Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we begin our look at the Pacific Division with the Anaheim Ducks.
How you look at the 2013-14 campaign for the Anaheim Ducks is all about perspective. You could be a glass half-full kind of person and look at it as a season where the Ducks won the Pacific division (aka the NHL’s version of hell), lost out on the President’s Trophy by only a single point, lost in a tight, seven-game series to the eventual Cup-winning Kings, and had two of the top five scorers in the NHL (Corey Perry at fifth, Ryan Getzlaf at second).
Or you could look at is the seventh consecutive season that the club hasn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs and put no stock into the regular season success that Anaheim saw. There’s certainly a case to be made both ways.
During the regular season, the Ducks were consistent, never putting together a winless streak of more than four games (0-3-1 and 0-2-2 being the longest), and not once getting shutout for consecutive games. It was a regular season that saw the Ducks finish not only atop their vicious division, but also top the equally abrasive Western Conference.
It was a season that showed tremendous growth from youth and veterans alike. Cam Fowler had his best season since his rookie year, scoring 36 points and earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad. Captain and Hart trophy finalist Ryan Getzlaf added another weapon to his arsenal, that weapon being goal scoring as he enjoyed his first ever 30-goal season at the National Hockey League level, and now Canuck Nick Bonino scored a career high 49 points and established himself as a reliable scorer. It was these kind of developments that made the Ducks such a dangerous team last year.
As for the playoffs, the Ducks got a scare from a pesky Dallas Stars club but got through it in six games, before eventually being taken down by the Los Angeles Kings in seven. You have to remember that the Ducks were only one win away from knocking off those eventual Cup champions and advancing to the conference finals for the first time since their Cup win in 2007. While the games may not have been as close on the ice, the only real blowout all series was the 6-2 game seven loss. The other three Kings victories were 3-2, 3-1, and 2-1.
So despite the sour ending, it was actually a pretty – scratch that – a really good season, all things considered. Was it ideal? No, but sometimes you have to look past the results, in which case the 2013-14 campaign was a pretty damn successful one for the Anaheim Ducks.
2014-15 Anaheim Ducks
Ryan Kesler’s Impact
In arguably the biggest transaction of the National Hockey League off-season, the Anaheim Ducks traded center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and the 24th overall draft pick (Jared McCann) to the Vancouver Canucks for the highly coveted, former Selke winner Ryan Kesler.
There’s no denying the fact that having a solid one-two punch up the middle is necessary in the highly competitive Western Conference (Kopitar-Carter; Thornton-Couture), and adding Kesler gives the Ducks just that. However, is Kesler that final piece that pushes Anaheim over the edge? Is he the player the Ducks need to make a Cup run? Or is he simply a small piece of the puzzle?
There’s no denying that he’s a fine two-way centerman, and that his compete level is at 100% each and every game, but you also have to take into account the fact that just a couple years back he suffered a major injury that held him to a mere 17 games (albeit in a 48 game campaign). The Ducks will have to hope that’s all behind him, and that he can stay healthy for at least 70+ games.
Kesler’s impact will be felt enormously on special teams. For a team with the kind of offensive firepower the Ducks have, it’s shocking that they ran a powerplay which finished all the way down at 22nd overall. That is a number that needs to improve should the Ducks go deep (though I will add that the powerplay efficiency improved by 8% in the post-season).
Kesler scored nine of his 25 goals with the man advantage, which was tops among Canucks, and is also more than any Duck scored last season. He also scored them in many different fashions, which is one of the most valuable aspects Kesler possesses; he’s not a one-trick pony, he’s able to score in many ways. He has a hard wrist shot, a heavy slap shot, and is a proven force when standing in front of the net. But, as valuable as Kesler may be as a go-to shooter, the Ducks may miss Bonino’s play making ability from the half wall, where he compiled 13 assists, nearly half his total for the year.
Kesler will also be a valuable addition to the penalty kill, where Kesler has been a workhorse on the Canucks for years. He does it all, he won 740 faceoffs last season (14th among all forwards) and posted a 52.6 faceoff win percentage, tied with former Duck Mathieu Perrault for 33rd overall among eligible skaters, as well as racking up 133 hits and 68 blocked shots.
