“This is the worst feeling in hockey,” Ryan Getzlaf told reporters in the wake of Monday’s elimination in the Western Conference final.
Their 2016-17 campaign marked the second time in three springs that Getzlaf’s Anaheim Ducks had excelled in the NHL’s final four yet failed to win the right to not touch the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.
“It doesn’t matter which round it is,” Getzlaf said. “It still hurts.”
Pain and change: hockey’s twin constants for 29 of the NHL’s 30 teams at this time of year.
And while we believe the Ducks still have the pillars of a contending core for 2017-18, general manager Bob Murray will face his share of hurdles to transform his group from playoff-worthy to championship-winning.
Here, in brief, are seven issues the Ducks need to tackle this off-season.
Solve their expansion draft dilemma
“With expansion coming, we’re a team people are pointing at might that lose a real quality player with the way the numbers are working,” Ducks defenceman Cam Fowler said. “It’s not something we focus on, but in the back of our minds we understand that.”
Fowler told us that in December, when Anaheim could afford to shove that uncomfortable inevitability to the back of its collective mind.
Now Murray is getting to crunch time. No-movement clauses will force the GM to protect Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa — although he may try to persuade the latter to waive his clause for the betterment of the whole.
This means either (a) a stud young forward like the team’s regular-season goal-scoring leader, Rickard Rakell, or post-season goal-scoring leader, Jakob Silfverberg could be exposed. Or (b) an excellent young blueliner like Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, or Josh Manson is in danger of getting plucked.
What can Vegas GM George McPhee charge Murray to steer clear of a certain player or two?
Considering the Ducks’ strength is D and they have more young defenders in the pipeline — Shea Theadore and Brandon Montour are both exempt from the expansion draft — Rakell and Silfverberg must be retained.
Anaheim ranked just 18th in offence, 23rd in shots for, and 17th in power-play percentage this season. With Perry in decline, they cannot afford to let more goals walk out the door.
Figure out trades that make sense
It should be easy for Murray to find a suitor for Vatanen, Fowler, Manson or Montour without having to deal within his conference.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Buffalo Sabres stick out as four teams that have the kind of young offensive weapons the Ducks will be interested in.
After failing to reach the 20-goal plateau for the first full season in a decade, Perry has fallen from bona fide star to suggested trade candidate. He’s 32 and carries a cap hit of $8.625 million for four more seasons. Surely, Murray thought Perry would be effective longer and believed the cap ceiling would raise quicker than it has.
Trading an $8-million winger is no easy feat. The last time it happened was when Toronto dealt Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh. Kessel was five years younger than Perry at the time, he was still playing on the first line, and the Leafs still had to retain salary.
We’d be shocked if Perry was dealt, but he’ll be under pressure to increase his speed and deliver a bounce-back performance in 2017-18. A third-line winger making more than anyone else on the team is not a good look.
“There is a lot of fight in this room,” a distraught Perry said Monday, “and this one is going to sting for a while.”
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 23, 2017
Look long and hard at a Bieksa buyout
The veteran Bieksa brings experience and a toughness valued by both Murray and coach Randy Carlyle, but faster and more skilled defencemen are making more of an impact.
The big catch here is that even though buying out Bieksa will open another expansion-draft protection slot, because he’s 35, Anaheim will be on the hook for his $4 million cap hit in 2017-18 whether he dresses for them or not. Paying a player that kind of money to not play is always a tough sell to ownership.
Bieksa currently ranks No. 2 on CapFriendly’s most-searched buyout candidates.
Decide on Fowler’s future
Fowler was showered with trade rumours last summer. So much so, he spun the uncertainty into motivation and delivered his best NHL season. He was selected to the all-star game and led all Ducks in ice time (26:30) and all Anaheim D-men in points (nine) this post-season despite missing the first four games with injury.
Fowler will still have trade suitors (he doesn’t hold a no-trade clause), but the belief is that he’s played his way into a long-term contract extension instead.
The 25-year-old will become an unrestricted free agent in 2018 and is eligible to re-sign as early as July 1. If Murray wants to commit to Fowler, he’d be wise not to let this linger too long.
Washington’s John Carlson, 27, is arguably the only D-man who could command more money than Fowler as a UFA in 2018.
“As a GM, you’re going to listen to offers. I understand that, but me and [Murray] have a great relationship, and he’s always been very open with me about the direction we’re headed,” Fowler said this winter. “We’ll see.”
Make decisions on unrestricted free agents
The Ducks’ highest-profile UFA, Patrick Eaves, cost them their first-round draft pick, and Eaves’ absence (due to a lower-body injury) was a significant loss to Getzlaf’s top line during the conference final.
July 1 should be Eaves’ only chance to strike it rich on the open market, but the fit was a good one for both sides. Even after his injury, Murray said the first-round pick was worth it.
“Patrick has a huge effect on the organization,” Murray said.
Depth forwards Nate Thompson and Sam Carrick, seldom-used defenceman Korbinian Holzer, and 28-year-old backup goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and Jhonas Enroth all turn UFA, too. They’ll be easier to replace.
Commit to a backup goalie.
One last expansion draft note: The Ducks need to get a No. 2 goalie under contract to meet requirements and ensure John Gibson (and his modest $2.3 million cap hit) remains in place.
Re-signing Bernier at a reduced rate seemed like the way to go, with his nice bounce-back season in California (.915 save percentage in 39 appearances).
But how does Murray feel about Bernier losing Game 6 in Nashville by allowing four goals on just 16 shots? Or his ugly .873 save percentage this post-season?
There are better options out there — Brian Elliott, Mike Condon and Steve Mason, to name three — but ideally you’ll want your backup making less than your No. 1.
Work towards giving Carlyle an extension
Murray took a gamble by rehiring Randy Carlyle last summer and ousting Bruce Boudreau after the latter had overseen the NHL’s top-ranked defence, penalty kill and power play in the league.
During his press conference at the conference final, Murray praised Carlyle’s ability to adjust within games and within a series. Yes, the Ducks lost to the lower-seeded Predators, but they fought through injuries till the bitter end and created scoring chances aplenty.
We’d be surprised to see Carlyle head into the final season of his two-year contract as a — wait for it — lame-duck coach.
“Randy did a heck of a job,” Murray said.
“We really felt that his time in Toronto was really good for him. We benefited from it. … I think we’ve all had to make that learning transition, myself included, to younger players, because the team that won the Cup was an older team, no doubt about it, and that was very good for him and for us, handling all that.”