The Anaheim Ducks were a favourite dark horse entering the playoffs last season – despite their lack of depth in all positions – because of their wealth of high-end talent. Up front, the line of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan is as dangerous as any in the game, while on defense the top pairing of Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman offered superb play in all three zones and offensive punch. All five players return for 2011-12.
In a perfect world, that high-end talent will extend to net, where Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller has been a franchise-level talent since joining the Ducks in 2007-08. Unfortunately, it is far from clear that Hiller will be able to play for a full season.
Switzerland has not produced a wealth of capable players at the National Hockey League level. Among forwards, the small alpine country has yet to produce one to make a serious mark in the world’s best league; Patrick Fischer, who tacked a 27-game stint with Phoenix on near the end of his Swiss career is the only one to hit double digits in points over his career.
On defense, the situation is a little better; defenseman Mark Streit has been a difference-maker with both the Canadiens and Islanders. Another Montreal blue-liner, Yannick Weber, turned 23 late in September and will undoubtedly build on an NHL resume that includes 49 games to date.
The country has, however, had a significant impact in net. Two goaltenders – Martin Gerber (229) and David Aebischer (214) – have surpassed the 200 games plateau, and while both matched the peaks in their play with steep valleys, their respective NHL careers have been quite passable.
Jonas Hiller is something more than passable. The native of tiny Felben-Wellhausen had a long and successful career in the Swiss League before he ever came over to North America, winning the league championship as a starter in both 2005 and 2007; in the former case he was also named goalie of the year, while in the latter he won not just goalie of the year but also the League MVP award – a trophy typically dominated by NHL draft picks.
It was Hiller’s last season in his home country. The Anaheim Ducks already possessed a pair of strong goaltenders in Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov but decided to add Hiller to the roster. While Hiller now had an NHL contract, he had the daunting task of being stuck behind two quality goalies: Giguere was generally considered an elite starter (never having posted a save percentage less than 0.911 in Anaheim) and was entering his seventh season with the Ducks, while Bryzgalov had been the starter for Anaheim’s farm club for four years and been a capable backup the previous two.
The task was daunting, but as it turned out Hiller’s timing couldn’t have been better. In his first season, he displaced Bryzgalov as the club’s backup goaltender (leading to the talented Russian going to the Coyotes via the waiver wire) and posted a superior save percentage (0.927 vs. 0.922) to Giguere. It was Giguere’s last season as an elite goaltender, as he stumbled badly the following season and was eventually dealt off to Toronto the year after that. In contrast, Hiller continued to post elite numbers and secured himself as the Ducks’ starter. Just now entering his fifth season, he stands as the greatest goaltender in Swiss history, with a 0.921 SV% in the service of the Ducks.
The first cracks appeared last season, and had to do not with performance but rather health. Hiller started suffering vertigo-like symptoms in February of this year, and while he looked good during an attempted return (he shutout the Edmonton Oilers on February 13) it would last just one game before Hiller was shut down for the remainder of the season.
All indications are that Hiller is feeling healthy now; he is in training camp with the Ducks and there have been no indications that his symptoms are ready to flare up again. The problem is that nobody is really sure what happened. Just two days ago, Ducks’ beat reporter Eric Stephens described the ailment as “a mysterious set of symptoms in his head for which numerous doctors have been unable to pin down the root cause, an ambiguous affliction that could flare back up at any time or may never return.”
That uncertainty means there is no guarantee that a return to playing regularly won’t bring those symptoms back. And while it is a rare team indeed that can replace a goaltender of Hiller’s calibre, the Ducks’ look to have a weak set of contingency plans. NHL veteran Dan Ellis is slated as Hiller’s backup; yet the drop-off between the two is steep, as a quick glance at last year’s numbers shows – Hiller faced over 400 more shots than Ellis did, yet allowed just three more goals.
The Ducks last season finished just four goals above break even, and just four points up on the ninth-place Dallas Stars. Without Hiller, the playoffs simply would not have happened, and things won’t be any easier this season. The VUKOTA projection system (the only statistics-based system out there) has the Ducks’ slated for a seventh-place finish this year, just three points up on the West’s ninth-place team. If Hiller is the starter, that’s probably realistic; if Ellis is, than it is a distant dream.
If the Anaheim Ducks once again allow 32.3 shots against per game, using their career numbers the difference between Hiller and Ellis over a 460-game segment would be as follows:
- Hiller: 60GP, 0.921 save percentage, 153 goals against
- Ellis: 60GP, 0.908 save percentage, 178 goal against
The difference between the two’s career numbers works out to two goals every five games. That’s too much for a team with the Ducks’ flaws (just two proven lines up front, a ton of inexperience on the back end) to overcome. In the end, the Ducks’ fortunes will rely on Hiller’s health, and Hiller’s health is a question mark.
On a personal note, this will be my last post with Houses of the Hockey. I’d like to thank theScore for the opportunity to contribute here, as well as readers, commenters, and of course my fellow contributers. It’s been a lot of fun.