By most appearances, the Anaheim Ducks are a team in need of a serious rebuild. Looks can be deceiving, though.
With and Without Carlyle
Finishing third from last in the Western Conference with a 35-37-10 record, the Ducks undeniably had a poor 2018-19. However, they’ve been in similar situations before, only to rebound.
For example, in 2011-12, the Ducks finished with an identical 80 points, also missing the playoffs. They then went on to win the Pacific Division in each of the next five seasons. So, if they are on a downward trend in terms of performance, which their first-round sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks in 2017-18 might suggest, they have the capacity to bounce back in what has become a parity-driven league. Plus, they still ended up with 101 points that last season, so most signs still point to 2018-19 being a one-off.
Of course, general manager Bob Murray does have some work ahead of him. For example, Murray can’t keep acting as the interim head coach and realistically must hire someone new. The good news is Randy Carlyle wasn’t just old in the sense Murray opted to rehire him the last time around (with diminishing returns from a performance standpoint in each of the three seasons he was just behind the bench).
The fact of the matter is Carlyle is old-school, a coach who favors strength and size over speed, which is generally a trademark of the NHL’s successful teams in this day and age. The approach was reflected in the results he unfortunately wasn’t getting by the end of his latest tenure. It was also reflected in the results the Ducks were getting once he got fired, with the team going 14-11-1 down the stretch after he was dismissed (instead of 21-26-9 before; 2-15-4 since late December).
Ducks of a Feather
Granted, a record of 14-11-1 is far off from, say, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 128-point pace over the course of an entire season. It is a start though, and it shows the Ducks are better than their record indicated and they do indeed have some of the proper pieces in place. Murray may need to make some changes, but there is still a good foundation in place.
Really, in spite of the poor season, it’s clear the franchise as a whole isn’t in horrible shape. In fact, just the opposite. Up until the wheels fell off this past season, John Gibson had been considered the best goalie in the league, with an at-least-decent-on-paper defense led by Hampus Lindholm in front of him.
It’s unlikely the Ducks will suffer through a similar injury situation like they did last year, when they used 15 defensemen, including Jake Dotchin, who was deemed by the Lightning not to be fit enough to play for them. To his credit, Dotchin got back into game shape, but, the point is, signing Dotchin less than a month after his acrimonious exit from the Lightning was a sign of desperation. There generally wouldn’t be teams lining up to sign a depth guy who had effectively been fired by his last team. Yet, the Ducks did.
Meanwhile, up front, after notching 69 points in 2017-18, Rickard Rakell is unlikely to score below 50 again. In spite of a season-ending shoulder injury, Ondrej Kase seems on the verge of breaking out himself. Plus, having led the team in scoring, Ryan Getzlaf has proven he can still contribute into his mid-thirties. In sharp contrast, with exception to him, all of the above names are in their mid-twenties.
Changing of the Guard in Order?
In other words, there is still a serviceable core there. The Hockey News actually ranked the Ducks No. 4 on a list of how each organization is faring right now (mid-May 2019). What’s most telling is how the top three teams are still competing in the playoffs.
It would be almost an unbelievable (non-believable, rather) assessment of the team’s strength were it not for the justification behind the higher-than-expected ranking: The Ducks’ American Hockey League affiliate is still alive in the Calder Cup playoffs, with a great deal of youth on the way. Not least of all, the Ducks have two first-round picks coming at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, including their own, which will be the ninth-overall selection.
It’s of course a coincidence, but the draft is set to be one of the deepest since 2003, when the Ducks also had two first-round picks. Getzlaf (No. 19) and Corey Perry (No. 28) would go on to become the backbone of those five consecutive Pacific Division-championship teams. Hell, even as up-and-coming youngsters, they were Nos. 1 and 2 in playoff scoring when the Ducks won their one and only cup in 2007.
That’s obviously the best case and it’s admittedly not a perfect parallel. In 2003 the Ducks actually went on to reach the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the New Jersey Devils. So, it’s not like there were necessarily calls for a rebuild at the time (even if they would go on to miss the playoffs in 2004). The Ducks have also had two picks in the first round on multiple occasions since (2016, 2010, 2009), with few of those turning into home runs.
Nevertheless, there are reasons for cautious optimism this time around, including seven million-plus in dollars available under the projected salary cap. There are only a few minor holes to fill, with all the key players signed on for next season already. So, Murray need only make a few tweaks to his roster, which, as alluded to earlier isn’t exactly broken. And, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Just regroup, starting with the right coach. Just about everything else seems to be in place. There are no guarantees though, just hints of a good team ready to rebound if you know where to look.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.