Every year there’s at least one completely competent team that, for whatever reason, goes in the toilet.
Take, for example, the Philadelphia Flyers in 2006-07 and last year’s New Jersey Devils. True, there’s usually a crucial injury or two that plays a part in the disaster, but one look at the team’s lineup on paper leaves you shaking your head.
Such is the case with the current edition of the Anaheim Ducks, a squad not far removed from a Stanley Cup, but very far from returning to its company right now.
“We have almost tried everything,” said right winger Teemu Selanne. “It just seems like we can’t catch any breaks. One mistake and it’s in the back of the net. Obviously confidence is the biggest issue.”
The future Hall of Famer knows of what he speaks. Along with Selanne, Anaheim boasts a tremendous top line of Ryan Getzlaf between Bobby Ryan and reigning Hart and Rocket Richard Trophy-winner Corey Perry. Add Saku Koivu to the mix and five of the Ducks’ top-six forwards can count themselves as 2010 Olympians.
When the team dipped last year (still making the playoffs, however), much of the problem was blamed on the absence of starting netminder Jonas Hiller, who had a weird ongoing bout of vertigo. But the Swiss stopper is healthy again and yet the pucks are still getting by him (.924 save percentage in 2010-11; .898 this year).
Add that to the fact the team’s scoring at a 2.29 goals-per-game pace, down from 2.88 last season, and you see why they’re hurting.
That said, Hiller is a quality goaltender, no doubt; Anaheim’s forward corps would gladly be snapped up by most teams; and the defense has some excellent pieces. Which is my roundabout way of saying, “Don’t worry, Ducks fans: This season is an aberration.”
Though there were calls for the team to trade away Ryan, there’s no need to do anything rash. Firing coach Randy Carlyle was an unfortunate inevitability, but shipping out a prime asset in the young winger is no answer.
“We know how important he can be to this franchise,” Selanne said. “We appreciate how patient (GM) Bob Murray has been with us.”
And patience is really all that’s needed. As previously noted, injuries are often at the root of these anomalous seasons and the Ducks have had their fair share. Jason Blake was missing from the Selanne-Koivu line since the third game before returning Wednesday, while star defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky missed time with a broken finger. Without the smooth-skating Slovakian, the Ducks were forced to rely a little too much on youngsters Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa.
The big line is producing below its usual excellence, but there’s no crisis of confidence – just the rut that comes with pressing too hard.
“We all play similar games, in a puck management group,” Getzlaf said. “Our focus is to hang onto the puck as long as we can and tire the other team out. Then we get our chances. At the start of this season, we got away from those things.”
Ironically, part of Perry’s ascension to the top of the NHL scoring list in 2010-11 came when Getzlaf was felled by a facial injury.
“We realized we had to step up and burden a little more weight than we usually do,” Ryan said. “When your captain – and our playmaker, for the two of us – goes down, we’ve got to make that new guy coming in, like a Brandon McMillan, feel comfortable.”
The trickle-down effect of the Ducks’ doldrums has been the sliding back of several youngsters, including McMillan and left winger Matt Beleskey. But with uber-positive coach Bruce Boudreau now at the helm and such a solid nucleus, Anaheim will overcome this wreck and bring its youngsters along the right way. The fact the Ducks lent rookie Devante Smith-Pelly to the Canadian national junior team for the world juniors speaks to the wisdom of Murray and his fellow brass.
The math says the Ducks aren’t likely to make the post-season this year, which means they’ll have a nice lottery pick draft selection to add to an accomplished core of prospects. Even if Selanne retires in the summer – as always, he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the matter – scoring on the right side can be partially recovered by rookie Emerson Etem, currently tearing it up in Medicine Hat.
Soon everything will be just ducky again.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.