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.