The stars seemed aligned for the Anaheim Ducks in 2014-15. With their rivals in San Jose and Los Angeles failing to make the playoffs, the Ducks’ road to their third Stanley Cup Final seemed wide open. That hope seemed even more tangible after dismissing Winnipeg and Calgary in the first two rounds. The narrative going into the Chicago series was clear: Anaheim was the bigger, faster, and more physical team. This should be easy right? Yet once the puck dropped on the Western Conference Final, that narrative quickly took a vicious turn.
The Ducks fought tooth-and-nail in a seven-game trench war against the Blackhawks. Even Hawks’ captain Jonathan Toews has admitted that the Ducks were their toughest playoff opponents. As close as that series felt at times, it also felt like both teams were worlds apart. Chicago controlled play at even strength, spending the majority of the series in Anaheim’s zone. And when they weren’t doing that, the Ducks would find ways to shoot themselves in the foot with costly turnovers and soft goals.
Chicago erased a 3-2 series deficit and eventually finished it off at the Honda Center without as much as a whimper from the Ducks. It was oddly anti-climactic in contrast to what had been such a hard-fought series. That’s life when facing the Blackhawks in the playoffs.
Ducks’ general manager Bob Murray was left to pick up the pieces once the dust had settled, trying to make sense of what exactly had just happened. James Wisniewski, his prize acquisition at the trade deadline, didn’t see a millisecond of ice time in the playoffs. The offensive-minded Wisniewski would have been a perfect fit in the Conference Final, especially when compared to the slow-footed, turnover-prone Clayton Stoner.
Wisnieswki’s second stint in Anaheim ended quietly in a trade to Carolina. and Murray’s relationship with head coach Bruce Boudreau took a hit as a result of the whole saga. Boudreau had been brought in to deliver a Cup to Anaheim, and though he came tantalizingly close, he also seemed to eschew the tools given to him. Not long after the season ended, former Senators head coach and Jack Adams-winner Paul MacLean was brought in as assistant coach, leaving one to wonder if Boudreau’s days as the main man in Anaheim are numbered.
No Shortage Of Talent
For all the questions facing the Ducks at the end of ’14-15, one thing was at least crystal clear: there’s a damn good hockey team in Anaheim that’s not that far off from a Stanley Cup. A middle-of-the-road possession team throughout most of the season, the Ducks dominated that aspect of the game after the trade deadline and into the playoffs.
With a talented young blue line featuring Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Simon Despres, and Sami Vatanen, the Ducks have puck-moving chops that most teams can only dream of. Lindholm at only 21 years of age was the team’s steadiest defenseman, providing slick play with the puck and a reliable approach without it. Despres, who was acquired in exchange for the beloved Ben Lovejoy, adds a hulking physique that can move the puck and skate exceptionally well for a man his size. Fowler can do things like this, and Vatanen emerged as a stealth bomber on the power play. Adding Kevin Bieksa in place of Francois Beauchemin is a fairly lateral move, though he’ll look a lot better just like Beauchemin did when paired with Lindholm.
Anaheim remains just as talented up front, and they got even better during the summer. Gone are Emerson Etem, Kyle Palmieri, Matt Beleskey, and Tomas Fleischmann. Aside from Beleskey (who wasn’t worth the money he was asking), Murray didn’t exactly part ways with any franchise players. Instead, he brought in Carl Hagelin, Chris Stewart, Mike Santorelli, and Shawn Horcoff. For those keeping score at home, that’s a pretty nice upgrade. Hagelin and Stewart both provide more goal-scoring and versatility, while Santorelli and Horcoff are depth guys that bring a nice offensive touch.
Murray signed both Hagelin and a potential breakout star in Jakob Silfverberg to extremely team-friendly deals. While both of their contracts are definitely “bang for your buck”, Murray drew a lot of criticism for the gargantuan contract extension that he gave to Ryan Kesler, a deal that will pay the Olympian $6.875 million per year through 2022. There’s no doubt it’s too much term (and perhaps even cash) for a physical player whose offensive game is already in decline.
However, here’s where fans and analysts alike miss the point. The Ducks already invested in Kesler by trading for him last summer. There’s no bringing back Nick Bonino at this point. Murray doesn’t live in a world of hypotheticals. If that’s the cost of bringing back Kesler, then he simply has to do it. And if the Ducks win the Stanley Cup within the next three years, then who the hell cares anyway? As a wise man once said, “You play to win the game”. The Ducks are clearly in win-now mode, and they see Kesler as a critical piece to their puzzle. His offensive game has indeed tailed off a bit, but he remains an above-average two-way player.
The flip side of that is a scenario where Anaheim doesn’t win the Cup in the next few years, and they become stuck with an overpaid player well past his prime. That’s obviously not a scenario that Murray wants to think about, but there’s a risk involved in any decision made.
Stanley Cup Or Bust?
The Ducks clearly want to win now. And with the Kesler deal now done, they have even more pressure to do so. However, with the bevy of young talent on the blue line as well as guys like Hagelin, Silfverberg, Jiri Sekac, and Rickard Rakell, they’re also well-positioned to be good for years to come. The big question of who will emerge as their unquestioned starting goaltender remains to be answered, but both John Gibson and Frederik Andersen have shown signs that they can be quality NHL goaltenders.
However, this current Ducks team as it is presently constituted has an impending expiry date. With a truck-load of free agents next summer, many of whom make up that young core, Anaheim may only have one last crack at a Cup with everyone in tow. And with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry not getting any younger, the time is clearly now for the Ducks to win a Cup.
With the depth and young talent that Murray has stockpiled, they will once again be serious contenders in 2015-16. The Sharks and Kings look poised to atone for their lackluster ’14-15 campaigns, but the Ducks remain the class of the Pacific Division. And with the Blackhawks in a weird spot and no clear-cut contender in the Central Division, Anaheim will once again have a wide open road to the Stanley Cup Final. The clock is ticking on the Ducks’ Cup window, but with the moves they’ve made and the current climate in the NHL, they just might pull it off.