Local beat writers like to joke the Anaheim Ducks are the most interesting team in the NHL.
In the last couple years, the team has experienced everything from the mumps to illegal bear poaching to a player testing positive for performance enhancing drugs to their captain needing an immediate appendectomy while on the road. Oh, and how about the franchise’s beloved Finnish legend slamming the current coach in his book right before the start of training camp a season ago?
The list goes on, and we haven’t even come to what’s happened on the ice.
Anaheim had steadily developed into the role the San Jose Sharks have held over the years: the team with a ton of talent that underperforms come playoff time — the hallmark of a Bruce Boudreau coached team. Each of the last three postseasons, the Ducks went a round further than they had the year before, only to stink it up in Game 7 of the series.
Coming into this season, they were projected by many to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup. Fitting considering their playoff pattern. Those were pretty high expectations. The players said they didn’t feel it, but how could they not? Their record reflected it as the season wore on.
To put it kindly, the team was so bafflingly average.
Despite the coach being widely agreed upon to not be the issue with the team, #BruceWatch was a nightly occurrence. Bruce Boudreau’s days in Anaheim appeared to be numbered.
It wasn’t until the Christmas break when the team’s reclusive general manager, Bob Murray, emerged to talk about his team. He made it clear: he wasn’t going to fire Boudreau. Murray put the team’s struggles squarely on the shoulders of his players. The GM went out of his way to say there were veteran players who arrived at camp not in shape.
While Murray didn’t name names, it didn’t take a seasoned reporter to connect the dots. The guy he was (probably) addressing was Ryan Getzlaf. The team’s captain had a whopping 1 goal and 19 assists through 29 games. Through the same span last season, he had 8 goals and 21 assists.
Getzlaf’s bad season was multiplied further by the struggles of the players tapped to replace depth scoring provided by now-former Ducks Kyle Palmieri and Matt Beleskey.
Following Murray’s remarks, the team won the next three games, and by December 31 their record improved to 15-15-6.
The calendar turned to 2016 and the Ducks began to resemble the team we thought they were going to be all along. Since New Year’s Day, Anaheim has a 15-4-4 record. As of Friday night, they’re second in the Pacific Division, only one point ahead of the third place San Jose Sharks and only two points behind the Los Angeles Kings. (All three California teams should count their blessings that the Pacific is hot garbage this season.)
Teams who see a massive turnaround usually can point to one moment that made the difference. For the Ducks, that moment was a trade. Well, a trade to make up for a trade that didn’t work.
Carl Hagelin was acquired by the Ducks from the New York Rangers for Emerson Etem in the off-season as a part of Murray’s plan to ice a faster team and later signed a four year, $16-million RFA contract.
However, seeing the Kings kicking ass and taking names gave GMBM a revelation. His boys needed to get bigger, and go back to a style of play that was less finesse, as the cliche goes, getting goals from the ‘dirty areas’ in front of the net. Hagelin simply didn’t fit in with that style. Through 43 games with the Anaheim, he had only 12 points.
So last month Murray flipped Hagelin to the Pittsburgh Penguins for David Perron. Somehow, Murray fleeced Jim Rutherford again (see: Lovejoy for Despres), convincing him to take on Hagelin’s deal for Perron’s expiring contract.
Through 14 games with Anaheim, Perron has 6 goals and 7 assists. His offensive contribution is welcomed, but he provided a spark to someone that needed it – Ryan Getzlaf.
In the 14 games since Perron’s arrival, Getzlaf has 4 goals and 15 assists. The line combination of Getzlaf, Perron, and Chris Stewart were the top producing trio prior to Stewart’s fractured jaw. Mike Santorelli has found his scoring touch filling in for Stewart with four points is his last three games.
Finding chemistry with Perron has allowed Boudreau to do something he’d tried and failed at so often in the past – splitting up Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Gabby is all about the matchups. He wants to make it as difficult as possible for opposing coaches to decide who to ice their top players against.
The emergence of center Rickard Rakell (15-17-32) meant Perry wouldn’t have to play with Ryan Kesler in order to score goals. Kesler, along with Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg, had formed the shut-down line Boudreau needed. Perry, Rakell, and Patrick Maroon are the second highest point-producing line since the Perron trade.
The next big challenge facing the team isn’t Calgary, who they face on Sunday, it’s the Feb. 29 trade deadline. When everything is clicking, does Murray make a move to add to the roster, inevitably impacting the current chemistry?
Defense and goaltending has remained relatively steady throughout the tumultuous first half. The biggest question mark for the rest of the season is if the forwards can keep it up. Perron is a notoriously streaky scorer. While he appears to be the catalyst for this turnaround, could he also lead to the team’s downfall?
Whatever happens it’ll probably be weird, and so uniquely Anaheim Ducks-ish.
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