The biggest surprise of the early NHL season is the strong start of the
LOS ANGELES, CA -- As the NHL season started, the Anaheim Ducks were
more like real-life penguins because their playoffs chances were last
sighted somewhere off the coast of Antarctica.
Although few precincts have reported, the Ducks are the surprise of
the early season. With their noisy neighbors to the north, the Los
Angeles Kings still basking in the glow of a Stanley Cup, the
combination of injuries and getting each team's best every night has
caused the usual hangover to a defending champion.
As the roster formed for the January 19 opener, some familiar names
were added, with Sheldon Souray being the most notable, and the
consensus was that they would fight with Dallas to escape the basement
of the Pacific Division for the majority of the truncated season.
Ducks GM Bob Murray hadn't found a solution at second line center (he
still hasn't) and the addition of Bryan Allen on top of Souray gave
the blueline more size but little speed, a requirement for winning. To
make matters worse, the storm clouds over of the lack of a contract
extension for its two home grown stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry
while not affecting the on-ice play, hung heavy over the team as they
marched to the ice in Vancouver for their season debut.
From that evening in Rogers Centre to Saturday's and Tuesday's
triumphs in St. Louis and Chicago, respectively, the Ducks have been
nearly flawless in the opening stanza. We should have known something
was up when they put seven on the board versus Cory Schneider in the
first game and the Ducks unknowingly re-started a marvelous
goaltending controversy in British Columbia with their production.
The story got richer because among the names that hit the board was
Daniel Winnik, a ho-hum free agent acquisition by Murray, also chipped
in two goals as well. For a team that's been crushed by the lack of
depth scoring over the last two seasons, it was a precursor for what's
been cooking at the Honda Center lately.
We'll guess that in the short training camp, Ducks coach Bruce
Boudreau took the names of his forwards not name Perry, Getzlaf, Ryan
and Teemu Selanne dumped them in a hat and pulled out Winnik, Saku
Koivu and Andrew Cogliano to form a third line. Through nine matches,
the trio has been magnificent; Winnik has displayed the hands to go
along with the 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame to make him a threat around
the net on every shift. Koivu, thought to be on his last legs and
still on the team more to keep Teemu company than for his production,
has been a point a game player is a season that stands to be a revival
one. Cogliano has yet to pot a goal but gives speed on the wing to
this most unlikely troika and creates space with thrusts into the
While the group on the blueline won't win a fastest skater contest at
the All-Star Game, they've been stoppers. Francois Beauchemin has been
stellar, he leads the team in time on ice and the pairing with Souray
on the top pair has been as seamless as it’s been effective. Allen's
size and veteran leadership has been a big boost to Cam Fowler (now
out of the lineup after suffering what appears to be a concussion
Saturday night), a requirement if the Ducks are to maintain their
Ducks backers still believe Fowler was a steal when taken 12th overall
in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, but he's experienced a rocky two seasons
in the OC. Defensemen often take longer to develop, so the hope is
that the 21-year-old backliner will blossom into the top pair one
they've been waiting for when he returns from a concussion.
Less heralded and far more effective, people forget that Luca Sbisa is
a former first round pick and while his upside doesn't approach
Fowler's, he continues to trend towards a solid 3-4 defenseman for
years to come. The goaltending has been effective but not spectacular;
the tandem of Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth (a free agent signing that
could be the smartest move of Murray's tenure) has had the benefit of
scoring support on the nights when they've fought the puck.
The players deserve full marks for their early season performance, but
the man who's crafted the nightly lineup is as responsible for the
results. Murray couldn't have picked a better successor for Randy
Carlyle than the former Capitals bench boss, a franchise that likely
now realizes that BB was never the issue in getting the team over.
Carlyle brought a Stanley Cup for the Pacific shores for the first
time but his personality became a larger issue as his tenure
lengthened. Boudreau's presence has smoothed the ruffled feathers of
Bobby Ryan, the frequent whipping boy despite the fact that he's a
consistent 30 goal scorer without given time on the Ducks first
powerplay unit until this season.
You need no further proof that the relationship between player and
coach has vastly improved after Boudreau made the move to stick Ryan
at center on the second line when Nick Bonino floundered in support of
Ryan and Selanne. It's not the first time that Bobby's been asked to
man the pivot and his willingness to go back in while stating he'll do
whatever it takes to win is an affirmation that the tension that
enveloped the locker room over the final days of Carlyle's reign has
The combination of a contract year and Boudreau's guidance has led to
a great start for one of the big boppers. Getzlaf's 2011-12 disaster
has apparently led to a rededication to his game but in fairness, it's
impossible to perform worse than last season with the tools he brings
to the ice. He's put up points, once again snarls at the opposition
but the biggest clue to a big bounce back season is his efficiency in
the faceoff circle. Getzlaf's put up a glaring 47% win percentage in
the dot last year but through eight games, his win percentage rivals
that of Logan Couture and David Krejci in the 54% range. Though his
contract status still looms large, the feeling around the team is that
if the Ducks come with a fair deal the big center will stay as his
roots are now firmly planted in Southern California.
