Bobby Ryan at center? The Ducks may be onto something huge if he can transition smoothly this year.
As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
We now return to the heavily competitive Pacific division, and the Anaheim Ducks.
Key Additions: LW Aaron Voros, D Paul Mara, D Toni Lydman, D Andy Sutton, D Danny Syvret, LW Josh Green.
Key Subtractions: D James Wisniewski, D Steve Eminger, G Joey MacDonald, D Nathan Oystrick, D Aaron Ward, D Scott Niedermayer, D Brennan Evans.
Call them a quiet and dangerous threat, but the Anaheim Ducks are always lurking in the playoff picture with a new attitude and increased toughness. The Ducks came on strong during the closing stages of this past season, but fell short in their bid for the playoffs for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup.
As the Ducks continue to turn the reigns over to their newest crop of homegrown talents, the aging veterans are departing fast and furious. The Ducks spent the majority of the offseason restructuring contracts for restricted free agents while also overhauling a defense that will be without its best player ever, retired player Scott Niedermayer.
The veteran leadership may be taking a permanent vacation, but a new evolution of Anaheim player is prepared for a takeover.
Anaheim’s steadiest rock, 40-year-old Teemu Selanne, has decided to give it “one more season.” Though his retirement antics are not quite as dramatic as Brett Favre’s, Selanne’s age and conditioning are concerns. He’s scored 27 goals each of the past two years, but he didn’t play a full season in either of those terms. In fact, his last full season, 2006-07, saw him pot 48 goals, a marvel for the modern player.
Anaheim’s real scoring force comes from three young, long-term players who are all about to hit their stride. Ryan Getzlaf is approaching the pinnacle of his career as a bruising, playmaking force on the top line. Getzlaf’s 66 assists just over a season ago tied a franchise record, and he’s a better scorer than his 19 goals last year indicates. Getzlaf is also a proven tough guy, willing to give a hit and start a fight when needed.
Corey Perry, the second part of this holy trio, is on the up-and-up and will likely hit 30 goals and 50 assists this year. Perry is a shoe-in for the top line with Getzlaf, leaving Selanne to experiment with Bobby Ryan, who will be tested out as a center this season.
Though Perry and Getzlaf are well established in the league, Ryan is still showing his breakout potential and could have a monstrous year in the system. In only his second full season, Ryan netted 35 goals and 81 penalty minutes, keeping true to the gritty, feisty nature the Anaheim forwards are exhibiting.
These young studs mask Anaheim’s veteran strength and depth, with returning players like Saku Koivu, Jason Blake, and Todd Marchant able to produce in clutch situations. And the Ducks could really kick on all cylinders if players like Joffrey Lupul rediscovered their game.
Back on defense, Anaheim’s changes in the offseason should see some interesting new chemistry forming. With their two most experienced and cup-winning players gone (Scott Niedermayer and Aaron Ward), the Ducks logically became a more aggressive team on the blueline.
Acquiring Andy Sutton and Paul Mara to play alongside Sheldon Brookbank is just asking for trouble. Combined, the three are very physical players who stand up for stars on the team and are always willing to get involved along the corners. To say that you’ll take your fair share of bumps playing against them is an understatement.
Anaheim’s lead two-way weapon, Lubomir Visnovsky, will see even more power play time thanks to lack of competition. Visnovsky had his best season in four years in 2009-10, and he’s definitely capable of scoring 20 goals this year.
Toni Lydman is the other new Duck on defense, and the expectation could be for him to have a larger offensive presence than in season’s past. Lydman is a veteran who has never had more than 28 points in a single season, and it could be too late to teach an old dog new tricks.
After some early controversy last year, Jonas Hiller emerged as the winner of an epic goalie battle in Anaheim. The franchise may be notorious for turning out NHL starters, but that doesn’t mean they’ll expect Hiller to be replaced any time soon.
He’s a wall when he’s on, and he’s only getting better. After 59 games last season, Hiller had a higher goals against average than expected, yet his save percentage was consistent and he still won 30 games. If he starts 65-70 this year, he’ll win a minimum of 37, typically good enough for a playoff run.
Hiller’s backup, Curtis McElhinney, comes from the Calgary Flames and posted an atrocious 1-7 record in 14 games last year. McElhinney will need to win at least seven of his predicted 15 starts to keep the Ducks alive.
In a 2010 Draft that was deep on defense, the Ducks had Cam Fowler fall into their laps. Fowler is still very green in the ways of the NHL, but his size and passing make him an incredible treat for a team lacking in offensive defensemen.
Only time and experience can help the hard-hitting Ducks as time goes by. Full seasons from oft-injured veterans combined with continued improved play from the new leaders could make for a potent and deadly combination. Fourth in the Pacific, Seventh in the Western Conference.