m flabbergasted just from putting myself in their shoes for 45 minutes to write this. If Bob Murray doesn’t even know when and how to lose, how is he ever going to win? Because winning is a lot harder than losing.

Another day, another poorly run sports franchise, I guess. I definitely sympathize, Ducks fans.

Written by Shark Circle

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