After the Anaheim Ducks beat the New York Rangers on Monday night, the team landed in first place in the Western Conference. Immediately after the game ended, the NBC Sports talking-heads asked the question:
“Are the Ducks legitimate contenders?”
Short answer? No.
(Their answer was an emphatic ‘yes’, but it came from a guy who continuously called the team the Mighty Ducks and said Anaheim’s power-play issues were a result of being inaccurate when shooting.)
The Ducks have played 16 games with 66 to go. It is too small of a sample size; although, many were giving the Stanley Cup to the San Jose Sharks this time last week. The Colorado Avalanche are only one point behind Anaheim with three games in hand. It’s just too early to use record as any indicator of contender-ness.
Here is what we know right now:
• Bruce Boudreau has managed to tinker his lineup to compensate for the loss of significant everyday players: Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Jakob Silfverberg, Viktor Fasth, Sheldon Souray, et al.
There is going to come a point where those players are healthy. Does Boudreau mess with what has been working by bringing those players back in right away? Does he set up a healthy scratch rotation of players to rest each night? The Ducks aren’t going to trade any young talent just to fit the old guys back in. Most likely, some of the excelling youth will be sent down to Norfolk despite earning a place with the big club. This leaves the unknown of what kind of effect it will have on team chemistry and the fragile psyche of the younger players.
• The biggest red flag for Anaheim is the special teams. In the 2013 season, the power play was ranked fourth in the league and the penalty kill was 13th. As of right now, the Ducks power play is 30th and the penalty kill is 29th.
Why the plummet to the bottom? There were only three personnel changes of significance: Bobby Ryan’s spot on the second PP unit opened up, Sheldon Souray isn’t at the point on the power play due to injury and penalty killer Toni Lydman retired; other than those, all else has carried over.
• Last season, many expected the Ducks to ‘come back to earth’ after a similar strong start to the regular season. Their game leveled out but they didn’t dip them below second in the Western Conference. The true leveling came in the playoffs at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings.
There was no consistency game-to-game. The same is being seen right now except it's period-to-period. They come from behind and win frequently, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. To have to come from behind often means you're doing something wrong to begin with.
Being in first place is nice, but there's way more the Ducks need to figure out before they can concentrate on staying there.