Season preview: Ducks capable but need work
The prolonged work stoppage didn't only affect the Anaheim Ducks' mojo under head coach Bruce Boudreau, it also threw off Luca Sbisa's sense of time and place.
"I feel like I keep asking guys ‘How's your summer? How was your summer?,' and then I realize it's January already," the defenseman mused.
It does feel strange. These variables do not compute. A notoriously slow starting team taking the ice under a head coach with a reputation for fast starts in a 48-game sprint towards the playoffs?
What to make of these Ducks?
As much as the focus lies on any player or any line, the two most important figures at Honda Center in 2013 are general manager Bob Murray and head coach Bruce Boudreau.
For Boudreau, the challenge will be to get immediate results from a team that has won 40.2% of its October and November games over the last four seasons. Ever since Anaheim opened 25-3-6 in their Cup year of 2006-07, their early play has necessitated second half rebounds.
For Murray, there is the immediate need to re-sign Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to long term contracts.
"This isn't rocket science. I'm going to try everything I can to get them signed," Murray said.
We're willing to give Getzlaf the benefit of the doubt after an unsatisfying 11-goal 2011-12 season, even if his points per game dropped after Boudreau replaced Randy Carlyle. His anomalous 5.9% shooting percentage was the only time in his career that it dipped below 11%. While Perry's re-signing is a no-brainer, it also has the potential to be a bank breaker for the 27-year-old who has averaged 35 goals in each of the last five seasons.
"They've been Anaheim Ducks. I love those guys. They're winners," Murray said. "We're going to do everything in my power to sign them. I talked to both their camps already. They're coming in in the next couple of weeks…and we'll do everything in our power to sign them."
"That's obviously my biggest priority."
Whether it's the duo's biggest priority to quickly re-sign in Anaheim or test the open market remains to be seen. From a Ducks standpoint, a best-case scenario has the two leading the team in points after one month and negotiating long term extensions, thus providing stability to all the other moving pieces – of which there are plenty.
There will be moderately experienced players holding down top six roles. Kyle Palmieri, a name that tops both a deep prospect pool and the Ducks' line pairings, is slated to skate alongside Getzlaf and Perry on the top line, while 24-year old Nick Bonino will center Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne. Palmieri and Bonino are in effect load bearing structures. If they grow into their top-six assignments, all of a sudden there are three awfully effective offensive pairings, with Mikko Koivu, Andrew Cogliano and Daniel Winnik comprising the third line. If they're unable to steadily contribute, the question of whether to stack Ryan, Getzlaf and Perry on the same line surfaces again, while Anaheim will be forced to consider moving Koivu up to the second line or having to make a trade for an additional center.
There's also Teemu Selanne, who turned 42 years old over the off-season and enters what many estimate to be his final go-around – though that's an annual decision Selanne waits until the summer to address. He led the team in scoring a year ago and will be called upon to contribute at a high level once again; if he doesn't, there are significant holes in the Ducks' top six.
Considering injuries will have a profound impact on teams in the shortened season, Boudreau is mindful of how he'll handle Selanne on off-days.
"If he's tired, he'll get a rest." Boudreau said.
"It's more tiring to practice than it is in a game. I mean, I'm sure that there are going to be days where I say, ‘Saku. Teemu. Take the day off. You just relax and don't do anything.'"
There are better options defensively than a year ago, a credit to Murray's free agency pickups of Sheldon Souray, who enjoyed a bounce-back season in Dallas, and Bryan Allen, one of Carolina's best shot-blockers and a strong counter-balance to young offensive players.
"We set out after last year to obviously change our defense. It wasn't happy with how small and pushed around we were in our own zone. I thought that created a lot of our problems," Murray said.
Francois Beauchemin doesn't have the size that the two newcomers offer, but he adds toughness and is a proven shotblocker who can continue to aid the defensive effort. Sbisa took a step forward in his confidence and consistency last season and will be asked to significantly build on his average 17:55 of ice time, a low amongst the regular defensive rotation.
