Where do disappointing Ducks go from here?
It has been said a team is neither as good nor as bad as everyone says it is, but there were a pair of bold quotes that seemed to accurately sum up the polar moments of a disappointing Anaheim Ducks season that ended in a 34-36-12 record and a last-place finish.
"I think we just seem to be dead between the ears," Randy Carlyle said after a mistake-filled 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 27, three days before he was let go and replaced with Bruce Boudreau. The Ducks were in the middle of a 33-game stretch in which they won just six times.
"You can feel it out there no matter what position you play. You can feel that something changed in the team," a prophetic Jonas Hiller said early on in the team's 17-3-4 stretch that catapulted them into the discussion for a playoff berth after a surprisingly bad first half.
No team has erased a 12-point deficit before making the playoffs since the 1994 New York Islanders. This Ducks team came as close as four points of a postseason berth while attempting to erase the 20-point deficit they faced on Jan. 5.
"To be honest, I don't even read papers. We have standings in that room there, but I was like a horse in the race. Focused. Keep walking," Teemu Selanne said. "Because that was not pretty to watch."
The 41-year-old Selanne was exonerated after leading the team with 66 points and playing in 82 games for the first time since 2006-07. His speed, quick release and killer shootout instinct aided an Anaheim team that didn't get consistent production from its other elite players.
Among the elite trio of young forwards, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry eventually grew out of peculiarly poor young seasons by players in their mid-20s to post respectable 30-goal campaigns. While Perry was 38 points off his Hart Trophy pace from the previous season, he still finished with 23 goals over his final 44 outings and appeared cool and confident under Boudreau. The same can be said of Ryan, who was improperly and publicly dangled as trade bait despite being a player in his 25-year-old season who would go on to score 31 goals. Ryan's speed, tenacious board play and finishing ability make him a player Anaheim should be thinking of ways to continue to surround with talent instead of ways in which his market value could bring a quality return.
Ryan Getzlaf's season, in contrast, was entirely forgettable. An ominous trend for a player who will become a free agent in 2013, his shooting percentage disappeared to a paltry 5.9 percent, under half of what his career average had been. The 11 goals and four power play goals either set or tied career lows, while his minus-11 rating was well off his career plus-78 pace prior to 2011-12.
"If I had an answer, I would have fixed it a long time ago," Getzlaf said in December of the team's struggles. "It's one of those things where we came into camp, I thought we were energized, ready to play and ready to go, and we came out of the gates the way we wanted to, and then we got in a slump. We just hit that schneid and we couldn't get out of it."
The contributions of the forwards to the team's second half success was a combination of the quality of minutes provided by the dynamic stars and how the younger players like Matt Beleskey, Nick Bonino and Devante Smith-Pelly were able to etch out their own roles.
Smith-Pelly offered highlights of his skill set through training camp and in the season's first half, but upon his return from a 31-game absence after breaking a foot while blocking a shot at the World Junior Championships, the 19-year old's forechecking, board work, net presence and ability to stay strong on the puck all combined to instantly provide the Ducks some added energy late in the year. To be able to thrive physically the way Smith-Pelly did as a teenager in the NHL speaks of the major return Bob Murray and Anaheim are set to receive from the 42nd pick of the 2010 NHL Draft.
"I thought I started out the season pretty slow, just trying to get adjusted to the speed and all the differences and stuff like that," Smith-Pelly said. "I felt right around the Christmas break right before I went to World Juniors, probably around the time Bruce came on board. That's when I kind of felt I'm getting the hang of this, you know. I can be an everyday player. ... I think Bruce kind of gave me a little bit extra confidence, and I'm just hoping to continue that."
While there appears to be a long future ahead for Smith-Pelly, several other prospects found encouraging success while jumping between Syracuse and the Honda Center. Kyle Palmieri entered the final week of the AHL season with 33 goals in 48 games and enjoyed three goals, five points and a plus-four rating in his final six games with the parent club.
Patrick Holland, 20, another former first round pick, possesses a terrific wristshot and experienced the breakthrough performance in his first professional season that Anaheim had hoped for, accounting for 60 points heading into this weekend's AHL action.
Emerson Etem is set to join the Ducks permanently next year and will get a taste of the AHL playoffs after his Medicine Hat Tigers bowed out in the second round of the WHL playoffs earlier this week. With 61 goals and 107 points in 65 games, he became the WHL's first 60-goal scorer in 11 years. The young forwards should be seasoned enough to step into the roles and minutes vacated by unrestricted free agents Jason Blake, Saku Koivu, Niklas Hagman, George Parros and Rod Pelley, whose salaries combine for $13.425 million coming off the team's ledgers.
As the team's defense strengthened over the second half of the season, so did the team's position in the standings. Had Francois Beauchemin not become the team's best defenseman for a month-long stretch in January and February, the team wouldn't have found the second half success it did. Despite following up a seven-point, six-game stretch in January with a 16-point scoreless streak, he was the club's most consistent, versatile defender and was rewarded with a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension.
While many people had projected Cam Fowler to be the Ducks defenseman to take the biggest leap forward in his development, it was instead the sublime maturation of Luca Sbisa that became a positive trend throughout an otherwise lukewarm season on the blueline. Sbisa, who dealt with confidence issues during his first full NHL season in 2010-11, developed a comfort level in all types of situations, serving as a reliable physical presence in his own end as well as a knack for moving the puck up the ice and getting it deep. His end-to-end rush in which he scored off his own rebound against L.A. in a 4-2 loss on March 16 seemed to put all of his attributes together and makes the $2.2 million per year he's owed through 2015 a relative bargain.
