Ducks executives approached this season believing they didn’t have to completely rebuild their roster because they had collected enough young talent to make a strong start toward being a playoff team again and, eventually, a Stanley Cup contender.
There wasn’t a franchise player among those kids but projections were they’d gradually begin to contribute and they’d invigorate a team that had become slow and stale.
No one expected this to be easy. But no one expected the Ducks to be sitting last in the Western Conference through Friday’s games.
“To be honest, I’m not sure where we were going to be,” coach Dallas Eakins said last week. “I think when I look at our record right now I do believe it should be better. I’m not going to say that we should be sitting in a playoff spot but I certainly think we should have five or six more wins.”
General manager Bob Murray hoped his team would be “a little higher in the standings and fighting for a wild-card spot” at the halfway mark of the season. But they’re struggling to score — they ranked next-to-last in goals per game before they played the Blackhawks at Chicago on Saturday — and their power play ranked 29th.
Team captain Ryan Getzlaf, 34, is having a solid season and is a good influence on his young teammates and winger Jakob Silfverberg (15 goals) has been invaluable, but not enough of the established, 25- to 30-year-olds are stepping up.
Shaking things up by bringing coaching consultant Darryl Sutter, a two-time Cup winner with the Kings, down from the press box to join Eakins behind the bench is not an option. “I’d love him to be around a lot more because I think he’s really good for Dallas and he’s got that fatherly way of dealing with things,” Murray said of Sutter, who spends stretches of a week to 10 days around the team in Anaheim and on the road.
“People don’t understand that fatherly side of Darryl Sutter, but he has it. From Day 1 he said to me, ‘Murph, I’m not going behind the bench.’ I don’t think he wants to go back to that. But I wish he was around a little bit more.”
The best-case scenario at this point is that a sense of urgency kicks in for everyone and that the kids grow into the responsibilities they’ve been getting and gain experience they can rely on in years to come. Worst-case scenario is this becomes a wasted season, essentially, and Murray becomes a seller at the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
“It’s getting to the point where I have no choice. We’re getting there,” he said. “I told this group, first meeting of the year, that they would dictate what I did about this time of the year. I reminded a few of them that about a month ago. They are definitely showing me where they want me to go. They’re making it loud and clear as far as I’m concerned.
“I didn’t think we had to do a total teardown. I still do not think we do. But I may have to go a little farther with some things than I thought we had to.”
Coaching carousel spins again
Nashville Predators general manager David Poile doesn’t make impulsive decisions. In 38 seasons as a GM, first with the Washington Capitals and then with the Predators since 1997, he had employed only five coaches before he fired Peter Laviolette last week and hired former New Jersey coach John Hynes as a replacement.
Poile’s statement about Laviolette and associate coach Kevin McCarthy sounded more like a tribute than a farewell, praising the leadership and passion they showed in guiding the Predators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final and two Central Division titles. But Poile said the team “needed a new voice” to recover from a weak first half and make the playoffs. “We’ve totally been unable to meet expectations,” he said at a news conference.
It’s difficult for any coach to be effective for long — Laviolette started with Nashville in 2014-15 — but the Predators’ woes extend beyond the coach’s voice. Their window to win the Cup might have closed after their 2017 loss to the Penguins, and they’ve been unusually shaky defensively this season.
“My message to the players was that I’m responsible for this, but you as players have to share in responsibility of what’s taking place,” Poile said.
Rinne does it all
Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne gave his team’s offense a surprise lift on Thursday when he scored an empty-net goal in their 5-2 victory over the Blackhawks. He was next to his net and behind the goal line when he launched a perfect shot down ice, becoming the 12th NHL goalie to be credited with a goal.
Of the 15 goals scored by that group, eight resulted from a shot into an empty net and seven from the goalie being the last player on his team to touch the puck before an opponent accidentally put it into his own net.
Few goalies handle the puck as well as they think they do, but Rinne’s shot was accurate. “It was pretty cool. I just threw my hands up in the air and tried to act as cool as I could,” he told NHL.com.
Who’s on the coaching hot seat?
Laviolette’s dismissal was the sixth in-season coaching change. That’s a lot, but there might be more in store.
Montreal’s Claude Julien appears most likely to be fired next, due to a winless streak that hit eight before the Canadiens faced Ottawa on Saturday. Last week, they lost to Detroit and blew a two-goal lead over Edmonton at home. Julien might escape only because so many forwards have been hurt that it’s impossible to blame him for all that has gone wrong.
Chicago’s Jeremy Colliton also has injuries as an excuse but he hasn’t done anything to make a mediocre team any better. He could be gone well before the Blackhawks finish their rebuild.
Mr. Game 7 returns
There are clutch scorers and then there’s former King and 2014 playoff MVP Justin Williams, who is 8-1 in Game 7 playoff contests with a record 15 points in those situations.
Williams felt burned out and stepped away from hockey after the Carolina Hurricanes lost to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals last spring, but he returned this week for a one-year deal worth $700,000 in salary and up to $1.3 million in bonuses based on individual and team performances.
Williams, 38, had been watching his old team and began to realize what he was missing. “Coming to games, it brings you back a little bit. You see the guys competing,” he said at a news conference. “It was just growing and growing and growing to the fact that a little while ago I was like, ‘You know what? I think I want to do this.’”
Williams, who has 312 goals and 786 points in 1,244 NHL games, practiced with the team on Thursday but probably won’t play for a little while. He’s a familiar commodity at a good price and an ideal boost for the intriguing Hurricanes, who held an East wild-card spot through Friday’s games.