Four years ago, the Ducks were the envy of the league: they boasted two perennial Norris trophy candidates on the back-end in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. They had a dangerous top six forward unit featuring both capable veterans (Teemu Selanne, Andy McDonald) and underpaid kids (Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf) and they had the most stifling checking unit in the league with Sammy Pahlsson, Rob Neidermayer and Travis Moen.
Well, the kids got expensive. The shut-down trio was dispersed. Selanne is 40 years-old and McDonald was dealt for cap reasons. Neidermayer has retired and Pronger was moved to Philly before his contract ran out. Unfortunately, the Anaheim Ducks organization has been unable to stem the flow of talent that has been steadily pouring out the doors since their Stanley Cup victory. Despite the continued excellence of some of their homegrown players, the championship club of 2007 has all but been dismantled and what is left in it’s wake is the pale, substandard facsimile that failed to make the post-season last year.
The Ducks blueline has gone through an overhaul this off-season. Toni Lydman, Andy Sutton and Paul Mara were all added and figure to be the core of the Ducks top four rotation with Lubomir Visnovsky. The late blooming Dany Syvret will also been given a chance to make the club.
Up front, Anaheim went with the status quo, adding only fourth line grinder Aaron Voros.
As mentioned, most of the action occurred on the blueline. Scott Niedermayer finally decided he had nothing left to prove and hung up his skates. Ryan Whitney and Nick Boynton were both late season trades while James Wisniewski was dealt to the Islanders this summer after he won a one year, $3.25 million contract in arbitration. Steve Eminger was allowed to bolt to free agency, where he signed with the New York Rangers.
Up front, the only marginally noteworthy name not to be returning is Kyle Calder.
The bulk of the Ducks attack will fall heavily on three players: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. Perry and Getzlaf have been the nucleus of the club since the post-cup restructuring, facing other top lines on a nightly basis. They are far and away the Ducks best players at both even strength and the power-play and are typically capable of driving possession against other quality opposition.
Bobby Ryan joined the party last year after finding his legs as a rookie and became the third prong of the Ducks limited attack. Ryan may not quite be on the same level as Perry and Ryan yet, but he surpassed a large chunk of his peers last year by scoring 35 goals and 64 points while posting some solid underlying numbers. He’s a good bet to take another step forward this season and may be asked to anchor a second scoring unit featuring some combination of Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jason Blake. His potential line mates are fairly marginal even strength contributors at this point in their careers, so things could get ugly for the Ducks if Ryan can’t drive the bus.
The depth falls off a cliff beyond the guys mentioned. The Ducks bottom-end is a mess of kids (Matt Belesky, Dan Sexton, Kyle Chipchura), pugilists (Voros, George Parros) and offensively limited checkers (Todd Marchant, Ryan Carter, Troy Bodie). It goes without saying that a long-term injury to one or two of the big guns would spell disaster for a Ducks team that is in tough to compete even with a healthy roster.
As unimpressive as the Ducks forward depth is, their back-end is shallower by a few orders of magnitude. What was once the club’s greatest strength has now become their Achilles heel. Visnovsky is far and away the best player on Anaheim’s blueline. He can play against a decent level of competition and is an excellent power-play option. He’s also rather fragile having only once played a full season during his nine years in the league.
New-comer Toni Lydman has done yeoman’s work in relative anonymity for the Buffalo Sabres for years. He can play in most team’s top four without complaint, although he’s never going to score much more than 20 points. At 33 years-old, he’s on the downslope of his career and is also a guy that has battled concussions now and then in the past. Andy Sutton and Paul Mara were bargain bin signings; veterans who are probably better than the kids but are hardly ideal candidates to play nightly against quality players. Sutton, at 35, is a huge specimen at 6’6″ and 245 pounds, but is also immobile and has no offensive ability to speak of. Paul Mara, after three straight seasons of decidedly mediocre results for the Rangers/Canadiens, was a late summer signing and is probably good enough to outperform his $750,000 contract, assuming he doesn’t have to be much more than a number four defender.
After that motley top four collection, things get even less appealing for Ducks fans: Dany Syvret, Brett Festerling, Sheldon Brookbank, Luca Sbisa and recent first rounder Cam Fowler are all in the mix. Sbisa and Fowler are high level prospects, but aren’t likely ready to reliably face NHL level competition. Brookbank is a journeyman known more for his fists than his defensive prowess, while Festerling and Syvret are guys who wouldn’t crack a lot of NHL teams.
If Visnovsky goes down for any length of time, the Ducks top four will be:
Lydman – Mara
Sutton – Festerling (?)
Not much more needs to be said.
Because he hasn’t had much success in terms of wins and losses, not a lot of fans realize how good Jonas Hiller has been since he took the starters job in Anaheim. His overall save percentage across 128 NHL games is an elite .920, including the .918 save rate he managed behind a decidedly mediocre Ducks club last year. Hiller has also been amongst league leaders in terms of even strength save percentage the last two seasons, posting rates of .934 and .930 respectively. To put those numbers in context, recent Vezina winner Ryan Miller’s ES SV% over the last two seasons was .927 and .928.
There’s lots of evidence that Hiller is the real deal. That’s not true of his back-up, Curtis McElhinney, however. The former Flame spent a couple of seasons watching Miikka Kiprusoff from the bench. On the rare occasions he played, McElhinney often struggled. His save percentage has been substandard since he made the leap to the NHL (.898) and although he gamely held the fort when Hiller was injured at the end of last season, there’s little reason to believe he’s anything more than a replacement level back-up.
Best Case Scenario
The Ducks remain relatively injury free, Bobby Ryan takes a step into the elite ranks and Jonas Hiller continues to be one of the best in the game. That combination of circumstances would likely have the Ducks in the mix for a play-off spot in the West.
Worst Case Scenario
Some of the key contributors get injured, Bobby Ryan takes a step sideways and Hiller finally has an off season or is hurt. Anaheim’s depth is marginal at just about every position that they could conceivably fall to the very bottom of the conference if the all coin flips come up tails for them.
Former 19th overall pick Luca Sbisa was acquired in the Pronger deal. Rushed prematurely to the NHL in 2008-09 by the Flyers, the 20 year-old has struggled to justify his high draft placing ever since. In 47 career NHL games, he’s managed just seven assists and a minus seven rating. In addition, he has battled injury as well as expectations the last few years: since 2008-09, he’s appeared in just 29 WHL games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Portland Winterhawks, scoring four goals and 18 points.
Sbisa struggled as a teen to keep his head above water at the NHL level. Given their lackluster defensive depth, the Ducks are no doubt hoping he’ll take a significant step forward this season.
All Eyes On
Bobby Ryan’s contract negotiations were somewhat contentious this off-season, stretching the length of the summer before he was inked to a five year deal that sees him make an average of $5.1 million per year. With him becoming the third highest paid forward on the team, it will be incumbent on him to become more than a decent compliment to Perry and Getzlaf. If Ryan can’t join the elite ranks sooner rather than later, the Ducks will have a pretty rough ride this coming season.
There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you
People you meet, they all seem to know you
Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new
Johnny come lately, the new kid in town
Everybody loves you, so don’t let them down
- Eagles, “New Kid in Town”