Out of all the Round 1 outcomes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Anaheim Ducks‘ may have been the most disappointing.
Sure, the Los Angeles Kings were swept away by an expansion team, but the Ducks earned home-ice advantage with a scorching 8-1-1 finish to the regular season, only to be blown out in four games by San Jose and outscored 16-4. This Ducks team had serious Stanley Cup hopes.
The most obvious takeaway when watching that Sharks-Ducks series is that Anaheim was too slow to match up against its Round 1 opponents. Known for their heavy-hockey style, the Ducks had made two of the past three Western Conference finals, so on the one hand you want to be careful to not overreact and overhaul a strong roster too much. On the other, it’s important to not fall behind league-wide trends: the Kings won two Stanley Cups in three years, but their roster quickly became obsolete and has won one playoff game in the four years since.
Ducks GM Bob Murray and his head coach, Randy Carlyle, have used this heavy style for years and it’s mostly led to success. But the GM admitted over the weekend that this quick loss to the Sharks would lead to a busy summer.
“We have a couple of guys, let’s face it, were never great skaters,” Murray told gathered media on Saturday. “How do we improve that? We know we’ve got to make some changes.”
Kevin Bieksa said it wasn’t a “good-looking” decision that he was made a healthy scratch for three of the four games and figures to be one of the slow-footed defenders who won’t be re-signed. Likewise, defenceman Francois Beauchemin (37, and likely to retire), centre Antoine Vermette (35) and winger Jason Chimera (38), all could head to unrestricted free agency as the Ducks aim to skew younger and quicker.
But what about some other skilled veterans who still might have some high-level hockey left in them? Murray had good things to say about 28-year-old pending UFA Derek Grant and Adam Henrique, also 28, scored at a career-best points-per-game rate of .63 after the Ducks acquired him for Sami Vatanen in November. Ryan Kesler struggled with injuries this season, but is signed four more years at $6.875 million per season. Corey Perry, 32, is signed another three years at $8.625 million and is the team’s highest-paid player against the cap, but hasn’t reached 20 goals in the past two seasons.
When changes are made to the Ducks, there’s certainly a possibility at least one of these players moves on.
“Corey’s got to buy into some more things in the off-season,” Murray said. “He’s got to buy into playing fast.
“Hopefully I can give [Carlyle] a healthy hockey team to start the year to see if they will change.”
Ryan Getzlaf‘s name is included by some in these hypotheticals, but the 32-year-old captain is still the best player on the team and scored at better than a point-per-game pace this season. Sure, you could get a lot for him in trade, but centres of his size and skill are sought-after and hard to come by. The Ducks need to tweak to get faster, not to blow up the whole system.
In fact, aside from just roster makeup, the GM talked about in-game adjustments Carlyle will have to make. Murray said he still has confidence in his coach, but acknowledged that things like how he deploys players need to be updated for the modern game.
Murray pointed out that in today’s NHL it’s imperative to be able to roll four lines instead of leaning on two or three and sprinkling the fourth line out for five or six minutes per game. This alone could go a long way towards helping the likes of Getzlaf, who averaged the fifth-most minutes of any forward this regular season, and was held to just two assists against the Sharks.
But even more than that, the style of play needs an update. Fast NHL hockey doesn’t just mean acquiring players who skate swiftly, it’s about the ability to get the puck around the ice quickly while keeping possession of it.
“Are Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski really fast skaters? Are they?” Murray asked. “I had one of them in Team Canada. No. They’re good hockey players. But if your team plays fast, you can make players faster. And that’s the first thing that has to be addressed around here.”
To be sure, there are a lot of great pieces still in place for the Ducks and, after starting the season with a considerable injury list, they finished with the fifth-most points in the NHL from Feb. 1 onwards. Rickard Rakell took another step with a team-leading 34 goals and 69 points and 22-year-old Ondrej Kase more than doubled his rookie point total. Anaheim’s blue line is still a source of strength and goalie John Gibson, when healthy, looks like he could end up in the debate about best goalie in the world.
“Good goaltending tends to cover up a lot of crap,” the GM added.
Changes are definitely coming to the Ducks this summer and Murray isn’t one to be shy about making splashes.
But the GM’s challenge now is to make those moves to adapt to the changing league, while not going too far with a team that, at its core, can still contend.