Ducks Starting to Split the Seams

The Anaheim Ducks haven’t ripped apart yet, but the seams of the garment that is the team are showing, and they’re strained like those of a big man after a double helping on Thanksgiving.

The tears that are about to come are the result of a losing streak that goes back to mid-November, and the tension that’s in the room is obvious, as manifest in the comments team members made after a loss to Chicago Friday afternoon.

Goaltender Jonas Hiller said, “We gave the puck away way too often. They [Chicago] didn’t have to work too hard to get their chances.  We gave them way too much.”

He added, “[After] the first half of the game, every shift we got worse and worse.”

And then he said, “We need some lucky bounces, but we aren’t working hard enough to get those lucky bounces. . . .  As soon as something happens, everybody’s thinks they have to change everything out there, and that’s not how it is.  You’ve got to keep going.”

He does believe that the team can win consistently, but says that they just can’t wait for something to happen; they’ve got to work for it.  “It looks like we’re not doing enough.  Every is hoping somebody else does something and it’s going to come, and that’s not how it worked last year.  We worked for it.”

From the distance of the East Coast, it might look like nothing much is happening with the Ducks.  That’s hardly the truth.  Hiller spoke on the day after Thanksgiving, when the team unveiled its third jersey, which was less than the revolution that some expected.  In fact, about all that’s changed is that some orange flashes have been added on the sleeves and the side panels and the logo is a giant duck foot, which is very much the shape that the regular sweater “Ducks” word takes, anyway.

The new duds retain much of the look that was established in June 2006 when the team reinvented its look and dropped its duck-faced goalie-masked identity and along with it, the silly “Mighty” name that had been a holdover from the founding days of Disney ownership.  The goalie mask does make an appearance, on a patch on the sleeves of the new sweater.

Perhaps in anticipation of the new look, or maybe as an excuse to stay out of the malls, the team’s fans showed up to see the Chicago Blackhawks play their Ducks on Friday at 1pm.  Or maybe it was the other way around, with the parking lot beforehand and the stands during the game showing a variety of Blackhawks looks, from recent “Kane” sweaters to a throwback “9” with no name on the back panel, as it would have been when the great Bobby Hull played for the team in the 1950s-70s.

To put the seeming Friday meltdown in perspective, remember that the Ducks began the season poorly, losing three in a row and gaining just one regulation win in the first five games.  But they found themselves around mid-October, gaining seven points in five games.  Then November came, and with it, success.  The team played six games between the third and twelfth of the month, and won them all.  They sat near the top of the west.

The only problem was that by that time, they had played more games than almost every other team in the conference.  That continues to late November.  Coming into Friday, the team was eleventh, with the same number of points as the tenth team, Dallas, and yet they had played twenty-three games, at least a couple more than most other teams in the West, and as many as four more than one (Detroit).

By this measure, then, they’re only three points ahead of last-place Edmonton, and way behind the two teams which immediately trail them, Minnesota and Nashville, each of which has 22 points in 20 games.

Said another way, 23 points in 23 games is an easy equation to the end of the season—82 points, at least ten back of what the likely playoff number will be, so the Ducks need to pick it up.

Their coach realizes this, of course.  After the Chicago game, he said, “I don’t think we had a very good start to the hockey game.  From the standpoint of the coaching staff, we said, ‘let’s just get through the first period, because we’ll be better once the break comes.’  But we weren’t able to garner any momentum swing.  Our power play took momentum away from us.  We had three power plays I think in the second period, and in the first one, we gave up a shorthanded [goal].  It was the synch.  We seemed to be out of synch.”

That’s been true a lot of late, and it has been the cause of the team’s slide since the middle of November.  The team has lost all but two of six games since then, and those that weren’t losses were overtime games, thus yielding just two points out of a possible twelve.

