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ANAHEIM, Calif. – On a late September night at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Anaheim Ducks played an exhibition lineup that could have probably beaten most NHL bottom feeders in a regular season game.
Forward Corey Perry scored two goals in the Ducks’ 2-1 win over the Kings that evening. Defenseman Cam Fowler notched an assist and played 21:28 of action.
Rickard Rakell – the team’s designated third line center who could be a second-liner on a lot of teams – was arguably their best forward with two assists in 18:04 of ice-time. Newly acquired 34-year-old defenseman Kevin Bieksa showed skating ability that made you think he was back in his late 20s.
Young defenseman Josh Manson stood up to Kings crusher Milan Lucic by fighting the big, bruising winger who was trying to make a statement to his new team.
It was the type of preseason win over a rival that should have built some level of confidence for a team heading into a season. Except that’s not how these Ducks looked at it.
For this group, the preseason doesn’t matter. At all. The regular season is just a vessel to get them into the playoffs and atone for Game 7 failures of the last three seasons.
“We’ve gotten a lot of accolades for doing nothing right now, by the way. We haven’t won a game. We haven’t done anything,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “People aren’t surmising or whatever the word is (over) what we should do. We've got to worry about ourselves on the ice, and everything else will take care of itself.”
A year ago, the Ducks blew a 3-2 Western Conference Final lead to the Chicago Blackhawks and lost Game 7 at home.
Again the Ducks, who were the Western Conference’s top-seeded team in the 2015 postseason, head into the year as a favorite in the Western Conference. But this season, the team’s set-up for success is greater, which means failure could sting even worse.
As some contending teams in the West felt a salary cap crunch, the Ducks loaded up. This combined with learning from past demises should make the Ducks a big favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Except with these Ducks and this core, it’s not that cut-and-dry.
“I don’t think you look at it and you’re like, ‘These guys have to be the favorite right now,’” Fowler said. “We definitely feel like we can contend and we feel like we’ll be there at the end of it but we have to go out and use some of that loss we had last year and use it as motivation coming into this year.”
All the right moves
Ducks general manager Bob Murray didn’t make a bad roster decision this past summer. He boosted the Ducks’ overall speed by bringing in Carl Hagelin from the New York Rangers and Bieksa from the Vancouver Canucks.
He added goaltending depth by adding Anton Khudobin from the Carolina Hurricanes. The subsequent contract for Bieksa (two years for a 34-year-old starting in 2016-17) seemed like a bit much as did Ryan Kesler’s six-year $41.25-million extension. But those are problems for next year’s Murray. For this season, he needed a happy group that didn’t need to worry about future status.
He also added versatile forward depth by signing Mike Santorelli for one year at $875,000 and Chris Stewart at a bargain price of $1.7 million for this season. Both those deals happened well after the start of unrestricted free agency.
He let Matt Beleskey walk to the Boston Bruins, opting to not give the one-time 20-goal scorer a five-year contract.
According to General Fanager, Murray left himself with around $7.4 million of salary cap space this season.
This gives him enough room to add a player this season if he sees a deficiency. It also keeps him with some level of room when restricted free agent defensemen Simon Despres, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are up for new contracts next summer.
While the Blackhawks and Kings were forced to jettison core pieces, the Ducks reloaded.
“Bob did a lot of great things during the summer. It’s up to us to go on the ice and show it was beneficial,” Perry said.
Even in training camp, players in the lineup can sense that this group fits.
“There’s not a lot of holes to fill, especially at forward,” winger Andrew Cogliano said. “I think it’s more of mixing guys up and seeing where guys fit at the moment, but I think our fourth line can be as good as our third line, sometimes as good as our second line sometimes. That’s what you want on the team.”
Can the stars shine?
Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are star players in the NHL and have the hardware to prove it.
Perry is a former league MVP. Getzlaf is consistently mentioned as one of the NHL’s top-three centers, if not one of the league’s top-five players. They’ve both won a Cup, which makes them more immune to criticism than some other elite players like San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
But they’ve never led their team to a championship at the NHL level. Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger were the main faces of the Ducks’ 2007 championship charge. Perry and Getzlaf were 22-year-old NHL neophytes back then.
Now they’re 30-year-old family men who have taken their playoff lumps as the leaders of the Ducks.
In 2013 they were beat in a Game 7 (first-round of the playoffs) at home by Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. In 2014 it was the Los Angeles Kings and their bevy of talented forwards led by Anze Kopitar that buried the Ducks at home in Game 7 in the second-round.
In the 2015 Western Conference Final the decision by Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to put Jonathan Toews against Getzlaf changed that series. The last three games of the Final, Getzlaf had two assists and was a minus-four. Toews had four goals.
As the Ducks started to panic, Toews simplified his game in big moments, pushing the puck deep into Anaheim’s zone, and firing shots at the Anaheim net from all angles. It was the mark of a great player in desperation mode.
Depth can go a long way, but ultimately players down on the roster take their cue from the big names.
This is how the Blackhawks – playing essentially with four defensemen – were able to beat the Ducks at a point in their series when they should have wilted.
“Getzlaf and Perry are superstars and they do it all, but over the years at times … they have a lot of miles on them,” an Eastern Conference scout said.
The Ducks’ stars can take one of two paths. If they lose again, they will likely be looked at like Thornton and Marleau – a great tandem who somehow couldn’t get it done in the playoffs.
If they win, they’ll look more like Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov from some of the great Detroit teams in the late '90s and early 2000s. They learned from their mistakes of playoff heartache against the Colorado Avalanche and others and figured out how to make their games more successful in the postseason.
Boudreau said his two stars look “determined” heading into this season, which is a start.
After the season, Murray took some time to decide if Boudreau would return. The loss to the Blackhawks rightfully didn’t sit well with the general manager.
The Ducks had banged and bruised the Hawks over seven games. There was a belief that Anaheim couldn’t possibly lose another Game 7 at home. Beyond the Ducks’ obvious depth advantage – they had learned and it was their time. Except it wasn’t, which was a shocking gut punch for the team.
“You felt like towards the back-end of that series that maybe a couple of their big horses would slow down a little bit,” Fowler said. “They were pretty much playing four D at one point with the occasional five and six guys thrown in once in a while.”
Instead of firing Boudreau and blowing up the Ducks, Murray stayed the course with his additions, making subtle changes to address weaknesses, by making a deep team even richer.
Even though the Blackhawks beat Anaheim 5-3 in Game 7, hockey is still a game of bounces and fine-detailed execution. What if Toews didn’t score that goal in the first three minutes to give the Blackhawks and early 1-0 lead? What if Jakob Silfverberg didn’t take that hooking penalty that led to Chicago’s second goal and added more doubt to the Ducks’ already bruised playoff psyche?
In hockey it’s all about putting yourself in that position and hope your team can come through. The Ducks have the type of squad to again at very worst go to the conference final. And if/when they get there, will they finally be able to execute the way they expect?
“Any time you can add more depth and people who can contribute in different ways, it’s only going to help you,” Fowler said. “If opportunity comes around again, you’d like to think we’ll be better prepared this time and come out on top.”
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