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Bluelines: The Reality of the Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks have exceeded all expectations, and now look like real contenders. Stan Fischler looks at that, the Olympics and more in this week's Bluelines column.
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83-1.

Posted last September in The Hockey News Annual, those were the odds given Anaheim's illustrious Ducks to embrace Stanley next spring.

Then again, perhaps the oddsmakers were being too generous. A few months after the arithmetical 83-1 putdown was put up, Anaheim's GM Bob Murray exited Stage Left. That certainly didn't seem to help matters.

Meanwhile, those deft media "Insiders" still were wondering whether a couple of American kids – Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras – were for real or a figment of coach Dallas Eakins' imagination.

Yet, somewhere just across the street from Disneyland, these genuine, 100 percent Ducks were turning the Fall 2021 into a form of real, live fiction.

They won more than they lost.

They upset the oddsmakers and they just may be for real – and significantly over the .500 mark, if you don't believe me.

But why? How? Who's to praise now that blame has been tossed out the window?

My personal, long-time Duck-watcher, Joel Bergman, is one of my two certified Anaheim analysts with no-kidding-round answers; at least for me, and You.

"Previously 'unforeseen scorers' have appeared big-time," says Bergman. "Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras and Sonny Milano have made huge contributions."

Both Milano (Massapequa, Long Island) and Zegras (Bedford, New York) trained together last summer in and around The Apple. They have each other's number; as in Lucky Seven.

"I know where Sonny is going," says Trevor, "and he knows where I'm gonna be at all times."

But that's just the start of the Big A success story. Behind the scenes off-season moves were meaningful, starting with the replacement of three assistant coaches.

Bergman: "The new guys – Geoff Ward, Newell Brown and Mike Stothers – have transformed the Anaheim offense and special teams from the NHL dregs to a powerhouse."

Kidding aside, that restructuring of the coaching staff under Dallas Eakins has proven the magic of metamorphosis. Perimeter play has given way to slot invasion.

"That's where the game is won and lost," Eakins explains, "in the slot. Creating slot play and clearing out the slot in the defensive zone."

Anaheim's power play and penalty-killing have improved immensely. Anothing delightful twist has the Ducks D-men – especially Kevin Shattenkirk and Hampus Lindolm – jumping into the offense.

If you believe that a "Culture Change" can benefit a team, the Ducks are Exhibit A in that regard. "It's like we changed a whole bunch of players," adds Eakins. "We are quietly resilient and quietly gritty."

But I wanted more than that. I wanted a media ace who's seen the Ducks for 16 years. Josh Brewster, host of the sprightly "Duck Calls," is my other mindful man.

According to Brewster, Dallas Eakins is his man in terms of Anaheim's ascent.

"Dallas is an 'even-keel' coach who relates well to the modern player," says Brewster. "He also happens to be a fitness nut who's in a physical condition on a par with his players.

"Then, there's Cam Fowler who's one of – if not – the most underrated defenseman in the NHL. Also, the emergence of rookie D-man Jamie Drysdale has been a revelation."

After a year at AHL San Diego, Toronto native Drysdale has emerged as a dependable puck-carrier who's at home in all three zones. The Hockey News' Annual observed. "He has the making of a top-pair difference-maker."

This much is certain; the Ducks are making a difference. And don't mistake that for a quack comment!

HOW CALGARY MIGHT BE WINNING THE BATTLE OF ALBERTA

Barring a sudden turn of events, Edmonton is entering a winter of discontent. That is, until some pertinent changes are made. As for Calgary, watch out!

Top-heavy with the McDavid-Draisaitl battle cruisers, the Oilers flotilla threatens to list heavily toward capsizing in the new year while the Flames appear ready to win The Battle of Alberta.

My Alberta scout, Michael Augello, points an accusatory finger at Captain Ken Holland for not avoiding the icebergs.

"Holland has failed to address the issues that have seen the Oilers fail in the past two seasons," Augello insists.

Writing in The Hockey News Annual, Edmonton-based Rob Tychkowski flashed a "Goaltending" S.O.S. in September that still holds in December.

"There are concerns about Mike Smith's age and Mikko Koskinen's ability to withstand more than a sprinkling of games," Tychkowski warned.

S.O.S. to Holland: There's time to deal for a really dependable goaltender. But don't wait; don't hesitate.

But the crease is just one major concern. The additions of forwards Warren Foegele and free agent defenseman Cody Ceci have not been iceberg-avoiders.

Another key question surrounds the major production slippage of McDavid-Draisaitl during December. When they fail, it negatively affects Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman and Jesse Puljarvi.

While Edmonton and Calgary are points-even heading into the holiday respite, the Flames have a legit, ace goalie in Jacob Markstrom and the Oilers do not.

Plus, Darryl Sutter boasts a balanced offense and a better defense. Hey, even Milan (The Mauler) Lucic has seven goals. Nuff said!

NICE GUY DEPARTMENT: Credit Dylan Larkin with a Good Housekeeping Award. After an accidental, pre-game glass tap, Detroit's captain realized his move spilled some beer on a paying customer. Good fellow that he is, Larkin managed to get a 20-spot bill to the fan; good for one more brew!

UNFORGETTABLE DEPARTMENT: USA HOCKEY legend Lou Vairo encountered The Maven at the annual Hall of Fame ceremony in Denver.