So while there are smiles all around near Disneyland, it still remains
to be seen if this team is a contender or pretender. Even in a
shortened season, Koivu isn't a point a game player, Winnik won't
contend for the Rocket Richard Trophy and just how many more four
point game can the ageless wonder Selanne put up?
Ryan has said and done all the right things, but the move to the
middle makes him less available for opportunities that made him a
consistent 30-goal scorer. The defense has been sturdy, but Fowler's
absence draws attention to the fact that the additional grind the
48-game schedule that is sure to put more duress on the over-30
members of the contingent. Perry's frustration grows with his
inability to put goals on the board in a contract season and his
status as a lifetime Duck seems to be more at risk than Getzlaf's. His
family is in the East (London, Ontario) and our previous suggestion
that he will play out the string and explore unrestricted free agency
hasn't changed. The Ducks strong start helps in two ways, it shows
that the team still has the core talent to be dangerous and lessen the
team's likelihood to deal Perry if they stay in contention.
In a market that has pressure to sell tickets, to deal a fan favorite
former MVP during a contending season may hold the key to the Ducks
short strategy absent of an in-season contract extension.
The Ducks are in the middle of a six game, 10-day road trip through
three time zones against out of division competition and acquitting
themselves well. They put up road victories in Colorado, St. Louis and
At the end of the trip, management will have a much better handle of
what type of team they have and despite the strong start, the feeling
is that they still lack the depth along the forward wall to make them
a serious player if they reach the post season.
Bonino failed as the second line center and his spot on the fourth
line was only secured when he registered his first career NHL hat
trick in the Ducks resounding win over the Kings. A speculative move
to address their depth may not come from dealing from one of their
star forwards but dealing their starting goaltender.
Jonas Hiller is in his sixth season in Anaheim after being signed out
of the Swiss-A League as an unrestricted free agent. He's performed
capably between the pipes, fighting a prolonged case of vertigo that
shelved him for the latter half of the year two seasons ago. He's put
up decent stats with a mediocre team in front of him (30 games over
.500, 2.55GA, .917 save pct.), but has only carried the team to one
playoff round in his time at Honda Center. Until the season, he was
the unquestioned starter, after Ray Emery had a strong end season run
during Hiller's illness, he was allowed to fly to free agency. They've
had dudes like Curtis McIhenny and Dan Ellis caddying for him on the
random night off but things have made an interesting turn when another
European goaltender hit the shores.
Viktor Fasth came to Anaheim with impressive credentials, among them
being named the Honken Trophy winner in consecutive seasons, the
Vezina equivalent in the Swedish Elite League and an acclaim achieved
by Henrik Lundqvist, as well.
Though he's a rookie in NHL terms, he's a seasoned 30-year-old veteran
like his running mate Hiller. Through the season's first three weeks,
he's been the better netminder and the road trip will be an eye opener
as he may move from a 2 to 1A status on the depth chart. The
butterfly-style goaltender appears to have adapted to the speedier
game as well as the greater velocity of NHL snipers, he hasn't looked
slow in stopping shots and his coverage in net has been fine. The
impact of Hiller's lower body injury suffered in St. Louis has a
hidden benefit of getting Fasth consecutive looks against strong teams
that will accelerate his evaluation.
With multiple teams looking for an upgrade in net (Toronto, perhaps
Washington), the Ducks would be smart to dangle Hiller for proven
forward help. While there's some risk attached to the fact that Fasth
signed a one-year deal and is unrestricted free agent at season end,
the Ducks have veteran Jeff Delauriers toiling at their AHL Norfolk
affiliate as a limited insurance policy. Hiller is under contract for
one more season after this one at a cap at of $4.5 million, a less
expensive option than Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and unlike the
occasional No. 1 Canucks goaltender, Hiller does not have a no
movement clause in his contract, creating a much larger trade horizon
for the second line center and offensive minded winger they require.
If Fasth rivals Quick in Los Angeles, Hiller may have a new address by
the time Bob Murray sits at the draft table in June.
The opportunity to restock the shelves for a team thought to have
little depth could come with a Perry move in-season backed by a Hiller
move over the summer that could bring up to a combined half a dozen
assets in return.