The Ducks had to experience the indignity of being swept out of the playoffs by San Jose while being outscored 16-4 before they could accept the reality of what drives today’s NHL. Belatedly and maybe more than a little reluctantly, they’ve realized they can’t waddle while everyone else is flying.
“We kind of got into a rut of how we were going to play and we fell behind in some of the changes that were going on around the league and how teams were thinking about the game,” general manager Bob Murray said. “I would say we want to be much more aggressive — aggressive not physically, but aggressive skating all over the ice on the puck, on everything. We’re going to start moving more.”
And so the transformation of the Ducks from truculent to tempo-pushers began Friday, when training camp opened at Anaheim Ice.
The pace was challenging on Day 1, and to succeed long-term they’ll need not just quick legs but quick puck movement and quick thinking. Murray envisions average shifts of 35 seconds and no more defenseman-to-defenseman passing to slow things down. Get the puck, move it, and move your feet.
“Our mandate is to play more of an up-tempo game, and the work ethic that’s going to be required from our group is going to have to go up, to play that way,” said Randy Carlyle, an old-school coach whose success with this new philosophy will influence how long he remains behind the bench.
In theory this sounds great, and the Ducks’ defense corps is mobile and skilled enough to kick-start the rapid transition from defense to offense that Murray and Carlyle want. But there are a lot of moving parts to be sorted out — especially up front — and some questions that could linger for a while.
Rugged winger Nick Ritchie, a restricted free agent, has not agreed to a new contract and is not in camp. “There’s been lots of conversation but it’s not close,” Murray said.
According to Carlyle, Ritchie worked out diligently all summer and is “a changed man,” apparently in response to backsliding last season to 10 goals and 27 points in 76 regular-season games and no points in the playoffs. His fitness is a great example for members of the junior team he’s skating with in Guelph, Canada, but it isn’t doing the Ducks any good at the moment. “We have kids that can play. That’s the way it’s going to be,” Murray said.
On Friday, Jack Kopacka — a fourth-round draft pick in 2016 — played in Ritchie’s spot alongside Adam Henrique and Ondrej Kase. Sam Steel, a 2016 first-round pick, centered for Rickard Rakell and Corey Perry; center Isac Lundestrom, a first-round pick in 2018, centered for Max Comtois and Jakob Silfverberg.
The Ducks’ new depth up front will be useful. Center Ryan Kesler and right wing Patrick Eaves are listed on the roster as injured and neither has been cleared to play though both skated Friday. Eaves is recovering from left shoulder surgery and post-viral syndrome, which was initially mistaken for the more damaging Guillain-Barre syndrome. “As we progress in drills and things on ice we’re hoping Patrick is somewhere around the five- to 10-game mark he’ll be ready to play,” Murray said. “We’re not going to push anybody at this point in time.”
Kesler’s arthritic hip caused debilitating pain that reduced his production last season and made his everyday life miserable. Murray, encouraged by videos of Kesler running stairs and up a hill, said the team will take a different approach this season and will tell him to back off instead of push through pain.
Kesler is good with gradually working his way into practices. “There’s no timetable. We’re not going to rush me, but I put in a lot of work this summer and I feel good,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I’ve already accomplished this summer that I never thought I’d do again. … Everything is really positive and I’m really happy.”
Also unavailable are defenseman Korbinian Holzer, expected to need four or five months to recover from wrist surgery; forward Kalle Kossila, out until about Thanksgiving following hip surgery; winger Max Jones, out another month because of a thumb/wrist injury; and defenseman Josh Mahura, who suffered a concussion in rookie camp. Murray especially wanted to look at Mahura and might be able to do that before the main camp ends.
In the meantime, the Ducks’ transformation will continue as they try to keep pace in a division fortified by Erik Karlsson's arrival in San Jose and Western Conference champion Vegas adding Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty.