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May 28, 2017 | 11:53pm ET
Ducks gear up for busy summer
By Hannah Spraker

ANAHEIM, CA -- Another year, another post-season heartbreak for the Anaheim Ducks. Doesn't that seem to be the theme now?

Top seed in the Pacific Division five years running, and nothing to show for it. You might argue with me on that, but call a spade a spade. Now the Ducks have some big question marks to take care of this summer, and it's now or never to figure it out.

Everyone thought Anaheim had their Western Conference Final series in the bag after Nashville lost their top two centers, but the injury epidemic seemed to spread. Anaheim lost two very important wingers in Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves, and lost John Gibson at the tail end of the series, and Pittsburgh has been injury stricken all throughout playoffs. Players are dropping left and right and this entire postseason has seemed like one giant game of Mortal Kombat. “Finish Him!”

Injury being the name of the game, the role falls on the depth players to stand up and make a difference, and that was the deciding factor in this series, because that is exactly what Nashville did. We all know the blame game is alive and well on Twitter. Blame Bernier, blame Kesler, blame the fans attendance, blame whomever you please, but this series was a team loss. Again.

If there is one thing that the Ducks have made known, it is that you cannot count them out when talking about Cup contention, but as history keeps repeating itself, the reality of that fades, and frustration builds.

So here’s the rundown, the good, the bad, the ugly; the Sprake-Notes of the Western Conference Final:

• Both teams entered the WCF amped and ready to go. Anaheim had finally won a Game 7 at home to advance, and Nashville had reached the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. These two teams were seemingly even when stacked up against each other, the series could have gone either way. Everyone knew this would be a battle to the finish, and it was, with Nashville coming out on top.

• So what made Nashville so successful, and led to the Ducks defeat? Well for one, goaltending. In the battle of the net minders, Pekka Rinne won hands down. Not only did Gibson exit game 5 with *surprise* a lower-body injury, but Rinne played absolutely lights out for Nashville. This series Rinne posted a .925 sv%, 172 saves on 186 shots, and completely stood on his head when Nashville was getting atrociously outshot in Game 6. When Anaheim’s injury prone goaltender inevitably went down, Jonathan Bernier took his spot between the pipes for two periods in Game 5, and all of Game 6. Bernier has been a stellar backup for John Gibson all season long, so his capabilities were not a huge concern, that is until Anaheim gave up 4 goals on 16 shots.

• Nashville’s Blueline. The Preds have the best blueline in the NHL. Fight me on that, I don’t care. Their top two defensive pairings were phenomenal in this series and completely dominated in Game 5 specifically. The work they put in, especially in the neutral zone, completely limited what Anaheim was able to do. Forced to play that dump and chase hockey that is arguably “classic Carlyle”, the Ducks could not seem to get any momentum going.

• Scoring depth across the board. Nashville had it, Anaheim did not.

• Filip Goalsberg had a point in every single game this series. Finishing with 5 goals and 2 assists, this guy could not have given the Preds more ammunition. A polarizing player, Forsberg was able to get underneath Anaheim’s skin and draw penalties, where Nashville would surely capitalize.

• Auston Watson had a goal in Games 1, 5, and two in Game 6. A fourth line guy, with 5 goals in 77 games this season, put up four goals. Talk about an unexpected hero. Viktor Arvidsson racked up five assists, and Colton Sissons and Pontus Aberg became stars in a matter of two games.

• Pontus who? Aberg. This 23-year-old Swede had only seen 9 NHL games before this series. Now with four NHL career points, three of them against Anaheim, and all three in Games 5 and 6. Sissons had the large task of filling Ryan Johansen’s shoes once he was done due to injury, not only did he fill them, they overflowed. Four points and a hat trick in Game 6, no one expected that. Plot twist after plot twist.

• So here’s the kicker: Nashville’s depth players stood tall because they had to. Anaheim’s stood tall because leadership fell through.

• Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie and Chris Wagner combined racked up six goals in six games. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler -- only two, both coming from Perry. When all three captains are healthy, they are expected to carry the team, instead the young guns picked up their slack.

• Brandon Montour has really come into his own as a defenseman on this team and a great 200 ft hockey player. He was challenged with the task to sink or swim, and passed with flying colors. If I’m Bob Murray, I’m keeping him around if he can, the kid will easily be one of Anaheim’s best two-way players in a couple years.

