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Pacific Division Overview: Anaheim Ducks enter season with three key injuries

After a strong season that ended with a trip to the Western Conference finals, here’s how Anaheim shakes up.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re continuing our Pacific Division overview with a team that’s coming off yet another strong postseason run, the Anaheim Ducks.

Anaheim’s 2016-2017 Season

The Ducks have won the Pacific Division five years in a row, finishing last season with 46 wins and a combined 18-6-5 record against division teams.

After sweeping the Flames in round one and winning a tight second-round series against the Oilers, the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three years. Anaheim ran into the red-hot Nashville Predators and ultimately lost the series in six games.

Though Anaheim failed to compete for the Stanley Cup, the Ducks won a game seven for the first time since 2006. Prior to last season, the team had been eliminated four years in a row after blowing a 3-2 series lead and losing a game seven at home. Last year’s game seven win, a 2-1 victory against Edmonton, should give this team more confidence heading into the 2017-2018 season.

2016-2017 Roster Highlights

The 2016-17 season featured breakout performances by Rickard Rakell (33-18—51) and Jakob Silfverberg (23-26—49), both of whom set career highs in many categories. Once again, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler provided a menacing one-two punch up the middle; Getzlaf led the team in scoring with 73 points, and Kesler added 22 goals and 58 points, his highest point total since 2010-11. Defenseman Cam Fowler had an impressive all-around season, scoring 39 points and leading the team in average ice time (24:50). Putting aside his three-game stint in 2013-2014, goaltender John Gibson set career highs last season in starts (49), wins (25), save percentage (.924) and shutouts (6). However, injuries continue to limit his effectiveness and development.

The most glaring disappointment of last season was the performance of Corey Perry, who scored just 19 goals after recording 33-plus in each of the previous three seasons. Similarly, Sami Vatanen took a step back, netting just three goals and 24 points after earning 38 and 37 points in the previous two seasons, respectively.

Offseason Moves

Anaheim found itself in a precarious position heading into the expansion draft and was forced to strike a deal with general manager George McPhee, sending prized defenseman Shea Theodore to Sin City in order to keep defensemen Vatanen and Josh Manson.

Despite spending most of last summer and the early part of the 2016-17 season on the trading block, Cam Fowler had such a convincing season that Anaheim signed him to an eight-year, $52 million extension. Additionally, the team re-signed forward Patrick Eaves to an extremely team-friendly cap hit of $3.15 million for the next three seasons. Eaves is coming off a career-best 32-goal campaign and is a rugged, versatile winger for the Ducks.

The team’s other major offseason move was signing veteran goaltender Ryan Miller to a two-year, $4 million contract. Though there’s risk in signing a 37-year-old netminder, Miller is not your average backup. The 2010 Vezina winner played behind one of the worst teams in the NHL in Vancouver last year but still managed a .914 save percentage. He now has a chance to play behind one of the strongest defense corps in the NHL, which features five defensemen under the age of 26. Considering Gibson continues to be injury-prone in his young career, Miller could play a significant role for the Ducks this year.

Previewing Anaheim’s 2017-2018 Lineup

Recent news out of Anaheim revealed that Kesler will be out of the lineup indefinitely with “no timeline whatsoever” for his return, according to general manager Bob Murray. Kesler joins Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm as key players set to miss extended time to start the season, leaving the Ducks in a vulnerable position. However, injuries create opportunities for other players, including prospect hopefuls Sam Steel, Max Jones, Jacob Larsson, Andy Welinski, Marcus Pettersson, etc. This also means Rakell will move to center, at least for the time being.

The locks up front include Getzlaf, Perry, Rakell, Silfverberg, Eaves, Andrew Cogliano, Nick Ritchie and Antoine Vermette. The prospects, like Steel, Jones, Austin Ortega, etc., will battle the likes of Ondrej Kase, Chris Wagner and Logan Shaw, all of whom played at least 43 games last season, as well as former Blackhawk Dennis Rasmussen, to fill out the remaining slots.

On the back end, Fowler, Manson, Brandon Montour and Kevin Bieksa should make the top-six, leaving as many as three open slots on the blue line. Francois Beauchemin and Korbinian Holzer are the main veteran options, but guys like Larsson, Welinski, Pettersson, Josh Mahura, etc. could push for a spot in camp.

More information will be uncovered throughout training camp based on line rushes and other indicative drills developed in practice and executed in preseason action. For now, here’s one possibility for how Anaheim’s lines could shape up to start the season:

Forwards

Ritchie—Getzlaf—Eaves
Jones—Rakell—Silfverberg
Cogliano—Vermette—Perry
Wagner—Steel—Kase

Defensemen

Fowler—Manson
Larsson—Bieksa
Beauchemin—Montour

Goalies

Gibson
Miller

Bottom Line

Most of the Ducks’ roster from last season is returning, which automatically makes this team a Cup contender. Anaheim would have remained the odds-on favorite to win the division but for the injuries to Kesler, Vatanen and Lindholm, which call those odds into question. What’s more likely is that Edmonton and Calgary will duke it out. The main questions facing this team relate to the lack of timetable for Kesler’s return, the decreased depth on defense with the departure of Theodore, as well as Clayton Stoner (expansion) and Simon Despres (buyout), Gibson’s ongoing injury concerns, Perry’s response to last season and the team’s ability to compete with its younger, faster opponents. The fact that Perry registered four goals (including three overtime game-winners) and 11 points in 17 postseason contests bodes well for his chances of rebounding this year. While Murray brought Miller in as an insurance policy on Gibson, the rest will have to be addressed throughout the course of the 2017-2018 season.