30 Teams, (At Least) 30 Thoughts: Anaheim Ducks

It’s been awhile since my last blog, but with the NHL season now in full swing, I plan to get my bloggin’ back in full swing, too. Here are my thoughts on all the NHL’s teams through one-quarter of the season, starting with the Ducks as usual, since I always start alphabetically but then get stuck on the first few teams and don’t always get to the rest.

I’ve already finished four though so check back for when I post those.

ANAHEIM DUCKS:

The Ducks have started strong. Why? The team is no longer an elite top line playing with a bunch of subpar AHL players. And I don’t mean “subpar” because they were AHL-calibre players judged against NHL standards. I mean subpar in the AHL.

General Manager Bob Murray finally put together some depth for this lineup to go along with stars Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, and Bobby Ryan, and the results are what I’ve said they would be for a long time if he did that.

With a nearly unparalleled cast of core players all signed to fantastic value contracts the last four or so seasons, the Ducks have always had the potential to an elite team, even after losing Pronger and Neidermayer. Their management team and ownership just didn’t seem to care much. They seemed happy with mediocrity, having already achieved their goal of winning a Stanley Cup. I guess one was enough.

But with the signings of Sheldon Souray, Daniel Winnik, (and Bryan Allen) this offseason, there seems to have at least been a slight shift in that philosophy.

And while the Ducks are still probably not an elite team, the emergence of prospects like Kyle Palmieri and Nick Bonino as legitimate top-nine NHL forwards, combined with the additions of players like Daniel Winnik, Sheldon Souray, and Andrew Cogliano, has for the first time since Chris Pronger left the Ducks at least made them a team again, instead of just one line or one line and a few other good NHL players mixed with a bunch of filler.

Key to this transformation has been the signing of Daniel Winnik this past offseason. Winnik is one of the best third-liners in the NHL, and a great territorial player by any standard (also known as “possession player” or “play driver).

Likewise, prospect Nick Bonino’s emergence as a center who at least won’t hurt you on the second line, and even has some talent to sustain offense when playing with elite players, has also helped the Ducks, allowing last year’s second-line center Saku Koivu to drop down to the third line, where he has gone from somewhat of a liability as a second line center (when compared to in-division competition like Logan Couture and Mike Richards) to an absolute weapon centering the third line.

Koivu is actually probably still a better offensive player than Bonino overall, but he nonetheless struggled on the second line last season at least in part because he was undersized matching up against the big top-six center-men in the Western Conference. Nick Bonino doesn’t have this problem as he’s bigger and stronger.

It is also possible that Koivu was not at his best last season health or “shape”-wise, as he does seem stronger this season. Whatever the case, he has worked out perfectly on Anaheim’s third line this season, while Bonino has held his own on the second line without ever carrying it (aside from his one hat-trick game, which was more a case of opportunistic finishing and bounces than him dominating horn to horn).

Whether Koivu’s health or shape or game has truly improved enough this season for him to return to being a successful second line center is unknown at this stage, although he does look very, very good out there. But the chemistry has worked so well on the third-line, and Koivu’s lack of size also becomes much less of a detriment against the lesser quality of competition that a third-line faces in a league dominated by big center-men, that I would try to keep him with Winnik and Cogliano at even-strength, while continuing to let him center the second power play unit in the place of Bonino, as Bruce Boudreau has done.

It makes perfect sense: have Koivu’s skill and playmaking on your “second line” in a predominantly offensive situation like the power-play, and have Bonino’s size and strength on your second line at 5-on-5, where defense and board work at both ends of the ice constitute much of a center’s responsibility.

On the Ducks’ defense, offseason signing Bryan Allen has looked like a pylon at times, but at least he is big. Size is something the Ducks defense has lacked since the departure of Chris Pronger. Allen brings it in spades, but so far it hasn’t been enough to make up for his poor foot speed, skill, and decision-making.

We’ll have to wait to see if he can get his legs under him more as the season progresses and he settles into an Anaheim Ducks jersey. If not, his contract could turn into an albatross for the Ducks, and he may emerge as a potential compliance buyout option for the Ducks heading into next season, provided Ducks’ ownership actually cared more about helping the team than losing money in that situation.

Anaheim’s other offseason addition on defense, Sheldon Souray, has fared much better than Allen, even looking a bit like Pronger at times. Indeed, Souray is actually one of the only defenseman in the NHL who you can say shares Pronger’s rare combination of attributes and style of play in some respects, such as size, balance, steady hands, poise, and a good shot.

Unfortunately, Souray also shares some similarities to Allen in that his legs loose some steam if he’s out there for an extended shift, although not nearly as quickly as Allen’s.

Souray’s top speed also looks like it has decreased even since last year in Dallas, which is troubling for a 36-year-old player in the first season of a three-year contract, and so as well as he has played overall thus far in Anaheim, that has to make you wonder if he’ll be able to move at all two years from now when he will still be under contract with Anaheim at a significant cap-hit.

But for all the questions of foot speed and age (not to mention injuries, knock on wood) that come along with Souray, his slap-shot is still possibly unparalleled in the NHL, though his legs have had some trouble getting him into areas where he can use it (being on the power-play where there is more space and his teammates can set him up helps a lot). And like Pronger, Souray usually makes up for his lack of top speed with poised play, making the smart, easy play more often than not, and using his size effectively to shield pucks along the boards and find ways to break the puck out and start the attack with his steady hands and above average first pass.

