Why Mess with Success?

A local pundit in LA this week proved conclusively that you don’t need to know much about hockey to be in the newspaper by suggesting that the Ducks need to work at a trade before the deadline. What would they want?

I’m not going to tell you his suggestion as a way of keeping you guessing about who it was, but I will say that this lifeboat doesn’t have any holes that need plugging. Rather, the team clicks along at a great rate, outpacing their rivals over the entire NHL by at least a few points (Chicago, leading the other side of the West) and as many as a large handful (Boston, leading one half of the East) coming into Sunday.

In terms of numbers, they’ve never been better. They haven’t had a start this good in team history, with the previous best in 2006-07 at 80 points through a similar number of games.

The Ducks have also never led the entire NHL in points this deep into a campaign. And their current record of 43-14-5 is third in the shootout era (post-lockout 2005). Through 61 games, the club has never scored more goals (200), and they’ve never let in fewer (146).

They returned from the Olympic break with five medals. Getzlaf and Perry won gold. Silfverberg won silver. And Selanne and Vatanen bronze. Cam Fowler and Jonas Hiller came home empty-handed.

Looked at another way, answer this question: what part of the team would you remove and what would you replace it with, if you were GM? Their goaltending is outstanding. They score. They win. They don’t let goals into their own net.

The team’s first line is clicking with a total of 74 goals (Sunday they had added to that before period one was even over). Their third line is one of the best shutdown units in the league (that’s Koivu, Winnick, and Cogliano). Their fourth unit is bruising and graceful both, with Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri, and Patrick Maroon in there most nights and big bruiser Tim Jackman, he of the 89 PIMs, waiting his turn when the team wants a more finesse fourth combo.

Maybe next year, the team will need some help, with Selanne slated to go and Koivu perhaps on the waning end of his career. The second line, in fact, is the one great unknown, not just for next year, but going into the playoffs. The simple question is whether Selanne can keep his Olympic momentum going into the NHL post-campaign. He has been rested this year, having appeared in just 48 games to date. And if the team keeps winning, bets are good that he won’t play any of the back-to-backs (that is, not both games), of which the team has three remaining. But that aside, right now, to disturb things might be foolish.

The good news about the schedule, Selanne notwithstanding, is that the Ducks are going to play most of the rest of their games on the West Coast, with five of their ten away contests being against Vancouver, San Jose, or Los Angeles. So time zone changes will be few.

Back to that second line for a minute. It’s got Selanne on it, Beleskey, and Jakob Silfverberg, and some nights, it’s there, while others it’s not. Sunday evening with the Hurricanes in town, the trio was largely invisible. It’s not that you expect scoring every evening, and on this night, Perry, Getzlaf, and Penner had contributed two goals directly and another via Penner and Perry assists on a blast from Beauchemin that tipped up off a Carolina defenseman’s stuck and went between Cam Fowler’s leg pad and trapper. But they need to be visible, to use their speed, to, at least, force the other team to play some D. And more than not this season, the second line hasn’t done that. Having said that, one has to note that with Selanne out for some games and Silfverberg injured early and having played in only about half the team’s games to date, perhaps their chemistry hasn’t had a chance to work.

Of course, one question already being voice is the old “what happens to the President’s Trophy winner most years?” And the answer is that one’s perception is that they flame out in the playoffs. Three of the past six have lost in the first round of the post-season. Bad. But good: that the other three have been to the Stanley Cup Finals, and two of those have won.

So pity the Ducks or praise them, but winning that trophy isn’t the worst thing in the world. The teams that lose early, incidentally, are those which are notorious for underperforming in the playoffs—Vancouver, San Jose, and Washington—no matter how they do in the regular season. So you might say that it’s coincidental in the first place that they ended up getting the trophy and then going down fast after they do. The Ducks, by contrast, have their playoff chops well-established, with the exception of last year, when they went out early to the Red Wings. And that very fact might be the reason that they shouldn’t fear the hardware. They’ve had their lesson in starting well and ending with a fizzle.

