Ducks in the Soup

The Anaheim Ducks’ season came to a fairly ignominious close last week when they were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks. There’s been some apocalyptic reaction in the newspaper, although Helene Elliott’s staggeringly obvious biases against any hockey team I like do make me question her summing-up of the Ducks’ 2017-18 season. They weren’t as bad as all that.

To judge from the team’s playoffs appearances (as most people do), yes, the Ducks’ season was a failure. If you take a step back and look at the entire 82-game picture, however, their season wasn’t without a bright side. In all honesty, I think you can rate the fact that they made the playoffs at all as a sign of success for a very…let’s say “streaky”…campaign.

The 2017-18 Ducks simply weren’t the first-in-the-division Ducks that we knew from seasons past.

Why? I think the answer goes back to the raft of injuries that never stopped besetting the team. Putting aside all the other players who were sidelined at one time or another, expecting the team to function at anything near its best without either or both of the Ryans (Getzlaf and Kesler) or without Cam Fowler on the blueline is unrealistic.

Fowler found himself back on the injured list for the playoffs, where he was sorely, sorely missed. Combined with the premature putting out to pasture of Kevin Bieksa, the Ducks’ blueline against San Jose included a pair of rookies only recently called up from San Diego. While Brandon Montour deserves kudos for stepping up and shouldering a Drew Doughty-sized portion of the defensive burden, he’s still a developing player himself…and you don’t win Stanley Cups with an inexperienced defense corps.

When he was playing during the season, Getzlaf was, at least, his usual self, making one terrific play after another and providing his brand of broad-shouldered leadership. The playoffs did not show him off to good advantage, especially when he (as our friend in the booth John Ahlers would say) “allowed his emotions to overflow” and got himself thrown out of Game 3.  While the falling off of Corey Perry’s productivity remains a puzzlement, the Ducks’ top line did include Rickard Rakell, who demonstrated frequently magic hands, as well as the potential to be a future superstar.

There were other good things. I’d thought trading Sami Vatanen for Adam Henrique would be a disaster. It was anything but: Henrique showed a knack for scoring and some of the grit that characterizes the more effective Ducks. Ondrej Kashe was a further bright spot on the third line, and, speaking of grit, young Nick Ritchie took a few strides forward of his own. Now he needs someone to show him how to be meaner when he puts his 6’2” and 234-pound frame to use.

Kevin Bieksa would be just the man to give Ritchie a few lessons in being mean, although it does seem that his time with the Ducks has come to its end. Bieksa was an unfortunate -13 for the season, but he did demonstrate that, even at age 36, he can punch someone’s lights out with one shot. My favorite hockey player is going to be a 37-year-old free agent come summer, not a happy position in which to find oneself. I have a great idea, though: a return to Vancouver. He left the Canucks to free up cap space, but, with the retirement of the Sedins, the team should have ample cap space to bring back a veteran defenseman. He was much beloved in Vancouver, and the ‘Nucks will be in sore need of veteran leadership in the dressing room.

I have my fingers crossed. If anyone in Vancouver is reading this, please pass my suggestion along.

Skipping the revolving-door fourth line (that being in itself a problem), there’s a piece of the Ducks team I’ve yet to mention. The checking line of Andrew Cogliano, Jakob Silfverberg…and Ryan Kesler. Oh, dear. They had been one of the best checking lines in the League since Kesler discovered he could have a lot more fun shutting other people down than racking up 40 goals in a season. This year, while they were reasonably competent and were able to get themselves onto the score sheet often enough, they were a shadow of their former bastardly selves. Top lines must have dreaded facing Kesler, Cogliano and Silfverberg in seasons past. I don’t think they thought that way this season.

The problem was an RK17 who just wasn’t the RK17 we know and love (or, if you’re on one of the other 30 teams, hate.) He underwent hip surgery during the off-season, and didn’t rejoin the team until December. He’d said in an interview during the layoff that he had to learn how to skate all over again. While he clearly figured out the basic mechanics of skating, and while he still remains terrific in the faceoff circle, what was lacking all season was the abandon, the exuberance, the fun of being a total sonofabitch on the ice. Although Kesler wasn’t one to throw his body around recklessly, his game was rough and physical, and clearly took a toll on him. Was he being careful this season so as not to reinjure himself? Or was he still in pain?

Either way, he just wasn’t Ryan Kesler, and, as a result, a huge piece of the team wasn’t there. Another one of the those things without which you can’t win championships without is a shut-down center. We can only hope that a long summer’s rest will give RK17 the chance to regain his previous form. (Canucks watchers felt the same about the 2012 strike, which coincided with another major Kesler injury, that one to his shoulder.)

Whither the Ducks?

There’s a growing consensus that the Ducks are still constituted as a big, tough team in a sport that’s gotten lighter and speedier. If the Ducks are to remain relevant (quoth They), they will have to reinvent themselves in the Las Vegas Golden Knights mold. In Anaheim’s defense, they still finished second in their division (admittedly by a hair’s breadth), so their approach can’t be as antiquated as all that. I think it still too early to throw out the broad-shouldered babies with the bathwater, and that the current personnel does still stand chances of contending, especially if Kesler is able to rediscover his Beast Mode.

Changes are sure to be made in the off-season. Perhaps that should include coach Randy Carlyle, under whom the team has fared far less well that it did under the previous incumbent, Bruce Boudreau. I can’t remember a single time that Carlyle said something truly nice about one of his players. I suspect that this chariness with praise is part of his overall style, and that it plays into how he deals with the team in the dressing room and on the ice. It’s one way of coaching a hockey team – but the team had been used to the warm and fuzzy Boudreau. Carlyle must have come as a shock. And, perhaps, the Ducks are bunch of guys who react better to honey than to vinegar.

I could also point out that Alain Vigneault is in need of a job.

Am I disappointed at the way things turned out? Of course. Who wouldn’t be? I wasn’t really expecting the Ducks to get past the first round of the playoffs (I wasn’t even sure they’d make the playoffs), but being swept by the Sharks (a team I hate nearly as much as I hate the Calgary Flames) was unpleasant to watch. It would have been unpleasant even without that miserable 8-1 loss in a Game 3 that I’m sure they hope we’ll forget about over the summer.

I can only conclude the way all season post-mortems but one have to conclude:

1200px-Anaheim_Ducks.svg (1)We’ll get ‘em next time.

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