And then there's Cam Fowler, who appeared in all 82 games and registered a minus-28 in his 23:15 average ice time. It was a trial by fire in Fowler's second year, as he was liberally placed in a variety of situations and made a fair share of mistakes – about what you would expect for a player who opened the season as a 19-year-old.
"I just want to be a guy that can be relied upon in both situations: if we're protecting a one goal lead, or we need a goal," he said. "That's kind of my main focus, to be that guy that they can rely on no matter what they need. Just try and play with confidence."
There is hope that the addition of Scott Niedermayer to the coaching staff will have a positive effect on this defense, though that's not the only reason Niedermayer is appealing as a member of the team's staff.
"It's not just for defensemen – everybody has to understand that," Murray said, noting he had been courting Niedermayer's services on the hockey staff for "a couple years".
"Yes, it's great for Cam. Yes, it's great for Luca. Yes, it's great for Beauch. Bryan Allen. But it's great for everybody in the locker room, because he's the best winner of our time."
It certainly should have a positive effect on Fowler, one of the most gifted young offensive defensemen in the game. Fowler recorded 40 points in 76 games several months after being chosen 12th overall at the 2010 NHL Draft.
"It's pretty exciting as a young player…to have one of the best to ever play this game around and kind of at my disposal," said Fowler, who lived in Niedermayer's house upon joining the team in 2010.
"I just want to be everything I could be for the team. I think the coaching staff and management has put me in a good situation to succeed here."
5-foot-10 21-year-old defensive prospect Sami Vatanen, who posted an encouraging 20 points in his first 32 games in North America while with Norfolk of the AHL, will open up the season on the IR with a foot injury but remains extraordinarily well thought of for his offensive potential.
Jonas Hiller started a franchise record 32 consecutive games in net a season ago and is capable of handling the significant burden placed upon him by the truncated schedule. The right-catching goaltender played his best hockey in the second half last season and shows no ill signs of the mysterious vertigo that plagued him in 2011.
Despite the collection of top-end skill on the roster, Anaheim's power play was a major disappointment last season, falling 18 spots from the third-ranked unit of 2010-11. If the Ducks are to make any noise in the Western Conference, they'll need to rectify their man advantage, which certainly has enough pieces to perform at a high level.
With all this added up, what effect will the 48-game schedule have on this Anaheim team?
"It's a sprint. I remember 94-95," Murray said. "You're going to blink and it's going to be gone."
"Very interesting debates in the coaches room right now, I'll tell you that. There's lots of talk about having young legs and being able to skate, and the fourth line and third line being very important this year, because it's condensed for everybody."
And how will this "sprint" impact the league's oldest player?
"Hopefully this is going to be a good setup for the old guy," Selanne said.
"The schedule is going to be very challenging for everybody, especially the older guys, because the recovery time is going to be so short. But looking forward, I still feel good, and I'm very excited about this team. Expectations are high."
It's awfully difficult to get a read on this Ducks team. Optimists look at how Murray identified his team's weaknesses and successfully targeted players through free agency to address them. They'll turn to Boudreau, referencing his 17-3-4 stretch in the second half of last season as the defense and goaltending settled. Aside from the mysterious health issues which have since vanished, Hiller has been among the best goaltenders in the Western Conference over the last three years. Bobby Ryan is a 30-goal machine, not a bad asset to have on a second line.
And then, on the other side, lay the question marks. Do Perry and Getzlaf want to re-sign quickly, or will they create instability by their preference to test the open market? What is the likelihood that Palmieri and Bonino are still rotating through the team's top two lines in April? Are there too many minutes being allotted to unproven players? How much depth is there down the center of the ice?
The degree of positivity in which these questions are answered will go a ways in determining whether Anaheim is capable of battling for the division, or if they're one of a handful of bubble teams in a dogfight for one of the Western Conference's last few spots. It is imperative that this team avoids an early-season slump, as morale will fall if they're forced to exhaust themselves on playing catch up for the entire season, thus adding to the uncertainty of the Getzlaf and Perry negotiations.
In other words, there are a lot of variables in play – not that they've stopped Boudreau from issuing his first edict.
"Twitter this to the Vancouver people: Hilly's playing Saturday."