The theory the above-cited expert was referencing, let it be said, was that it takes a different kind of team to make the playoffs than what the Ducks have been during the regular season—more buttoned-down. Tighter in their defense.

With that, there are essentially two alternatives. Either that’s true or it’s not; and either their coach can coach that kind of team or he can’t. Let’s assume it’s true, and let’s assume that you mess with the lineup and add a couple of guys. That still doesn’t tell you anything about whether Boudreau is going to be able to adjust. Maybe he wouldn’t, and then you’ve got a couple of guys in a lineup unfamiliar with them. And if they’ve come from a team that was hopelessly bad, that means that two guys who to this point in the year have been with the Ducks now have their hopes of a Stanley Cup dashed for the season, and whether you think NHL players are human are not, the tears that you saw from the Buffalo players when they talked about losing Ryan Miller tells you that they are, and that they care about what happens to their mates.

Naturally, now that I’ve said all this, making a big trade is exactly what the Ducks will do. So to hedge that bet, I’ll call it a defenseman. I mean, who wouldn’t like a big, solid bruiser who can control play? That’s what they had in Pronger the year they won the Cup. Is there one of those out there? That’s for someone else to figure out. But if there is, then that guy is a lot easier to fit into an existing lineup than a forward. But if they do add on D, they’ll have to shoehorn that player into a lineup that already boasts size on D (Beauchemin), skill (Fowler) and speed (Sbisa) and which is good enough to have sent Sammi Vatanen to the minors, bronze medal still swinging from when they placed it around his neck. So what are you gonna do to make room for someone else on the blueline?

Stumped? Is your impulse to go back to a critique of that second line and try to see who might fit there? How many deadline deals for a forward have paid off, and how many haven’t. Let’s see. Iginla. Any further questions?

On the Carolina game, a few tidbits. The Ducks jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first, then stretched it to five. All the players who talked after said that they’d never had a start like that this year, and that this was them playing their best. But the game ended up 5-3, with Carolina firing a total of 52 shots at Frederik Andersen, 26 in period three. Thus it was that the coach and Andersen had harsh words for the finish.

On Andersen’s, you have to read between the lines. “If we can play like that [first period] we’re going to win a lot of games. But we’ve just got to keep it up for sixty minutes.” He added, “We’ve got to find a way to play like that for a full game.”

The coach was more direct: “We played two different games. In the first half we were as good as we can be, and in the second half, we were probably as bad as we can be. . . . It’s something we have to correct, and it’s been a habit when we’ve been up on teams this year, that we let our foot off the gas. They always get one or two that they shouldn’t get.” He contrasted the good effort in a 1-0 win on Friday against the Blues, but then said, “It’s not the right way to play.”

He said that he isn’t ready to talk about a playoff push, but then later commented, “That’s why, if we want to win anything in the playoffs, we have to be mentally stronger,” and when asked how he’ll address the letdown, “I’ve already relayed that message.”

Ducks Notes
The Ducks beat St. Louis on Friday night 1-0. In that game, Jackman was in, Silfverberg out in what perhaps is a portent of the playoffs in terms of the Ducks needing the biggest lineup they can ice. Of course, the scoring winger wouldn’t be the one watching from above in the post-season. Who might? Someone like Palmieri or Bonino perhaps.

The Ducks signed Jackman to an extension this week—two years at about $600 grand. Pretty interesting day when that’s a low NHL salary. Heck, at that rate, it would take him more than ten years to make what Getzlaf makes in a year. But it would take the average high school teacher about 100 years to make Getzlaf-level dough. Pretty stupid, that.

Coach Boudreau won his 300th game in under 500 tries (496). This is faster than anyone, ever, but remember that all of the next three—Toe Blake, Mike Babcock, and Glen Sather coached all or in part at a time when not every game had to be a win or a loss. Knock out the ties, and you’ve got a stat that matters. Still, as Captain Getzlaf said after the game

Please read the nice review my book Pond Hockey got, here.

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