September 4, 2013 11:43 am

Hello Neighbors: Anaheim Ducks

Projecting where the Anaheim Ducks finish in the 2013-14 season appears to be among the more difficult prognostications when handicapping the realigned Pacific Division.

Last season’s division champs, the Ducks were assigned 22/1 odds by Bovada – the same odds as Edmonton – to win the Stanley Cup. Los Angeles (12/1), Vancouver (16/1) and San Jose (18/1) were all listed ahead of Anaheim. Last month, 46% of you voted the Ducks as the most likely Pacific Division team to miss the playoffs that had made the postseason the year before.

And yet Anaheim won last year’s division in a boat race. They were 22-3-4 following a 4-2 home win over Chicago on March 20, 12 points ahead of second place Los Angeles. Though the Ducks plateaued and allowed the Kings to creep closer over the final month, Darryl Sutter was on the money when answering a question whether he had conceded the Pacific Division to Orange County.

“I went to school, and I graduated, and I can do the math. We’ve got a few games left. That’s pretty much impossible,” he said on April 7.

Considering the possession and shot generating metrics that determined Anaheim was moderately overachieving a season ago, it was a modest surprise, not a complete shock, to see the Red Wings dispatch the Ducks in a thrilling seven-game first round series. Anaheim had chances to go up 2-0 and 3-1 in the series, and win the series 4-2, though they surrendered overtime goals in all three games and deprived well-tanned hockey fans the first all-Southern California playoff match-up.

The Ducks were busy in the off-season, trading former L.A. Jr. King Bobby Ryan to Ottawa for highly touted forward prospect Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen and a first round draft pick. The Ducks will certainly miss Ryan’s consistent scoring – he tallied at least 30 goals per season in each of his four full, non-lockout NHL campaigns – and combined with a potential slight decrease in the numbers put up by Teemu Selanne, who recorded eight points (7-1=8) over his final 28 games, there are questions about Anaheim’s ability to score when Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are off the ice.

Fortunately for the Ducks, there exists a stable of young, burgeoning forwards that has the potential to answer such questions with gusto, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a player such as Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem or Silfverberg emerge as a dangerous and consistent top-six scoring threat. Silfverberg scored only 10 times on 134 shots as a 22-year-old rookie last year and has the potential to more than double his goal output. Palmieri, a U.S. Olympic camp invite who will turn 23 in February, scored 10 times in 42 games a season ago and has a sniper’s touch with terrific offensive awareness and finds soft spots on the ice to score goals. Etem, who developed his two-way credentials as one of the WHL’s most electrifying players while with the Medicine Hat Tigers, recorded 15 points (6-9=15) over 45 regular season and playoff games in his 20-year-old rookie season a year ago. There’s also Peter Holland, who boasts an excellent wristshot, and a mix of offensive prospects slightly down the developmental chain that includes Rickard Rackell and Irvine native Nicolas Kerdiles.

And, of course, there’s Getzlaf and Perry. The two signed eight year deals totaling 135 million dollars in March, and a team that had ranked 16th-to-21st in total payroll since 2008-09 leapt all the way up to eighth in the league, according to figures by CapGeek.com. Getzlaf rebounded predictably from a disastrous 2011-12 season in which his shooting percentage plummeted to 5.9% (!) by posting 49 points (15-34=49) in 44 games. The only realistic potential for surprise in his upcoming season would be if he deviates greatly in any direction from his almost-point-a-game NHL scoring pace. He is below average at faceoffs and has finished above 50% on draws only once in his eight-year career. His 48.0% rate a season ago represented a three-year high in that statistic.

Should there be any concern over Perry? After averaging 1.02 points per game between 2008-09 and 2010-11 – a stretch that included a 2011 Hart Trophy – he has posted 96 points in 124 games over his last two seasons for a .77 points per game average. Though he dealt with a coaching change in the 2011-12 season, his last two years were his 26 and 27-year-old seasons, and that significant of a drop-off is a touch puzzling. He fell to 23 assists over 80 games in 2011-12, a reduction partially intertwined with Getzlaf’s 5.9% shooting percentage. He would have been on pace for 28 goals over 82 games a season ago, which seems mild given his prime years and Anaheim’s top-10 offense. Expect him to better his numbers this season, though those numbers will be affected by whoever ends up serving as the line’s left wing – a vacancy that could very well be filled by 2006-07 linemate Dustin Penner. For more on that subject, listen to the lengthy Ducks discussion with the Orange County Register’s Eric Stephens embedded below.