But that doesn’t mean they’re giving up.  In the face of this, Anheim has not just sat on its top two lines and frozen the rest of the roster.  In fact, the emails to the press from the team’s PR staff about changes in the lineup, mostly the bottom six, have been fast and furious of late, with the goal being to shore up the bottom six and maybe steal a gem from an unwary opponent, as they team has done in the past.

On November 10, the club sent Matt Beleskey and Dan Sexton to Syracuse, as well as Danny Syvret.  A week and a half later, Syvret was gone, traded to Philly with Rob Bordson (who was in his first AHL season, having played three years in college).  In exchange, David Laliberte and Patrick Maroon came into the possession of the big club.

After that, Sexton was recalled, but on the 22nd, he, Nick Bonino, and Brandon McMillan went back to upstate New York.  Josh Green was sent down the next day.  That same day (the 23rd), Ryan Carter went to Carolina for Stefan Chaput and Matt Kennedy.  Carter had been with the team for 138 NHL games, recording 12-17-29 points, and 141 PIMs.  His tenure with the team goes back to the playoffs of 2007, the Stanley Cup year, when he played four games.  His NHL high was 48 games in the 2008-09 season.  He also got five points in 10 playoff games that year.

Stu Bickel went to the Rangers also on this day, in exchange for defenseman Nigel Williams.  Bickel is the perfect poster boy of the “career minor leaguer,” having played everywhere from Bakersfield, CA, to Elmira, NY, five leagues and ten teams since the 2004-05 season.

Williams is a more experienced and steady AHL player, with two nearly complete seasons behind him since he came out of the OHL in 2008-09.

So the net change at this point was four players sent to the minors, four gone and five back in exchange via trades, and one more lost to waivers, Troy Bodie, who also went to Carolina.

On the 24th, Sexton, Bonino, and McMillan came back from Syracuse to California, which made the Ducks’ forward lines look like this:  Ryan, Getzlaf, Perry; Koivu, Blake, and Sexton; McMillan, Bonino, and Marchant; and Parros, Voros, and Chipchura.

Who’s new?  McMillan, obviously, and Voros (seven games this year) and Bonino (eleven), relatively.  That third line that McMillan and Bonino were on on Friday is the locus of the team’s hopes to get some production from other than their top players.

And why?  Press reports in Anaheim cite Carlyle’s effort to add some scoring punch to his third and fourth units. Amongst those two lines, only one active player has scored, George Parros.  It was a pretty one, it is worth noting, against Dallas, but one goal from six slots just isn’t going to do a lot to put wins on the board.

Notice, too, that Sexton was on the second line. What about Selanne? He came out in the warmup Friday, but was scratched for the second game in a row with a groin muscle strain.  The injury is relatively minor, especially compared to some of the biggies the forty-year-old has suffered in the past few seasons, but he’s taking it easy and being careful lest it turn into something chronic.

Carlyle said about this after the game, “He’s pretty much day-to-day, says he’s about seventy percent.”

Scratched in addition was defenseman Sheldon Brookbank, and for those of you keeping track, that made the Ducks’ defense look like this: Visnovsky and Lydman, Fowler and Sutton, and Mara and Sbisa, though those pairings varied according to situations, as on the post-power play lines.

Early in the year, the team was having problems keeping pucks out of its own net.  This was through no fault of its goalies, but rather because of loose defensive play which led to league-leading shots against totals.  But that was offset by scoring by, as was said, the top six.

Now, if you listen to Carlyle and his desire to get his third line shored up and gain some scoring in general from the guys who make up the grinding end of the lineup, it’s obvious that the team is not giving up, nor giving itself over to a run-and-gun style of play, no matter how entertaining that might be to watch. The team was in three nine-goal (5-4, win or lose) games in its first fifteen, and seven of 23 to start the season featured seven goals or more.  But in the last couple of weeks, of eight games played, only one went to seven goals, and none went to more than that. Along the way, there have been six which have been decided by a goal, including a 1-0 win over the New York Islanders.

