When the season began, most observers had good reason to consider the Anaheim Ducks a playoff contender.
Their offense was led by young star forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry, the reigning league MVP. Ageless right winger Teemu Selanne decided to return for one more season to provide additional scoring punch and leadership. Their defense was anchored by the foursome of Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Francois Beauchemin and budding star Cam Fowler. And goaltender Jonas Hiller had recovered from the vertigo-like symptoms that sidelined him for the second half of last season.
It was expected the Ducks would be better than the team that rode a strong second-half performance into the 2011 post-season only to be dispatched in the Western Conference quarterfinal in six games by the Nashville Predators.
Barely two months into the season, however, the Ducks are in real danger of seeing their playoff chances written off by New Year's Day.
The Ducks went a pathetic 6-13-4 in their first 23 games. Only the sad-sack Columbus Blue Jackets had a worse record over the same number of games (6-14-3).
Approaching Nov. 30, the Ducks had won only one game this month, 4-3 over the Vancouver Canucks. They're mired in a seven-game losing skid (0-6-1) and, prior to that win over the Canucks, had gone winless in six (0-4-2).
As a team, the Ducks have performed terribly, ranking 29th in the NHL with 2.13 goals per game. They’re also 25th in goals-against per game (3.17) and 25th in shots allowed per game (31.5).
The lone bright spot is their special teams. Their power play is middle of the pack at 16th overall, while their penalty kill is eighth-best.
But most of the performances from their best players have left much to be desired.
Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan have not played up to expectations this season and are currently well off the pace of their offensive production from a year ago.
Hiller, usually reliable between the pipes, has a 5-10-4 record, a bloated 3.22 GAA and a save percentage of .897.
Visnovsky, whose performance last season placed him fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy, got off to a slow start, then was sidelined Nov. 12 by a broken finger. Lydman, who last season was among the league's leaders in plus-minus at plus-32, is now among the worst with a woeful minus-11.
Fowler remains a promising gem of a defenseman, but it's far too early in his young career to expect him to lead the blueline corps.
Only the 41-year-old Selanne, with 22 points in 23 games, has been above criticism.
Ducks GM Bob Murray has stood by coach Randy Carlyle and it remains to be seen if Murray can bring himself to move one of his top forwards, though he's reportedly had offers.
Budget concerns could also be a reason for the loyalty to Carlyle, as he's signed through 2013-14. The Ducks have around $3.6 million in available cap space, but as CBC's Elliotte Friedman observed, their budget is stretched to the limit, so much that Murray had to wait for left winger Niklas Hagman to go on re-entry waivers to claim him from the Calgary Flames.
Friedman also suggested budget constraints are why Murray passed on New York Islanders left winger Blake Comeau, as his salary would've cost Anaheim a pro-rated $2.5 million.
Shopping stars such as Ryan or Getzlaf, as some fans and pundits have suggested, would certainly attract considerable interest and net a quality return if the dollars fit under the cap.
That might seem like an extreme measure, but such moves can work, as the Philadelphia Flyers demonstrated by shipping out centers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards last summer.
Similar deals would be trickier at this point in the season as it's usually difficult to find the right fit cap-wise, let alone the right deal to improve the Ducks, but they’re not impossible.
If Murray won't – or can't – fire his coach and the Ducks fail to make significant improvement over the next couple weeks, trading one of their big stars could be the only way to save this season before it sinks out of sight.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.