• Game 5 was an embarrassment for Anaheim’s veterans in particular. This was a game the Ducks were favored to win, Johansen and Fisher were out, and this was a Game that should have been 5-1, changing the momentum of the series. Getzlaf, Perry and Kesler fell silent. The Ducks knew what they had to do to win this Game and just could not execute, especially in the third period. Quality shots were seldom and it just looked like they were trying to pass the puck into the net, glove side, when they should have been abusing Rinne’s weaker blocker side.

• The Might Comeback Kids could still be alive and well, seeing as this whole post-season was full of drama and fighting a goal deficit, but their problem was holding a lead. For a team whose third period performance has always been their strongest, the tables turned. When games were theirs for the taking, they blew the lead, took bad penalties, and gave Nashville that push that they needed to comeback and win. In 4 of the 6 games, they fell flat in the final 20 minutes. Nashville played buzzer to buzzer, a full 60 minutes of hockey. That’s the biggest difference maker.

• Will the real Scorey Perry please stand up? Perry had two goals in this series, his only two points in six games. Both Perry and Getzlaf played great in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Getzlaf in particular, but as soon as they hit the Western Conference Final they began to flatline and they could not be revived. I get it, Perry came in clutch with the OT goal in Game 4, but you need more than overtime hockey out of your top goal scorer getting paid top dollar.

• Let’s talk about the man that everyone hates. Ryan Kesler. If you’re a Ducks fan, you love him, but Kesler is one of the most hated players in the NHL, and twitter proved that 10-fold after the Game 6 loss. Love him, or hate him, he’s a talented guy. He would not be a Selke candidate, and previous Selke winner if he wasn’t. So what was his problem in this series? What happened to “Kessboss”? He was no where to be found, and only put up one assist in 6 games. At the end of the day, there are no excuses for this. Yes, he is the shut down guy. Yes, that was his job in the Edmonton series to prevent Connor McDavid from running away with it, but especially once Johansen was out, he should have been putting up points, big time. He’s only found the back of the net 5 times since the All-Star break in January. Typically a big player to step up in playoffs and lead by example, Kesler was silent (at least in terms of point production) this series.

• Powerplay continued to fall flat, as it did in the series prior. In six games, the Ducks had 16 powerplay opportunities and scored on only 2 of them.

• This series was incredibly chippy, as seen by Johansen’s postgame comments about Kesler after Game 2. Johansen told Sportsnet: “He just blows my mind, I don’t know what’s going through his head out there. His family and friends watching him play, I don’t know how you cheer for a guy like that. “It just doesn’t make sense how he plays the game. I’m just trying to go out there and play hockey, and it sucks when you have to pull a stick out of your groin after every shift.”

• That being said, the Ducks lost discipline. That’s not the type of game you want to play in a Western Conference Final. Nick Ritchie got a game misconduct for the legendary “R” hit on Arvidsson, a lot of crashing the net, a lot of potential goaltender interference, and more and more injuries. They needed to play the type of Game they had in Game 7 vs. Edmonton to beat this Nashville team, and Nashville took it and shoved it in their faces.

• Yes, the Ducks made it to the Western Conference Final. Yes, they are Division Champs for the fifth time, but try asking the players if they’re satisfied with that. Getzlaf told ESPN: "This is the worst feeling in hockey. Your season is over, and you're not holding the Cup. It doesn't matter what round it is. It still hurts." It would be one thing if they went into the Western Conference Final and consistently played 60 minutes of good hockey, but thats not the reality.

NOW WHAT?

Now that the Ducks are out and the 2017 Cup run is a bust, what’s next? What can we expect from Anaheim? Ducks GM Bob Murray is going to have to work his magic this summer to battle the cap to fix the gaps in his roster.

TRADE BAIT & EXPANSION PRIORITIES

Murray is notorious for making moves at the last minute possible, but now is not the time to have that mindset. Now is the time to make that blockbuster trade to get that top six winger Anaheim has desperately needed for years now. It is time to go out there before the expansion draft and trade one of the plethoras of defensemen to get the Jonathan Drouin or a Gabriel Landeskog caliber player.

