ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks spent nearly two decades in regular playoff contention, so it's only natural for even such a successful franchise to hit tough times eventually.
But after two consecutive seasons out of the playoffs for the first time since 2002, general manager Bob Murray believes the Ducks' down years are almost over.
“It's time to start to climb,” Murray said. “There’s a legitimate reason why we should take a really good step forward.”
The Ducks can hardly go backward: An abysmal 67 points from 71 games last season kept them out of the NHL's bubble. Anaheim hasn't played a game in 10 months, depriving its youngsters of valuable development time.
Murray's optimism shines despite some ugly numbers put up by last season's team under rookie coach Dallas Eakins: The Ducks were 26th in goals scored and 29th in goals allowed, with the NHL's second-worst power play and its sixth-worst penalty kill.
“Our goal here is simple: To take a step forward,” Eakins said.
Although the Ducks ended last March near rock-bottom, Murray feels they've also got more legitimate reason for optimism than many teams in similar predicaments — even if it's not always clear why.
Captain Ryan Getzlaf is back with goalie John Gibson and much the same veteran core that struggled last season: defencemen Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson along with veterans forwards Adam Henrique, Jakob Silfverberg, Rickard Rakell and David Backes.
“Cam and Adam had good years last year,” Murray said. “Who else did in that group of guys? The young guys, they’re a couple-of-year pros now. It’s time. And you take another look: If we can just get our special teams, just get them in the middle of the pack, where does that put you?”
Is that enough to put the Ducks back in playoff contention in 2021? Murray seems confident it is.
“There’s teams in our division that every night, we should be right in the game with them,” Murray said. “I’m fully expecting some of those things to happen.”
With open roster spots and few undeniable returning veterans, the Ducks would have had an interesting training camp — if the NHL had allowed them to have a real training camp. But after months of inactivity leading to less than three weeks of practice for the season opener, the Ducks will have to figure out what works on the fly.
“This camp, at least in our building, is going to be unfair,” Eakins said. “We’ve addressed it with the players, because we’ve got limited time, and we’re going to have to go with what we know about last year in some instances.”
ON THE WAY
Murray's front office has a stellar track record of finding and training quality NHL players. Troy Terry, Max Jones and Sam Steel will get another chance this year, while World Junior Championships breakout star Trevor Zegras leads the wave of young talent arriving in the near future.
When asked if the sublimely talented Zegras could help this year, Eakins was careful not to heap pressure on the ninth overall pick from 2019.
“The kid is really blessed with great sight and great hands,” Eakins said. “He’s a really fun player to watch. Some of the things that he can do and some of the things that he can see really add value to the game. We compete in a sport, but we are in the entertainment business, and he certainly has been entertaining so far (at the world juniors).”
THE BACK END
The Ducks' clearest strength is their goaltending again. Gibson remains one of the NHL's top netminders despite a down statistical season in 2019-20 in front of Anaheim's inept defence , while steady veteran Ryan Miller postponed retirement for another year as Gibson's backup.
Injured centre Ryan Kesler's disastrous long-term contract will hamstring Anaheim through next season, but Murray is making the best of his biggest mistake. Veteran defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk agreed to a three-year deal with the Ducks, who nearly signed him last off-season . Shattenkirk instead chose Tampa Bay, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring. He'll bring that championship experience to his rebuilding new club, but his play is more valuable. Anaheim's blue line was bad last season, but frequent culprits Erik Gudbranson and Michael Del Zotto are gone.
Anaheim starts with two games in Vegas before its home opener Jan. 18 against Minnesota. With neither Southern California team expected to be in Stanley Cup contention this year, the highlight of Anaheim's bizarre season could be the eight Freeway Faceoffs with the Kings. They'll even meet five times in 12 days late in the season.
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Greg Beacham, The Associated Press