Clad in shorts and sockless shoes, and having had three days to recover from the frustration of the Game 6 in Nashville that eliminated his team from the playoffs, Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle chatted with reporters this afternoon during exit interviews day at Honda Center.
While the sting of coming up short of a Stanley Cup title still lingers, Carlyle was able to find the encouraging signs of his first season back with the Ducks after being re-hired by the organization last summer.
"It's not so much what I did, it's what we did as a group," Carlyle said. "We're part of a team. It takes a group of people to come together and understand there's a common goal. And if we do the things we believe in, then we give ourselves a chance."
Carlyle, it has been noted, took Anaheim to the Western Conference Final in his first season as Anaheim's coach, back in 2005. The following season, he and the Ducks captured California's first Stanley Cup.
"It's gonna sink in, in a month or so, that we were a lot closer than people give us credit for," he said of this postseason run. "We were very close."
Among the positives of Anaheim's run to the conference final this time was the ongoing development of some of the younger Ducks, Carlyle emphasized.
"Transitioning into our lineup, the experience of playing three rounds deep in the playoffs, is something we think is invaluable to the start of their careers," Carlyle said. "I think that probably is one of the bonuses that I think the organization should look to. The other thing is, you've got to compliment your players for their commitment day in and day out. We were challenged with a very difficult schedule over the course of the season, and we found ways to survive and forge ahead."
It was over an arduous December that Carlyle noticed the team "seemed to come together, which was a great sign because it was probably our most difficult months when it came to schedule, number of road games, all of those things. And then the time from Christmas to the All-Star break and then to the five-day break, it seemed like we grew as a team and played to a level that gave us a lot of success."
Indeed, the Ducks went a blazing 14-2-3 from the NHL-mandated bye week through the end of the regular season, then went on to sweep Calgary in the First Round. They exorcised the demons of past Game 7 disappointments by downing the Oilers 2-1 at Honda Center in the Second Round before falling in six to Nashville.
"The peaks and valleys and momentum swings are all part of playoff hockey," said Carlyle, whose career playoff record is 49-37. "It's unrealistic to think you're going to win four straight every series. It's more about transitioning people into roles they're comfortable with. It's important that you become a team. That's what it's about. It's not one or two individuals who win a championship. It's a team that wins a championship. In order to have success, you have to have strength at all positions, on all four lines and one through six on defense."
Injuries certainly hurt the Ducks, notably when they lost Patrick Eaves (32 goals in the regular season) in the middle of the Second Round and Rickard Rakell (33 goals) for Games 5 and 6 vs. Nashville. Both were held out with lower body injuries, yet Carlyle didn't dwell on their absences so much as value that opportunities they gave others.
"We basically took 65 goals out of our lineup, which is hard to do," he said. "But that's part of the injection of youth into our lineup, [AHL] players who got the opportunity to compete in the playoffs. As one door closes on somebody, there is another one opening for someone else. It's kind of cruel to describe it that way, but that's the reality of sports. If you want to win championships and contend for first place every year, when injures take place you have to have people capable of stepping into the role and accept the role."
Carlyle dismissed the notion that the window to win a championship is closing, what with the advancing age of captains Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler, each of whom turned 32 over the past year. Instead, he accentuated the impact of the younger players on the Ducks roster, an encouraging sign this team will compete for a Stanley Cup for years to come.
"It's the media that drives that about the window," Carlyle said. "That's part and parcel of our responsibility to make sure that window is always open. As an organization, you have to understand how important it is to transition youth. Every lineup changes through the course of the season and from year to year. The transfer of youth into this lineup is encouraging, and more specifically because it is the defense, and the way the young defensemen played in the playoffs. Now it's our job for them to take the next step."