Like myself, Louie originally learned his hockey on Brooklyn roller hockey rinks and remembered that he and I played against each other a few times back in a previous century.

"I'll never forget when you crosschecked me from behind in the neck," laughed Vairo who had coached the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. To which I replied with the only available squelch:

"Louie, there must have been a good reason for me to do that. But I forgot!"

We ended that encounter with a big hug!

TOUGHEST QUESTION IN THE WORLD FOR ANYONE: When will Omicron end?

WHY BETTMAN IS THE BEST: Ever since taking office 29 years ago Gary Bettman has been confronted with an assortment of gadfly journalists determined to disarm the NHL Ccommissioner. All have failed.

The most recent Exhibit A was a hint during the most recent NHL owners meeting that The Commish soon would consider retirement. Not only did Bettman blast that idea to smithereens but new fiscal info suggests that league income is better than ever. And that's a feather in the Commish's hat.

Writing in The Athletic, Sean Shapiro commented that Bettman Inc. projects hockey-related revenue to reach $5.2 billion this season.

"That's moving above pre-Pandemic numbers," according to Shapiro.

And that's why 32 NHL governors love Gary Bettman!

OLYMPIC DISAPPOINTMENT: I understand why Connor McDavid, Steven Stamkos and all the other starry NHLers are disappointed over the NHL-NHLPA nixing the Winter Olympics.

It's frustrating to them because the Best Vs. Best would have been a titillating competition.

But the thumbs-down decision was not made without the very deepest thought from all angles; especially since the union was intensely involved in the process from start to finish.

These are the most unusual times for players, fans, owners; the world.

Solutions still must be found and adjustments must be made in and out of the NHL as we all move forward. As for the disappointed players, my best advice is simply this: Grin, bear it, and rest up for the resumption of play.

I'M JUST SAYIN' ...(TEN TIMES)

1. Ryan Getzlaf hasn't been so good in five years.

2. Better add Morgan Rielly to the potential Norris-winners.

3. Get ready for a ton more "Michigan" passes now that the Milano-Zegras duet have made it look easy.

4. Derek King's future as full-time Chi coach will hinge the Hawks second-half performance. I predict that he'll be re-hired.

5. Biggest Flyers disappointment=Keith Yandle. My Florida reporter, Alan Greenberg, predicts that by season's end Phil Kessel, not Yandle, will be the prevailing NHL iron man.

6. Tampa Bay's Tuesday comeback win in Vegas sends a message to all 31 other teams re Stanley: Never bet against The Winner!

7. Definition of a tenacious warrior: Steve Stamkos.

8. One of the best stories of the new year – call it a melodrama or soap opera, if you will – will feature Jack Eichel in his new digs.

9. Also in the new year, I see a resumption of the popular drive to have Brad Park's #2 lifted to the Madison Square Garden rafters.

10. MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY, HEALTHY NEW YEAR!

P.S. ON THE 'BUTTERFLY FUSS

The Maven was neither surprised nor upset by the volley of put-downs that followed my "Down With The Butterfly" column. Matter of fact, I was pleased that fans – no surprise – take key aspects of The Game very seriously.

And, upon further review, I respect those who say "Nay" to my "Stand-up Stance" but I still maintain that a vintage stand-up star of yesteryear (try Terry Sawchuk) still would handsomely prevail as a stand-up in today's automatic-drop-to-the-knees style. But since no one seems willing to gamble that way, we'll never really know! So, I'll drop the debate right here and now. (P.S. Criticism is good!)

REMEMBERING CURT RIDLEY:

The passing of Curt Ridley prompted many memories of the fine former goaltender who never quite made it as a full-time numero uno but delighted virtually everyone who made contact with him. Ridley's sometime bizarre but always creative face masks proved to be one of Curt's favorite trademarks.

In his definitive book on Rangers goalies, "Guardians Of The Crease," author George Grimm noted that Ridley played for 13 teams in six different leagues. His NHL clubs included the Rangers, Leafs and Canucks.

In an interview, Ridley told Grimm that he had no regrets about never escaping the "journeyman" level. Curt always seemed at peace with himself and his challenges.

"I didn't think I'd ever play in the NHL so it was all a plus," he told Grimm. "It was a great experience playing against Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne and Lanny McDonald. I played against Gordie Howe, for God's sake. It was a dream come true!"

Reader John Landers recalls the night Ridley nearly got killed while making a save for the AHL Providence Reds, even though he was wearing a mask.

"He took a rocket off the side of the mask," writes Landers. "Curt made the save and then looked down to the ice where there was a pool of blood. The Reds trainer rushed out with a towel and put it on what was left of Ridley's ear.

"A player picked up a squirmy piece of flesh and handed it to the trainer who had the good sense to put it in ice."

That happened to be the remainder of Curt's ear which later was sewed back on to what had remained attached to his head."

He played pro until 1982. "I just walked away from the game," the warrior concluded, "and it walked away from me!"

R.I.P. Curt Ridley.

WHO SAID IT? "I even like the guys I don't like. They're a terrific bunch of bums.!" (Answer below:)

DEFINITION OF PARITY: The new year almost is with us and it's impossible to pick a "favorite" to dethrone the Bolts. This time around Toronto must be taken seriously. Not to mention, Carolina, Vegas, Colorado, Rangers, Washington, yeah, and even Pitt; this season's answer to last year's Habs!

(ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Toronto coach Punch Imlach on his fondness for all his players.)

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