Trading away a defenseman before the expansion leaves room to protect Jakob Silfverberg, which is now a must. My guess assuming Bieksa waives his NMC: Ducks go with a 7-3-1.

Forwards: 15-10-17-7-67-33-(acquired forward in a trade with D-man)
Defense: 4-47-(either 45 or 42--can’t protect both)
Goalie: Gibson

THE BIG 3

“Oh Captain my Captain.” Getzlaf shut down those rumors of losing the captaincy real quick. Leading by example, he had a great season, and on the whole, had a great playoff performance with 19 points in 17 games. In the discussion for the Con Smythe, he proved that he is the captain that Anaheim needs and he is not going anywhere.

Getzlaf, Perry and Kesler are all over 30 years of age, and makeup a good chunk of the Ducks forward core. The window is absolutely, unequivocally closing for the core of this group. Not this year, maybe not even the next, but with each Division title, with each playoff disappointment, that window gets a little smaller and a little smaller.

So how long do they have to win a Cup with this core? All over 30, getting top dollar contracts with no movements for at least four more years. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it is Cup or Bust. Time is running out and a big reason the window is closing is because of the inevitable cap catastrophe. Keep in mind, Montour, Shea Theodore, Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie will all be coming off of their ELCs next season. Josh Manson, Cam Fowler and Andrew Cogliano will all be free agents as well starting July 1, 2018. Past that, Ducks will have to consider re-signing Gibson and Sifverberg, and there is no way Murray can keep this core under the cap for much longer.

Calm down on the Perry trade talk. While I’m sure that can seem attractive based off of this season, don’t toss him in the trash just yet. Perhaps this was just an off-season for Perry, perhaps not, but no one is going to want to take that contract. $8.625 million through 2021 with an NMC. Yeah, he isn’t going anywhere. He is getting paid almost nine million dollars a year to play hockey in Southern California.

SUMMER DECISIONS

If Murray has excelled in any area, it is building a solid blue line on the roster and in the system.

So here lie the golden questions:

Do the Ducks give Cam Fowler an extension?
- Unless the return is something like William Nylander, yes, extend his contract and use other young D-men as trade bait. Fowler has pretty much played himself into a safe bubble.

Do the Ducks Buyout Kevin Bieksa?
- It could happen, but not likely. Ducks are still a budget team and since Bieksa signed a 35+ contract, the Ducks will receive no cap relief from the buyout and his current contract expires after next season anyway, and management likes his gritty style of play.

Do the Ducks explore signing Eaves?
- I'm sure they'd like to, but the cap says otherwise. Eaves had a career year and will most likely price himself right out of Anaheim during free agency.

What about the goaltending?
- This is a big issue for the Ducks. Gibson is a good goaltender, and proved he is their starter this regular season, but the guy has trouble staying healthy. He has a history of groin injury, back injury and he left Game 5 in the Nashville series with a reported hamstring injury. Jonathan Bernier is an unrestricted free agent come July 1 and if this playoff run proved anything it is that Anaheim needs a great backup when Gibson is out with injury. Whoever worked with Sergei Bobrovsky last summer, should take a look at Gibson. An injury prone goaltender can make or break a team, look at Montreal when Carey Price was out. Anaheim will need to find a bona fide backup this summer.

Does Carlyle get an extension?
- Head Coach Randy Carlyle has one-year left on his two-year deal, do the Ducks explore extending his contract? I think the argument could go either way. Carlyle made some brilliant on-the-fly moves during the post season to give his team the best opportunity for success, but they fell in another Western Conference Final. That’s going to fall on management’s faith in him. I think this contract was a “prove it” deal. Perhaps this two year deal is Murray’s idea of the window?

Needless to say, Bob Murray is going to have his hands full this summer.

Hannah Spraker is the Anaheim Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow her on Twitter.

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ARCHIVES 
May 12, 2017 The Fix Was In...

Apr. 24, 2017 Stanley Cup or Bust for Anaheim

Apr. 21, 2017 Ducks Extinguish the Flames

Mar. 21, 2017 We The Women

Feb. 23, 2017 Van-City needs to re-vamp

Feb. 15, 2017 Battle for the Blue Line

Feb. 07, 2017 What Happens in Vegas

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