There are some concerns defensively. Sheldon Souray suffered a torn ligament in his right wrist that necessitated surgery and is likely out until the season’s midpoint. Though his second half effectiveness dropped for the second consecutive season – Souray was also a healthy scratch for Game 3 of the Detroit series, a 4-0 Anaheim win – he still averaged nearly 21 minutes of ice time, posted five power play points (2-3=5) and tied for the league lead in defensive plus/minus with partner Francois Beauchemin with a plus-19. Despite his rough second halves, he is still a preferred option over Mark Fistric, who has reached 67 games played only once over his six NHL seasons and was signed to a one-year contract shortly after the injury was announced.

Beauchemin finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting a year ago and remains an excellent two-way workhorse on the Ducks’ blue line. He finished third in the Western Conference with 111 blocked shots and posted 24 points in 48 games while tying for the league lead in defensive plus-minus. His 23:27 average time on ice was actually the seventh-highest average ice time in any season over his career, and should increase as he absorbs a few extra minutes in all situations as his defensive partner Souray recovers from injury.

The Ducks would be well-served if one of their younger defenseman takes a step forward in reliability, and by “one of their younger defenseman” I’m really alluding to Cam Fowler. The former first round draft pick who turns 22 in December is a minus-57 in his NHL career and has seen his point output fall for two consecutive seasons. The volatility in his numbers isn’t exactly unexpected considering how young he is, though he’ll have to show improvement on the defensive side of the puck and an increased effectiveness against other large, puck possession teams in the Pacific such as Los Angeles and San Jose. Considering he posted 40 points during a season that began when he was 18-years-old, there’s certainly the possibility of a major breakout, and he’ll be given a significant opportunity with Souray out – though, to be fair, he hasn’t averaged lower than 20:26 minutes per night, which indicates that the opportunities have really been there for him all along.

23-year-old Luca Sbisa is intelligent and moderately useful on both sides of the puck. Though capable of playing in most situations, he hasn’t really excelled in any facet. He’ll block shots, he has some offensive upside and is mobile, though it remains to be seen where his ceiling is at, and how close to it he already is. Assuming he remains healthy, he’ll represent Switzerland at the Olympics in February.

Though defensive prospect Hampus Lindholm is still likely a year or two away, Sami Vatanen will be given every opportunity to earn a regular role with Anaheim this season. The 5-foot-9 Finnish defenseman made his debut as a 21-year-old last season and scored twice on six shots over eight games played; obviously he’ll have to answer questions about how he’ll contend with larger forwards in the grinding Western Conference. As a power play specialist, he has the opportunity to put up some points and possesses enormous offensive upside as a slick skater and puck-mover.

In net, Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth combine to form a solid duo of 31-year-olds. The right-catching Hiller has been nothing but consistent, save for a year-long spell in 2011 in which he battled vertigo and a defensively challenged Ducks blue line; he was 15-6-4 with a 2.46 goals against average and .913 save percentage in 2012-13. Though Fasth posted a nearly identical record with a slightly better GAA and Sv%, it was Hiller who was chosen to start all seven playoff games. Fasth was signed to a two-year extension in February, while Hiller’s contract expires on July 1, 2014.

Waiting in the wings is perhaps the league’s top goaltending prospect, John Gibson. The 20-year-old backstopped USA Hockey to a gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championships and will be ticketed for AHL-Norfolk this fall in advance of what appears to be an opportunity to earn a spot on the roster in 2014-15.

The Ducks’ productive core, intriguing youth and sturdy goaltending should ensure that Teemu Selanne’s farewell season will be at the very least an interesting and competitive one. Whether Selanne ends his career with a lengthy postseason run will likely be based heavily on how the defense stacks up over 82-plus games amongst other factors. Considering Souray has faded down the stretch in recent years, could his wrist surgery and half-season actually benefit the team come April? Is Fowler able to take that leap towards becoming a reliable-in-all-situations defenseman? Which of the young forwards will emerge as a consistent scoring threat? Who will off-set the production loss spurred by Ryan’s departure? There are some questions hovering over this Anaheim team, but there also appear to be encouraging answers waiting in general manager Bob Murray’s hip pocket. There will likely be a fall from first place, though it probably won’t land Anaheim outside the playoff precipice. Expect the Ducks to lock up one of the Pacific Division’s top four playoff spots – or the fifth spot as a wild card, should the Central Division fall short on its quota.

And, while disregarding his 118 points in 102 career games against the Kings, let us all be thankful that we’ve been able to witness one of the greatest players in the history of the sport up close from our Pacific Division perch. Perhaps this is a year premature, but the division won’t be the same without Teemu.

In case you’re hankerin’ for more Ducks analysis after reading over 1,750 words, I tracked down Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register for a season preview. I hope you’ll listen – it starts off with an interesting discussion over the Register’s coverage of the Los Angeles Kings as well as some well-wishing towards LAKI creator and OCR USC beat writer Rich Hammond. Stephens also identifies Ducks rookies that will be worth keeping an eye on at the SoCal Futures Games on Saturday and Monday. It clocks in at 21:41, so make yourself some lunch and enjoy!

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