He still makes mistakes on defense more often than Pronger ever did, and as sturdy, strong, balanced, and poised as he is back there, no one can match Pronger in those areas. But overall, Souray has played excellent hockey for the Ducks, and his signing will be a very good one for as long as he can stay healthy and mobile.

MORE DUCKS THOUGHTS: :

• It’s been interesting to watch Emerson Etem in the NHL after he looked incomparably fast and dominant in the WHL, scoring 61 goals in 65 games. He doesn’t look fully comfortable yet in the NHL, but the talent is there, and he looks like he could maybe score 17 to 20 goals in an 82 game NHL season if it started now.

Still, he’s far from a dominant NHL player at this stage, and he doesn’t have the look of a true top-six NHL forward to me yet. He’s very fast and skilled, which is why I said he should be able to chip in with some goals pretty soon regardless of his shortcomings, but he doesn’t look as fast or as strong as he did in the WHL, which to me is a sign that he probably isn’t NHL ready.

Kyle Palmieri went through something similar two seasons ago, and so did Cody Hodgson, actually, where both looked to have all the tools to be offensive creators and contributors in the NHL–the speed, skating, hands, etc, but none of it was quite enough in the NHL. They were quick, but they always seemed to just lack a step in the NHL to really create consistent separation and create scoring chances. Their reaches always looked just a little too short, like they needed just an extra two inches on their sticks to be able to protect the puck from NHL defensemen.

In other words, they looked like the perfect players to score goals in junior, where everyone is a step slower and smaller (if you can be a step smaller), but that they needed just a little more of something, anything, everything, to make it translate to the NHL.

Etem is not an undersized prospect in the vein of Hodgson or Palmieri, so maybe those aren’t the best prospects to compare him to (I mean Palmieri still has trouble shielding the puck against NHL defensemen sometimes with his small frame and short stick–he’s just better at it than he used to be), but it’s the same type of situation. Etem has all the tools, but I still think he just needs a little “more” before he can be an impact NHL player. Maybe one season in the AHL, one more year to get a step faster and stronger, and he will be ready. But for now, I don’t think he’s an impact player in the NHL.

Whether he absolutely needs to further improve his physical tools or it’s more an issue of confidence and chemistry, I can’t be completely sure as the two can sometimes look alike towards the beginning of a player’s NHL career. But right now, his speed and skill make him a threat offensively at times, but he’s not creating much consistently when playing with Perry and Getzlaf, and certainly not as much as Kyle Palmieri is creating when he gets time on the first line next to those two.

• And that’s the other problem. Boudreau, seemingly seduced by the promise of Etem’s skill set, has taken Palmieri off Getzlaf’s wing the last few games and left Etem there (or Beleskey, at times, of all people). The result is Perry and Getzlaf have both suffered because their linemate is not as good, and Palmieri has also stopped scoring because he’s not playing with Perry and Getzlaf.

Really, in my mind, Palmieri – Getzlaf – Perry is the new Ryan – Getzlaf – Perry, except the Palmieri way means you get to have Ryan on your second line. Huge bonus. Now I’m not saying Palmieri is the overall player that Ryan is, because he’s not. What I am saying is that Palmieri’s skill set compliments Perry and Getzlaf so much that when he is on that line, he is just as effective as Bobby Ryan is when he is on that line, and moreover the entire line works well together as a whole when Palmieri is on the wing.

And yes, Palmieri has been inconsistent at times this season (in part because he keeps getting moved around the lineup), but for the most part, when he has been on that first line, he has played fantastic, and the line has been one of the best lines in the NHL. You might be thinking that it always is with Getzlaf and Perry on it, but it’s not, and it hasn’t been quite the same with Etem on it, or with Beleskey on it (a really poor coaching move, as Beleskey lacks the skill to even sustain much of Getzlaf and Perry’s offense, let alone create offense himself. Palmieri can do both).

So my last thought on the Ducks, and the point of this last paragraph, would be that Kyle Palmieri should be playing with Getzlaf and Perry, not Etem, and he should probably be there permanently.

• Also (my last, last thought on the Ducks), Rickard Rakell impressed me in limited duty early in the season before he was sent down to the AHL. He is almost completely “NHL ready” in terms of the details of the game, the fundamentals, the two-way game, but like Etem he could still use just a little “more,” just a little more explosiveness to his very complete offensive arsenal in order to help it translate to the NHL, although I do think Rakell is further along than Etem in that regard.

Etem has the more explosive ceiling, however. But if Rakell continues on his current development trajectory, he is going to be like a Milan Hejduk ultimate second-liner, or Travis Zajac with a little more flair and a better shot. He’s an awesome prospect.

Also I saw that Smith-Pelley got sent down. Yeah, I remember watching him in a Canada wJC red vs white online stream, and he looked amazing, the best player on the ice, so quick and strong, skilled, matching himself hit for scoring chance every. Meanwhile, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was also playing in that game, and he looked small, slow, and not nearly as explosive as I thought he would be.

That was in the summer. Then fall came around, the NHL season started, and I got to watch both for the first time on TV, in an NHL jersey. Smith-Pelly immediately looked much slower to me than he had in the WJC red vs white scrimmage, like he was out of shape or recovering from injury compared to where he was at physically during the summer’s red vs white scrimmage.

Conversely, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looked… well, everyone knows how he looks by now. Plenty fast, plenty quick, his size barely any issue because he’s so quick, with such good balance and edges. Just a very weird dichotomy there.

That’s it for my thoughts on the Ducks. Check back for the Bruins, Sabres, and Flames thoughts soon.

Written by Shark Circle

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