Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, 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 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we start things off with the Anaheim Ducks.
Puck Drop Preview: Anaheim Ducks
After finishing first in the West in 2013-14, Ducks GM Bob Murray wasn’t content to just sit back, as he added ace two-way center Ryan Kesler during the summer and Anaheim entered 2014-15 as a strong contender to unseat the Blackhawks and Kings.
Anaheim cruised through the regular season yet again, winning 51 games en route to their third consecutive Pacific Division title. As he so often does, captain Ryan Getzlaf lead the way on offense, netting 70 points (tied for 17th in the NHL), while Corey Perry finished first in team goals with 33 (in a season shortened to 67 games by a bizarre case of the mumps). New addition Kesler saw his goal total (20) drop to its lowest level since 2006-07, but he still finished third in team scoring with 47 points.
Matt Beleskey, who set career highs in goals (22) and points (32), was a pleasant surprise, but he left for Boston over the summer. Blueliner Sami Vatanen broke out in a big way, as the Finn notched 12 goals and 37 points in 67 games. At 24 years old, Vatanen looks to be a core piece of a young Ducks blueline which included strong seasons from Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm.
In the post-season, the Ducks would finally advance beyond the second round (with relative ease, losing only once in nine games against the Jets and Flames) to set up a date with the Chicago Blackhawks in the the Western Conference Final. Anaheim would push Chicago to game seven in one of the most entertaining and highly contested playoff series in recent memory, before they ultimately fell apart, going down 4-0 and losing the game 5-3, ending their season, while the Blackhawks would go on to capture the Stanley Cup.
Not one to stand pat, Murray was active augmenting his team over the summer. Prior to the start of free agency a flurry of trades saw Anaheim bring in forward Carl Hagelin, defenseman Kevin Bieksa and back-up goaltender Anton Khudobin, while shedding Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem and James Wisniewski (and his contract).
Free agency saw largely depth moves on Anaheim’s part, with forwards Shawn Horcoff, Chris Stewart and Mike Santorelli being the most high-profile names brought aboard, while the team lost winger Beleskey as well as vetern defenseman Francois Beauchemin and back-up netminder Jason LaBarbera.
Murray also was busy signing deals with his own players, inking Bieksa for two years and $8 million, Kesler for six years and $41.25 million, Jakob Silfverberg for four years, $15 million and most recently Hagelin for four years, $16 million.
At the draft, the Ducks had only two picks in the top 60, but the club did well to take two-way d-man Jacob Larsson from Sweden at 27th overall and Finn Julius Nattinen, who has drawn comparisons to Kings forward Anze Kopitar, at 59th overall.
2015-16 Opening Day Lineup
Patrick Maroon – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Carl Hagelin – Ryan Kesler – Jakob Silfverberg
Andrew Cogliano – Mike Santorelli – Chris Stewart
Shawn Horcoff – Rickard Rakell – Jiri Sekac
Nate Thompson – Tim Jackman
Cam Fowler – Simon Depres
Hampus Lindholm – Kevin Bieksa
Clayton Stoner – Sami Vatanen
Players to Watch
Hagelin and Kesler
It looks likely that the duo will be given every opportunity to find some chemistry together in hopes they can form second line that is not only speedy and defensively responsible, but also able to produce offense. Along with Silfverberg, who set career highs last season playing a lot of minutes on Kesler’s wing, and Hagelin, who is poised for a breakout campaign at age 27, this line certainly has the potential to do so.
The way the 2015 playoff ended for starting goaltender Andersen, with just 21 saves on 26 shots in game seven against Chicago, left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, causing some to wonder if Gibson might finally be given a larger role. The 22-year-old has been pegged as the future of the Ducks crease for a few years now, and appears to finally be ready for full time NHL duty. He’s just one hot streak away from stealing Andersen’s job.
On the Rise
Some fans around the NHL might not be familiar with the Ducks 5th-round pick (143rd overall) in 2011, but the strong and speedy winger impressed playing in his native Sweden as a junior, capturing a World Junior Championships goal medal in 2012 (a tournament in which he scored 9 goals and 11 points in only 6 games). After jumping to North America, he’s progressed well in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals, leading the team in scoring last season with 40 points in 58 games. The small yet sturdy Friberg is ready for a longer look at the NHL level and has the skill to produce in a top-six role.
On the Decline
By all accounts, raw numbers, possession statistics, and even the old eye test, Bieksa had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2014-15 and has been on the decline for a few years now. It’s not hard to see what Murray liked about Bieksa’s game, the grizzled veteran can be as tough and mean as they come in the NHL, but a growing injury history and decreasing ability on both sides of the puck puts the 34-year-old squarely on the downside of his career.
The Ducks have a very strong-lineup from top to bottom and should again be one of the favorites to come out of the Western Conference. A bevy of two-way forwards and top offense from Getzlaf and Perry should again make them a quality offensive team, though their power play certainly needs to be better than it was last season (15.7%, 28th in the NHL).
However, their success will ultimately hinge upon their defense. Last season the club was in the bottom-third in goals against (2.70, 20th) and the club will need one of Andersen or Gibson to step up.
But perhaps even more important is their emerging d-corps, where Lindholm, Fowler, Vatanen and Simon Despres, all 24 years old or younger, have the potential to be the pillars of the strongest blueline group in the league. If they can continue to improve and live up to those expectations, the Ducks might be able to finally get over the hump.