The Anaheim Ducks will be without superstar winger Corey Perry for the next four games because the NHL has suspended him for his late hit to the head of Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker in Tuesday night's contest.
Even though the Ducks rank third in goals scored and have the best power play in the league, losing a player with Perry's impressive skill set (scoring, playmaking, truculence, strong defense) is still going to impact the team in several ways.
Complicating matters is the team's difficult schedule during the stretch of games in which Perry will be unavailable due to suspension. Here's a look at the competition that Anaheim will face without Perry over the next week:
|Date||Team||Place in Standings|
|March 14||Dallas Stars ||11th|
|March 16||St. Louis Blues ||5th|
|March 18||San Jose Sharks ||9th|
The Ducks are just four points behind the Chicago Blackhawks for first place in the Western Conference standings, and they also have a game in hand. But if Anaheim fails to take a lot of points from the next four games, the team's chances of earning the top seed for the playoffs could significantly lessen.
Let's take a look at how Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau and his team will need to adjust with Perry suspended for the next four games.
Who Takes Perry's Spot at Right Wing on the First Line?
The first adjustment that Boudreau must make is to figure out who will take Perry's right wing spot on the top line alongside superstar center Ryan Getzlaf and winger Bobby Ryan.
When Perry was ejected from Tuesday's game for his illegal hit on Zucker, veteran forward Teemu Selanne was moved up from the second line, and it's very likely that he will remain with the top trio until Perry returns.
Selanne ranks fifth on the Ducks in scoring with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 25 games, and he has lots of previous experience playing with Getzlaf. Putting two talented goal scores in Selanne and Ryan alongside an elite playmaker such as Getzlaf is the best way for Anaheim to maximize its scoring production from the first line.
The 42-year-old winger is also responsible defensively, and his two-way game also makes him a good fit alongside Getzlaf and Ryan, both of whom are top-tier power forwards.
Another option to replace Perry is Kyle Palmieri, who has missed the last five games because of an injury, but according to Eric Stephens of the Orange Country Register, he will be in the lineup on Thursday night.
Putting Palmieri on the first line in his first few games back from injury, which would result in him receiving substantial ice time, would not be a smart decision by Boudreau. He is better suited for the second or third line.
Here's what I would project the Ducks lines to be with Perry suspended:
Who Will Battle in Front of the Net on the Power Play in Perry's Absence?
Perry has been a key contributor to the Ducks' power play this season, which ranks first in the league with a 26.2 percent success rate.
He leads Anaheim with five power-play goals, and his seven points with the man-advantage is the second-highest total on the team. His 2:46 of power-play ice time per game ranks second among Ducks forwards.
Perry is often located right in front of the opposing goaltender while the Ducks are on the power play because his impressive size (6'3", 210 pounds) makes him a tremendous net-front presence.
His strength makes him a difficult player to move out of the crease, and he's always a threat to score because he does a good job of scoring goals off deflections by getting his stick on shots from the point.
Finding someone to create traffic in front of the net is one challenge for Boudreau while Perry is suspended.
Young winger Emerson Etem would be a good player to put in Perry's spot on the power play because he is a physical forward with similar size (6'1", 210 pounds). Etem has fantastic hands and the strength needed to battle for loose pucks in front of the net to score dirty goals.
He has not scored yet this season, and as a young player in his first full season at the NHL level, being put on the power play and having some success in that role would certainly raise his confidence level.
Anaheim has a 9-1-2 record when it scores on the power play, and being able to continue this success with the extra man will be crucial to the team's chances of winning games without Perry.
However, maintaining their success on the power play won't be easy because three of their next four games are against teams ranked in the top 15 in penalty killing (San Jose third, Chicago sixth, Dallas 11th).
The Penalty Kill Must Be Stronger
The Ducks have the third-worst penalty kill in the league, and it will be even weaker without Perry.
He averages 1:18 of shorthanded time per game, and his defensive skills and willingness to block shots will be missed over the next few games because three of Anaheim's next four games are against teams that rank in the top 15 in power-play success (St. Louis second, Dallas 11th, Chicago 15th).
Without Perry, Ducks forwards such as Cogliano and Bonino will need to play a more important role on the penalty kill. They currently average 1:31 and 1:08 of shorthanded time per game, respectively, and those totals will probably climb while Perry is suspended.
Bonino has been one of the team's most impressive defensive forwards this season, and he ranks third on the Ducks in blocked shots (36) and takes a lot of faceoffs. His importance on the penalty kill will likely increase over the next four games, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to this added responsibility.
Ducks Should Treat Next Four Games as a Test Run for the Possibility that Perry is Traded Before the Deadline
Perry's absence will be a great opportunity for the Ducks to see how well they are able to play against top teams without their best winger.
The 27-year-old forward is in the final year of his contract and will be able to leave the team in the summer as an unrestricted free agent.
Since it's possible that he could earn as much as $9 million on the open market, it would be in the team's best interests to trade Perry for valuable assets such as young NHL players, top prospects and/or draft picks. Keeping him for the rest of the season and taking the chance that he could leave for nothing in the offseason is not a risk that the Ducks can afford to take.
With that said, wingers such as Palmieri, Etem, Cogliano and Bonino need to show Boudreau that they are capable of being productive offensively and effective at both ends of the ice in more important roles with Perry out of the lineup.
The Ducks have gotten plenty of secondary scoring this season, but without Perry, the team's depth at forward will be tested.
If Anaheim plays well without Perry and the team is able to score goals and convert on its power-play chances, general manager Bob Murray might be more comfortable with moving Perry if it becomes clear that he wants to become a free agent and not sign a new contract extension before the trade deadline.
He will also be able to see which areas of his roster are impacted the most when Perry isn't in the lineup during the next four games, which will also give him an idea of what kind of players he will need in return for Perry if the former Hart Trophy winner is trade in the next few weeks.
Boudreau needs to set up his team with the line combinations and power-play units he might use if Perry was traded, which will help prepare the team for that situation in case it happens. The Ducks may want to keep Perry for the entire season regardless if he signs a new deal, but it wouldn't hurt to use these next four games to see what kind of team they might be in the playoffs without their first line right winger.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.