Can Ducks slow down freefall?

A season that began with so much promise for the Anaheim Ducks is

close to slipping away.

The Ducks entered this season expected to be a potential Cup

contender after upsetting the San Jose Sharks last spring and

nearly doing the same to the then-defending Stanley Cup champion

Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 playoffs.

But 30 games into this season, the Ducks find themselves at

the bottom of the Western Conference standings, possessing the

third-worst ranking in the league’s overall standings.

Their defensive game, once one of their strong points, has

been atrocious this season, giving up the fourth-most shots against

all 30 NHL teams. Their road record is second worst.

The goaltending tandem of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas

Hiller has struggled as their average goals-against per game ranks

26th overall.

Just like last season, they’re once again forced to rely on

their first-line forwards Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf

to carry the bulk of the offense.

It’s been suggested one possibility for the Ducks’ dreadful

start is the players might be tuning on head coach Randy Carlyle,

but general manager Bob Murray recently made it clear Carlyle

wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t placing the fault upon him.

On the ice it’s not any one problem but rather a combination

that has dragged down their performance.

Hiller’s performance last season, especially in the 2009

playoffs, had him entering the season as the de facto starter over

the veteran Giguere but in what’s been his contract year, Hiller

has struggled under the heightened expectations.

Giguere has earned more starts of late, but he’s yet to

regain the form that made him the Ducks starter for so many years.

The loss of Chris Pronger in an offseason trade to

Philadelphia and Francois Beauchemin to free agency and Murray’s

inability to adequately replace them has taken a bigger toll than

expected upon the Ducks overall defensive game.

Veteran blueliner Scott Niedermayer has played his best, but

the 36-year-old cannot replace Pronger’s physical presence.

Lack of scoring depth last season was supposedly addressed

this summer with the acquisition of center Saku Koivu via free

agency and the re-acquisition of winger Joffrey Lupul from

Philadelphia in the Pronger trade.

Koivu as a second-line center had only 13 points in his first

25 games, missing five due to injury. He’s on pace for 40 points,

his lowest output in years.

Lupul’s on pace for 32 goals and 45 points, which is pretty

much his average production since 2005-06 but expectations were

considerably higher for him coming into this season.

Their offensive depth took another blow when long-time Ducks

winger Teemu Selanne, who has 21 points in 29 games, was sidelined

until late-January with a left hand injury.

First-line winger Bobby Ryan was the league’s leading rookie

scorer last season with 57 points in only 64 games. But he’s on

pace to barely exceed that point total playing more games this

season, which is considered a bit of a letdown for a winger upon

which much more was expected.

They’re also lacking quality depth on their checking lines,

resulting in a recent minor shake-up with Erik Christensen claimed

off waivers by the New York Rangers and the acquisition of

fourth-line center Kyle Chipchura from Montreal.

Murray, however, recently told the local media he doesn’t

expect to make any significant trades in the coming weeks,

suggesting his current roster will have to play its way out of this

situation.

Despite the Ducks problems, there are some bright spots upon

which the team could build upon for a better second half and a shot

at securing a playoff berth.

With 27 points in their first 30 games, the Ducks, as of

Friday, were seven points out of the eighth and final playoff berth

in the Western Conference, still placing them within striking

distance.

Their power-play has done very well, currently ranked third

overall thanks in large part to the performance of Perry and

Getzlaf.

Perry has been consistently the Ducks best forward this

season and is currently on pace for a career-best 98-point

performance. Getzlaf’s goal production is down this season but is

on pace for an amazing 82 assists, which would also be a

career-high for him.

As the

Orange County Register recently noted, the Ducks have

typically been a strong second-half team, so it’s possible they

could once again rebound from a slow start with a strong finish.

Still, it’s going to take a better overall team effort for

the Ducks to avoid slipping further out of the playoff race. Hiller

and Giguere must provide their teammates with better goaltending,

the defensive game has to improve and their second line scorers

will have to step up and take some pressure off the top line.

The next 20 games could well determine if this team is a

playoff contender or pretender.