As for the game Friday, the Ducks were up 1-0 after period one despite having been outshot 13-6. That marker was by Sexton, who deflected a shot from the point on the power play.  Earlier, he had had an unexpected, shorthanded breakaway, where he deked goalie Corey Crawford and shot low. Crawford saved it with his left leg.

Sexton is wearing a cage to protect a broken and repaired nose, but he said afterwards that it’s not something that affects his vision. “I thought I got all of it,” on the breakaway shot, he said, though Crawford had said that maybe the puck jumped on the skater.

In fact, he commented that there is a measure of confidence gained with the cage. “I wore it in college, two years ago, and when I’m out there I don’t notice it.  It took a couple of minutes to get used to, but during the pace of the game or in practice, you don’t see it.  Just when you’re standing still, you see the bars in the way. It definitely helps me, because I don’t feel cautious, because I know that my nose is still healing but I have that protection.”

The Hawks tied the game in the second period, shorthanded.  In the third, Ducks’ defenseman Andy Sutton took over, though not in the way his team might have wanted him to.  He passed a puck from the right side of his own net directly onto the stick of Patrick Sharp in the slot and watched while the latter put a high wrister past Jonas Hiller’s (right) catching glove hand.  Shortly after, Sutton was in front when Sexton got deked out of the way at the point by Hjalmarsson, who lofted a shot which hit Sutton on the way in and glanced past Hiller to make it 3-1.

Sutton has played three games this year with the NHL club, but nearly 600 in his career. He was injured in the team’s first game and came back the 21st against Edmonton, getting 18:30 of ice time that night.

Carlyle’s comments about his play after the game suggest further fragmentation of the team’s morale. “It’s tough when that play happens.  It’s a no-no, don’t go up the middle on your backhand, but to me, again, there’s got to be support of him. The other defenseman was behind the net, and when he [Sutton] turned the puck over, there needs to be someone in front of the net to defend in case there is a turnover. It’s not just one individual on the ice who committed it.  The other individuals weren’t in a position to support . . . when a player does make a mistake.”

Sounds pretty benign to that point, but he later said, “If you look at it, he was involved [in the game] physically, but there were some situations that he created because he was reckless, leaving the forecheck coming out of the penalty box, defensemen staying down in their zone.  That’s not the style of defense that Andy Sutton’s going to play for the Anaheim Ducks.”

Goal four for the Hawks came on a broken play as three players passed it swiftly around in the low slot, Jack Skille to Jake Dowell Troy Brouwer, who blasted it past Hiller and chased him in favor of Curtis McElhinney.  Carlyle said after that he pulled him so that he could make a decision as to which one to play Saturday night (in Phoenix).  “I might as well get Curtis in if he’s going to have an opportunity to play or rest Jonas Hiller if I make that decisions to go back with him.”

Twice before this season, Anaheim has led after one period, each time going on to win.  On this night, it was futile, as the team never got anything going.  They did keep pace with the Hawks in shots over the last two periods, but not in chances.  More worrisome is the way that players and coach alike are starting to hand out blame.  The room is restless.

What’s ahead for the Ducks is the return of Joffrey Lupul.  Remember him?  He’s the impossibly handsome one who played with the team in 2005-06 and got 28 goals.  On the strength of that, he was off to Edmonton, then Philadelphia for two years.  He came back for 2009-10, but saw action in only 23 games and has had a back injury and then an infection which has cost him a calendar year of hockey.

He’s been skating for three weeks and hopes to see game action, but he said in the news this week that he doesn’t want to come back if it means limited minutes, and neither does his coach see that for him.  He’ll slot in in the top six or nine, and play to score, hoping to reprise three 20-goal seasons and the 10 goals in 23 games that he put up last year.

If he can get it going and Sutton can go back to the reliable defenseman he has been in the past, and their new auditions (not additions so much as tryouts) in the bottom six can jell and score, the team could go somewhere.  If not, expect to hear a giant ripping sound from the coast as the pants split right in half due to post-Thanksgiving griping.

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