It was easy to peg the Ducks as a contender to win the Stanley Cup back in September.
They returned most of their roster after they got to one win from the Cup final and they had added intriguing pieces such as left wing Carl Hagelin to help offset the offense lost in the off-season with the departures of wingers Kyle Palmieri and Matt Beleskey.
Sports Illustrated and the Hockey News picked the Ducks to either win the Cup or play for it.
But the Ducks are the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, have displayed little consistency or leadership, and their start in the New Year will help determine if the answers reside within their locker room.
“They have to show us that,” Ducks General Manager Bob Murray said via email before Anaheim resumed its trip Thursday at Edmonton. “We are nearing the halfway point of the season. Having the mind-set other good teams have doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process, but you have to learn it. And I am always looking to improve the team, which is very difficult at this moment. Trades are just hard to come by in the NHL.”
How the Ducks got to this point is a mystery they haven’t been able to explain. Murray brought in four new forwards and a defenseman, but it wasn’t considered a major shake-up. They remain anchored down the middle with centers Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, the former going through the worst offensive start of his 11-year career — two goals through the Ducks’ 35 games.
Surrounding pieces such as Hagelin and Jakob Silfverberg are well behind their usual scoring paces, and the Ducks, who led the NHL in scoring two seasons ago, have turned into a dump-and-chase team that hardly resembles their relentless attack from last season.
Getzlaf has called himself out as an underachieving captain, but he and his teammates have proceeded like a team that will figure it out from within.
“I’m never going to say any differently than that,” Getzlaf said. “We’ve got a great hockey team. I never look outside the room. That’s not my job. That’s them upstairs if they want to make moves or do whatever they do. But in here, I look around the room and we have the talent and the ability to do it. We’ve showed stretches of it. We’ve played better toward the end of the first half and it’s about regrouping and going now.”
The silver lining is they reside in the weak Pacific Division, where they have not been buried like they would be in other divisions. Most pundits agree the Ducks will make the postseason just by claiming one of the top three guaranteed spots in the Pacific.
“Knowing that we’re still right there — if we win four, five, six games in a row and we’re right in the thick of the things,” Nate Thompson said. “We just have to keep remembering that and keep knowing that it’s right there in our grasp.”
Another positive fallback is that they’ve hung their hat on defense and goaltending, the pillars of playoff success. John Gibson has provided the expected competition to incumbent No.1 goalie Frederik Andersen, and the Ducks entered Thursday in the top third of the NHL with 2.46 goals given up per game.
Now, about that offense: The Ducks are 0-5 in overtime games and 1-6 in games that go beyond regulation. That lack of finish for a team with skilled personnel is another disconcerting trend.
Andersen or Gibson would be prized bargaining chips to obtain a scorer before the Feb. 29 trade deadline, but it’s typically difficult to move a goalie. Murray alluded to their off-season preparation as part of their offensive struggles, but tinged it with optimism.
“During the summer, we needed to have the mind-set that good teams have,” Murray said. “Once the season ends, you take a break, then get back to work. Everyone starts back at square one. We are still learning and have shown some positive signs recently, but we’re not there yet. We are now trying to dig out of the hole we made for ourselves at the start of the season.”