While Kesler is certainly a valuable player in many aspects of the game, there is one area in which he struggles. That aspect is his passing ability. Kesler went a whopping 18 consecutive games without registering an assist, which, for a top-6 center like himself, is unacceptable. It is likely however that his assist totals will rise as he begins to play with stronger wingers. No offense to Chris Higgins, but he’s not a legitimate top-6 winger. His struggles with passing are likely due to his “do-it-all” mentality, which often results in him trying to break through two defenders instead of passing the puck.
There is no doubt Kesler is one hell of a player, but is he the key to playoff success in Anaheim? Personally I think so, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Goaltending and Who Becomes the No. 1
Oh how the tables have turned. The Ducks went from having one of the deepest goaltending pools in the National Hockey League, to having promising yet inexperienced goalies to man the pipes. Just a season ago, the Ducks had now Flames starter and proven veteran Jonas Hiller, sophomore and at the time injured Viktor Fasth, promising Swedish rookie Frederik Andersen, and top goaltending prospect John Gibson.
With both Hiller and Fasth having been sent to Alberta (signed by Calgary and traded to Edmonton respectively), the Ducks are left with a tandem with loads of potential and very little experience. There’s no doubt that both Gibson and Andersen have the talent, but the question is how it will hold up. Neither goalie has played a full season of NHL hockey, or even come close to it, leaving a big question mark in net for Anaheim.
If we’re looking at playoff stats, Gibson is the hands down pick to start on opening night. He posted a 1.33 goals against average and a .954 save percentage, compared to Andersen’s 3.10 goals against average and .899 save percentage. Where Andersen does have the edge however, is regular season experience where he played 28 games, as opposed to Gibson’s paltry total of three.
As good as these two youngsters have been in their limited playing time, there’s still plenty of reason for concern among Ducks fans. While Andersen’s 28 games is much, much better than Gibson’s three, it’s still not a huge number by any means. And as good as Gibson has been, he has only played seven games. The big concern will obviously be fatigue, and is either one ready to really take the reigns to starting job completely? I doubt it. The most likely scenario here is a 1A/1B split.
Who knows, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that one of them goes on a roll and wins the starter’s position. They’re both loaded with potential. It will be an interesting story to follow from the opening puck drop on October 9th all the way through till the end of the season.
Can the Youth Step Up?
Let’s be realistic here. This team is going absolutely nowhere if the young forwards don’t step up to some degree, from the goaltending forward. Up front, Patrick Maroon and Devante Smith-Pelly had solid playoff performances (seven points and and team leading five goals respectively) and will be expected to build on that throughout the regular season, and perhaps even move their way up the lineup. 23-year-old Jakob Silfverberg, after only playing 52 games this past season, will be expected to stay healthy and produce consistently (likely in a top-6 capacity.) The likes of Emerson Etem, Rickard Rakell and William Karlsson will also be expected to push for a roster spot.
On the blue line, Fowler will look to further develop as the #1 d-man the Ducks were hoping he’d become after his 40 point rookie season in 2010-11, Sami Vatanen will look to build on his solid rookie year and establish himself as regular while Hampus Lindholm will look to further establish himself as a top-4 defender after his excellent rookie season. With all the flourishing young talent the Ducks have on ‘D’, it won’t be long before they have one of the top defense cores in the National Hockey League, but can they rise to the occasion this year?
As for the goaltenders, I already touched on them above, so I won’t go in to great detail about them, but there’s no downplaying the importance of Gibson and Andersen being able to hold their own.
While the Ducks do have the high-end talent at their disposal, their lineup is built around young, flourishing players, and it will be crucial to the Ducks’ success that these young players up their game.
Five to Watch:
Ryan Kesler: As I said above, the big question is, is RyanKesler the final piece? There’s certainly a lot of pressure on Kesler to have a huge impact on the Ducks this upcoming season. Not only is he going to be relied upon as a top offensive weapon, but he’ll also be relied on in a major defensive capacity. He, in all likelihood, will be the Ducks’ go-to penalty kill forward.
Kesler has a reputation for thriving under pressure, so there’s a good chance he will have the desired impact. He had a good season on an awful Canucks team last year, so it’s scary to imagine what a healthy Kesler could do on an elite Ducks team.
Sami Vatanen: Vatanen impressed last season in limited time, posting 21 points in 48 games. What will be interesting to watch is whether or not he can build on that, and become a regular fixture in the Ducks lineup. As it stands right now, it seems likely that Vatanen will make the opening night roster. Whether or not he stays there is another question.
Behind him on the depth chart are two veterans with a lot of experience at the NHL level, and there’s no reason to believe that one of Bryan Allen or Mark Fistric can’t win the job should Vatanen falter. I’m also interested in seeing how much of an impact a more developed Vatanen has on the powerplay, he should be an intriguing player to watch.
Kyle Palmieri: Palmieri is an interesting player. He seems to have the upside of a reliable top-6 producer, and yet he can never put it together for long enough to be considered one. This is the year for Palmieri to get his act together, and at least push for a top-6 spot.
The biggest thing that Palmieri has going against him is the fact that the Ducks added a potential top-6 winger in Dany Heatley, along with the fact that Silfverberg will be healthy in front of him, and the likes of Smith-Pelly and Maroon not too far behind him on the depth chart. If given a chance in the top-6, Palmieri better run with it, because it won’t be getting any easier as time goes on.
Dany Heatley: He may not be the the 50 goal scorer he once was, or even the 30 goal scorer he was just four seasons ago, but he’s certainly still capable of potting 20 goals if used in the right situations. 35% of Heatley’s points over the last three seasons have come on the man advantage, and 32% of his goals were power play markers. As I mentioned above, the Ducks powerplay struggled last season, and Heatley is sure to help improve the Ducks man advantage this upcoming season.
Bruce Boudreau has stated that Heatley will likely see time with cornerstones Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to start the season. There aren’t many jobs outside playing with Sidney Crosby that are better than playing with those two, so if Heatley can’t put it together with Getzlaf and Perry, still very possible, than there likely isn’t much hope for Heatley to be an effective NHL’er any longer.
Emerson Etem: Etem will have to put together a very good pre-season to make the opening night roster. The Ducks have an insane amount of forwards vying for spots right now, making it a bit too difficult for the 22-year-old to crack the roster right out of the gate. However, should anyone go down to injury, Etem will be first in line for a call-up, and it’s at that point where Etem will have the chance to prove himself. There’s enough talent there for Etem to be able to win over the coaching staff and earn a full time gig at the NHL level. He’s certainly one to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Projected Lineup (*BOLD* indicates new arrival):
Dany Heatley — Ryan Getzlaf — Corey Perry
Andrew Cogliano — Ryan Kesler — Jakob Silfverberg
Patrick Maroon — Rickard Rakell — Kyle Palmieri
Matt Beleskey — Nate Thompson — Devante Smith-Pelly
Cam Fowler — Ben Lovejoy
Francois Beauchemin — Hampus Lindholm
Clayton Stoner — Sami Vatanen
Bryan Allen, Mark Fistric
– The top-6 is all but set. Getzlaf, Perry and Kesler lead the way up front as the offensive leaders, while Heatley and Cogliano are reliable secondary scorers.
– The bottom-6 is a bit trickier to project, as there are numerous potential combinations. The third line center job looks like it will go to Rakell, but William Karlsson and Nicolas Kerdiles have an outside shot to push for the spot. Maroon, Smith-Pelly and Palmieri all have the potential to move up and down the lineup, while Nate Thompson has the fourth line center job pretty well on lock.
– Fowler leads the way on the back end as he starts to emerge as a legitimate #1 defender. Francois Beauchemin, while aging, is still one of the most underrated shutdown blueliners in the NHL. Just two seasons ago Beauchemin came fourth in Norris Trophy voting, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what he does. Ben Lovejoy quietly had a good season, with 215 hits, 150 blocked shots and a plus-21 rating, and he seems to fit well paired with Fowler. Newly-signed Clayton Stoner should be a nice depth defender, while sophomores Vatanen and Lindholm round out the starting six. Fistric and Allen are nice to have as your seventh and eighth defenders, even if Allen is costing you $3.5 million a year.