"I didn't have those big up and downs, or those big stretches where I feel really good and then, like, I feel like I wouldn't even belong in this league. I wouldn't have that," Sbisa said of his 2011-12 season. "Obviously, you make a mistake out there, you make a bad turnover that leads to a goal, that stuff happens. It happens to everyone, and that's what I realized. If you play 10 good games and you have one bad shift, just keep going."
Fowler didn't take any major step forward in his sophomore campaign and remains both incredibly gifted and very, very young. Fans are going to need to endure some patience with a player who didn't turn 20 until December, though has already played in 158 NHL games. There's a hard, accurate shot from the point that has benefited the Ducks for a couple of seasons, but his ability to read and react to situations is still a touch behind most defensemen at this level. He experienced an 11-point drop-off in points despite playing in six more games, though Anaheim's reduction in power play effectiveness from 2010-11 to 2011-12 had just as much to do with that as any hiccups in his development. Fowler's minus-28 was the third-worst rating in the league.
Sheldon Brookbank emerged as a quality depth defenseman and a viable option heading forward. He'll be a part of a Ducks blueline in 2012-13 that will include Sbisa, Beauchemin and Fowler.
As someone entering the final year of his contract with a $5.6 million cap hit and satisfactory young options around him, it wouldn't be surprising to see Lubomir Visnovsky exchanged for younger players and draft picks around the time of the draft. Visnovsky battled back from a broken finger to finish with 27 points and a plus-seven rating a year after setting a career high with 68 points.
Justin Schultz, arguably NCAA hockey's most well-rounded offensive defenseman and one of 10 original finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, chose not to join Anaheim after his Wisconsin Badgers season ended and appears on the verge of derailing the team's plans to quickly usher him into an important role on the team's blueline. Instead of adding a quality, young and inexpensive reinforcement selected 43rd overall in 2008, Schultz appears to be considering a CBA loophole that grants players free agency four summers after their draft year if they played junior hockey prior to college. Any estimation that tabs Schultz as better than 50 percent likely to join the club next season is wishful thinking, and the Ducks aren't as awash in defensive prospects as they are at forward.
Consecutive December home losses in which multiple-goal leads were blown tarnished the first two games of the Boudreau era in Anaheim, and for Hiller, the distress became too heavy to keep bottled up. Unleashing a barrage of criticism of the team's defensive play and mental fragility, Hiller's urging was a coarse effort to salvage the focus in what was spiraling into a season of expansion-level futility.
"It looks like we're there, but we're not really there," Hiller said following the Dec. 4 loss to Minnesota. "Physically we're there, but probably mentally we're already in the other zone, or I don't know, still in the dressing room."
Whether it was under Boudreau's urging or the self-confidence that naturally grew during an encouraging second half, Hiller eventually let his play do the talking by starting every game between Jan. 12 and March 18, posting a 17-10-5 record with three shutouts, a 1.92 goals against average and .927 save percentage. He wasn't pulled once during his franchise-record 32 consecutive starts and would be considered a pillar of the team's identity heading into 2012-13.
"In Switzerland, you normally play most of the games, but it's normally like 40-something games or 50 games," Hiller said late in a season in which he appeared in 73 games. "The only thing kind of similar to something like this would be the Spengler Cup where you play five games in six days. It's definitely a lot of games, especially on the road with the travel, which isn't easy. But I'm feeling well."
Growing pains may be associated with younger teams, and the Ducks are hoping the first half struggle that saw several top flight players burdened by the pressure of a team that didn't feature much offensive depth was more of a representation of younger players growing into roles rather than any inherent problem with the team's makeup. Ryan and Perry should trend upwards after suffering a setback while in their primes, while Getzlaf really doesn't have anywhere to go but up from his extremely disappointing campaign. With the purging of several character players who weren't finding the scoresheet every day – Koivu, Blake and Hagman may be among those who have played their final games in a Ducks uniform – there will be an opportunity for a wealth of young players to compete for the vacated minutes. Bob Murray is also likely to make a heavy mark on the team via free agency by acquiring a top-four defenseman and adding to the offensive depth and veteran leadership.
It's still pretty obvious, though, that the most pressing question this offseason in Orange County surrounds the decision Selanne is likely to make sometime in late June or early July.
"I really would love to give an answer, but I decided already – a long time ago – that emotions go high and low during the season, so you've got to get the right feeling. That has been happening for me in the summertime," Selanne said about considering returning for his 42-year-old season. "When it's time to start pushing and working out and getting ready for a new year, that's the time you have to be ready. That's the time when you have to decide if you're ready to push yourself, because it's a long, hard process. Like I said, it has been working for me very well. I have been so honest for myself, even if I feel 90 percent, I can't do it."
Though the Ducks were well off our "NHL's best kept secret" projections from September, there are still many reasons to expect them to occupy a playoff spot at this time next year. There will be heavy competition, as always, with Edmonton and Colorado also looking to take that step towards the postseason, while Hiller will be expected to stretch his rock-solid second half minutes over an entire year.
In half a season, Boudreau was able to build up the club's confidence while fine-tuning its defensive play, and the result was one of the most productive second halves in the league. With a training camp, followed by a full year of his guidance, it wouldn't be entirely shocking to see the Ducks as a team capable of engineering a stark turnaround in 2012-13. The bounce-back years of several key forwards, combined with the expected contributions by youngsters keen on providing an offensive spark should offset any defensive liabilities this team should face. It's obviously difficult to preview a team six months before the start of the season, but the Ducks will be expected to rebound with a year that culminates in a playoff berth.
It's just too bad a vintage Selanne performance was wasted in the meantime.