– Andersen will likely begin the year as the starter, but a split seems likely at this point. Signing Jason LaBarbera was a smart insurance move. He has enough experience as an NHL goalie that should Gibson and/or Andersen falter, he can be a good enough stop gap until they resolve the issue via trade or free agency.
On the Rise:
- Patrick Maroon
- Devante Smith-Pelly
- Jakob Silfverberg
While there are certainly no shortage of candidates on the current Ducks roster, these are the three who I could see having the biggest years.
Maroon is developing into a pretty nice power forward for the Ducks. He can fight, score, hit, he does it all. With that kind of skill set, there’s certainly potential for Maroon to move up the lineup, and if Heatley doesn’t work out with Getzlaf and Perry, Maroon will likely be first in line for a shot with the big two.
Smith-Pelly, after a few stints in the NHL, will have finally established himself as a regular after a solid post-season which saw Smith-Pelly score a team leading five goals in 12 games (two of those being game-winners) and posting an insane 19.2 shooting percentage. In all likelihood, Smith-Pelly will start in a bottom-6 role but like Maroon, has the potential to move up the lineup should the opportunity present itself.
There’s nowhere to go but up for Silfverberg. After being injured for a little over half of the season and posting a stats line of 10-13-23, the centerpiece of the Bobby Ryan trade will have an opportunity to establish himself as a top-6 regular, playing alongside prized acquisition Ryan Kesler. The 23-year-old winger has the potential to be an impact player this season if he can stay healthy, and will be a big part of the supporting cast for the upcoming season.
On the Decline:
- Mark Fistric
- Jason LaBarbera
- Bryan Allen
On the flip side, it was much harder to find three players who were really declining. The three I ended up choosing are unlikely to make much impact in the upcoming campaign.
Fistric, after signing a 3-year, $3.8 million extension this off-season, will be relied on mainly in a depth role, only slotting in due to injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. As far as depth defenders go, Fistric’s not a bad one, but gone are his days as a regular, at least in Anaheim.
LaBarbera has built a reputation as being a solid NHL backup over the years, but it seems unlikely at this point that he’ll see much, if any NHL ice time this upcoming season. Bob Murray was smart to sign LaBarbera, as he’s a nice insurance policy to have, but it looks doubtful that Jason LaBarbera will be getting any regular playing time in the immediate future.
I can’t tell you what Ducks management was thinking when they signed Bryan Allen to a 3-year deal with a $3.5 million AAV, but what I can tell you is that it’s an absolutely horrible deal, especially since it seems likely that Allen will be spending the majority of his time in the press box. At 34 years of age, I have my doubts that Allen is ever a regular in any lineup for the remainder of his career.
On the Verge:
John Gibson, G : Very low chance Gibson doesn’t make the team. Not much to say that I haven’t already said. I suppose there’s a minuscule chance he’s sent back to the American Hockey League in favor of LaBarbera, but I highly doubt that will be the case.
Rickard Rakell, C : Rakell is in the driver’s seat when it comes to winning the third line center position. He plays a solid two-way game, and is physically ready to handle NHL competition. He’s clearly ready, and I’d be fairly surprised if he didn’t make it.
William Karlsson, C : Rakell’s closest competition, Karlsson has been playing against pros for the last two seasons in the Swedish Elite League, and actually put up some pretty solid numbers (28 points in 50 games followed by 37 points in 55 games.) Don’t put money on him making the jump to the Big League, but don’t be shocked if he does.
2014-15 Season Expectations:
The expectations should remain fairly similar to last year’s: to go deep in the post-season. They don’t even need to win a Cup, they just need to make it past the second round. That said, if everything clicks, there’s no reason to believe this isn’t a team that can’t win a championship. The talent’s there, it’s all about when the talent flourishes.
In terms of individual expectations, Getzlaf and Perry are expected to continue their runs as two of the top offensive players in the NHL, and carry tea from an offensive standpoint.
No one should be expecting MVP-esque performances from the (very frequently mentioned) abundance of youth, but at least showing progress in their game should suffice. Likewise, the also oft-mentioned goaltenders don’t need to stand on their heads every game, but simply be good enough to win games.
The Ducks are going to be good this season. This is a team that has the potential to do some serious damage, and what’s even more scary is that they’re only going to get better. Get excited Ducks fans, this team is good. Very, very good.